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Arthur Bliss wrote in his biography “To us musicians in Cambridge Vaughan Williams was the magical name; his Songs of Travel were on all pianos’. The songs reflect a significant advance from the parlour song to the art song, conceived in the tradition of the early Romantic questing songcycle of love and loss, all beautifully infused with the composer’s hallmark folksong influences and modal harmonies.
Both Browne and Butterworth were killed in the First World War, and these enchanting songs are among the tragically minimal legacy they left behind. Somervell enjoyed a longer, more prolific life, and it is for his contribution to English song that he is best-loved.
A collection of delightful songs by some of Britain’s most endeared composers, all radiantly performed by one of Britain’s best-loved baritones, Christopher Maltman.
Unusually for the period Somervell’s song cycles have a narrative thread, which puts them in the tradition of the early Romantic song cycles such as Schubert’s Winterreise. Wordsworth and Shakespeare were his favourite poets, as well as Robert Browning, whose verse he sets in A Broken Arc, which like all his cycles deals with the dual themes of love and death. It was published in 1923 and apart from its dedication to The Society of English Singers nothing has been discovered about the background to its composition or its premiere. For his texts Somervell created an anthology from several sources, using either complete poems or extracts, from The Two Poets of Croisic, Dramatic Romances and Lyrics, Men and Women, Dramatis Personae, Easter Day and Pippa Passes. The overall title may allude to a line from another poem, Abt Vogler: ‘On the earth the broken arcs; in the heaven, a perfect round’.
From them Somervell creates a narrative about a relationship in which both love and friendship are betrayed. On paper the storyline from one poem to another seems tenuous, and in reality only the fifth and sixth songs narrate specific situations. However, by his subtle use of thematic references between songs and the creation of an effective sequence of moods the narrative unity of the work becomes convincing through the music. The first four songs serve to extol the object of the protagonist’s affection and to establish his deep love for her. A sense of ardour characterises ‘Such a starved bank of moss’; in ‘Meeting at night’ there is colourful word-painting in the accompaniment’s evocation of the seascape and the piano also clinches the image of the climactic embrace of the lovers. ‘My star’ has an ecstatic quality created through the grace notes in the accompaniment figure, and the threefold repetition of the final phrase ‘I love it’. His love for her is further emphasised in ‘Nay but you, who do not love her’ with yet another passionate climax on the word ‘love’ heightened by a rising chromatic scale in the harmony underpinning it.
However, ‘The worst of it’ brings an abrupt change of mood with the discovery of his love’s infidelity. This song is the heart of the cycle in which the vocal line is more arioso than song and the music takes on a mood of disbelief and sadness as the hero muses on events. The nadir of his despair is reached after the words ‘There’s a heaven above may deserve your love’, when an arpeggiated chord of unutterable sadness occurs and lingers on a dissonance before resolving. In ‘After’ he has wreaked terrible vengeance, but the rival he has killed is revealed as his childhood friend. The song opens in the manner of a recitative, then the accompaniment takes on the sombre tread of a funeral processional. A touching recollection of their youthful companionship is accompanied by a quotation of the theme representing childhood happiness from Somervell’s choral setting of Wordsworth’s Intimations of Immortality. However, reality returns as the man orders that the corpse’s face be covered: a spine-chilling moment which the singer is instructed to perform ‘with a shudder’.
In the wake of this double disaster, ‘From Easter Day’ shows the man turning to God for solace in a setting which makes thematic references to the two previous songs. This paves the way for the cathartic climax to the cycle as the shimmering accompaniment and affirmative vocal line of ‘The year’s at the spring’ indicate that his troubled soul has found peace.
W (William) Denis Browne was a member of the chorus in the 1909 Cambridge University production of Aristophanes’s The Wasps for which Vaughan Williams provided the incidental music. After Rugby (where he started a lifelong friendship with Rupert Brooke), he entered Clare College, Cambridge, in 1907 to read classics, but quickly became involved in the university’s music-making and drama activities. By 1910 he was studying music and was organ scholar at Clare. He received encouragement from Edward Dent, and through him met Busoni with whom he stayed in Germany in the summer of 1912. He took his BMus the same year, then moved to London where he became part of Edward Marsh’s artistic circle, wrote trenchant criticism for The Times and The New Statesman, and performed as organist and pianist (he gave the first British performance of Berg’s Piano Sonata). He was killed in the Gallipoli campaign, not long after he had buried Brooke on the island of Skyros. His compositional legacy was minimal, including an incomplete ballet and a handful of songs; these, nevertheless, indicate an outstanding musical mind.
Browne’s best-known song, To Gratiana dancing and singing, setting words by Richard Lovelace, was composed in February 1913 for his friend, the tenor Steuart Wilson, and is one of the most beautiful creations in the entire repertoire of twentieth-century English song. The influence of Elizabethan music is apparent: the melody that forms the accompaniment is an anonymous seventeenth-century Allmayne in Elizabeth Rogers’s Virginal Book, which the composer heard in a 1908 while acting in a university production of Milton’s Comus. Over the sonorous, rich chords of the piano, treading the measure of the Allmayne, the vocal line curves and soars in ecstatic wonder at Gratiana’s performance.
Diaphenia, composed in October 1912, is a lilting love song setting words by Henry Constable. Its provenance is the Edwardian ballad, suitable for domestic music-making, rather than the art song, nevertheless it is utterly charming with an easy-going accompaniment suggesting the plucked strings of a lute, and juicy inner chromatic parts which hint at the aching ardour of the suitor.
Two months later Browne was tackling a far more ambitious poem: Ben Jonson’s Epitaph on Salathiel Pavy (subtitled ‘A Child of Queen Elizabeth’s Chapel’), which was conceived as a companion piece to ‘Diaphenia’. It relates the tale of a thirteen-year-old chorister who also excelled as an actor, the poet’s conceit being that the child acted an old man so well that the Fates took him to be one and death ensued. The music has the character of a slow, sad dance, like a Pavan, with an extended arched, lamenting melody in the unusual time signatures of 10/4 or 12/4. Elizabethan influences are again apparent, whilst the verses are bound together by a ritornello with a portentous descending chromatic bass and ascending triads, symbols respectively of a summons to the grave, and a gasping for life.
Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel cycle belongs to the first decade of the last century when his personal voice was emerging and the work marks a major achievement in his development. The poems are by Robert Louis Stevenson, and the songs were originally performed in a group of eight by Walter Creighton and Hamilton Harty at the Bechstein Hall, London, on 2 December 1904. Most of them had probably been written in 1904, although ‘Whither must I wander?’ predates the others and had been published in the June edition of the magazine The Vocalist in 1902 and also performed that November. Although conceived as a group of integral songs, the commercial demands of the publisher meant that they appeared separately in two volumes in 1903 and 1905, apart from the final song which the composer clearly planned as an epilogue to be performed only when the songs were performed as a whole. This was not published until 1960 in the first edition of the cycle in its original sequence, which was first performed by Harvey Allen, accompanied by Frederick Stone, in a BBC broadcast on 21 May the same year.
The Songs of Travel made a strong impression on audiences and musicians of the time; for instance, Arthur Bliss, nineteen years Vaughan Williams’s junior, who studied at Cambridge between 1910 and 1913, recalled in his autobiography As I Remember: ‘To us musicians in Cambridge Vaughan Williams was the magical name; his Songs of Travel were on all pianos’. In the context of the development of English song they are important too, for they reflect a significant advance from the parlour song to the art song which professional singers—such as the cycle’s dedicatee, the bass-baritone Plunket Greene—were encouraging composers to write. Here, like the Somervell cycles, was a work conceived in the tradition of the early Romantic questing song cycle of love and loss. Nevertheless, it differs from its models and from Somervell’s works in that there is no real narrative thread from one poem to the next, rather a set of different circumstances on which the poet comments. Significant too is the influence of folksong on several of the songs. Vaughan Williams collected his first folksong, ‘Bushes and Briars’, in December 1903 and the experience of finding the lovely traditional tunes is apparent in Songs of Travel.
The opening song ‘The vagabond’ establishes the cycle’s Romantic credentials; indeed Stevenson had composed the words ‘To an air of Schubert’. Its steady tramping accompaniment, combined with a triplet which prefigures the opening of the vocal line, evokes the purposeful tread of the wanderer striding out on the open road. ‘Let Beauty awake’, with its images of dawn and dusk, has a fervent melodic line that floats on a buoyant arpeggio accompaniment. Particularly memorable is the bitter-sweet radiance of the phrase ‘And the stars are bright in the west!’, which recurs as a link between the verses and in the brief coda. Over a joyous accompaniment, ‘The roadside fire’ radiates the delight of new-found love that bubbles over ecstatically in the final verse. ‘Youth and love’ is the kernel of the cycle and points to its central dilemma: which is preferable, ‘love’ and by implication a settled life, or ‘solitude’ and the freedom to wander. As if emphasising the choice to be made, the accompaniment includes transformed allusions to the triplet figure from ‘The vagabond’ and the opening phrase of ‘The roadside fire’ at the song’s climax. ‘In dreams’ has a chill melancholy, created through a persistent, uneasy off-beat rhythm in the piano and a brooding chromatic vocal line. Pianissimo, wide-spaced arppegiated piano chords, combined with an expansive melodic line evoke the vast brilliance of the night sky in ‘The infinite shining heavens’, in which the traveller, gazing above, finds peace. ‘Whither must I wander?’ has a homely simplicity, appropriate to the poet’s images of childhood and the security of home and family which are now long in the past, never to return. In its character it is close to Vaughan Williams’s most renowned song ‘Linden Lea’, composed the year before it. A sole sonorous chord, like a call to attention, opens ‘Bright is the ring of words’, whose forthright melody incorporates the opening notes of the hymn ‘Sine nomine’ (‘For all the Saints’), which haunted the composer throughout his life. The brief epilogue, with its references to ‘The vagabond’, ‘Whither must I wander?’ and ‘Bright is the ring of words’, encapsulates the whole cycle with the wanderer, now old, looking ahead to his final journey beyond the grave.
George Butterworth and Vaughan Williams became friends while the former was at Oxford. It was Butterworth who badgered him to write a purely orchestral symphony after the success of A Sea Symphony and the result, A London Symphony, was later dedicated to his memory. Butterworth was educated at Eton and Trinity College, Oxford, where he read classics, and his musical talents were encouraged by Hugh Allen, organist of New College. After graduating he wrote musical criticism for The Times, taught at Radley College, then studied at the Royal College of Music with Charles Wood. From 1906 onwards he was a leading member of the English Folk Dance and Song Society, collecting songs and sword dances, mainly in Oxfordshire. By reputation he was a fine dancer and was a member of Cecil Sharp’s original six-man morris side. During World War I he served gallantly and was killed during the Somme offensive, being posthumously awarded the Military Cross. Butterworth destroyed most of his compositions before his departure for France, and his reputation stands in particular for his songs setting A E Housman, and the orchestral rhapsody A Shropshire Lad conceived as an epilogue to the songs.
Critical opinion has generally singled out Butterworth’s settings as the finest among the many composers who were attracted to Housman’s A Shropshire Lad. They were written between 1909 and 1911 and, probably under the influence of Somervell, were initially conceived as a cycle with a loose narrative thread. In this guise nine songs received their premiere in Oxford on 16 May 1911; J Campbell McInnes was the baritone and Butterworth accompanied him. Butterworth must have swiftly changed his mind about the success of the sequence for by the following month it was the Six songs from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ in their published version that were performed in London on 20 June at the Aeolian Hall when McInnes again was the singer and Hamilton Harty accompanied.
It was in Butterworth’s Housman settings that English folksong was wholly and effortlessly absorbed into English art song, and no more so than in the perfection of ‘Loveliest of trees’. Its opening is a brief, magical descending phrase for piano, which seems to encapsulate both the delicacy and transience of the blossom and, by extension, of life itself. This and other snatches of melody in the song, such as the exultant outburst at the end of the first stanza, form the basis of the later orchestral rhapsody.
‘When I was one-and-twenty’ is the only time when Butterworth uses a traditional folk tune in his Housman songs. The young man’s bitter realisation of the folly of spurning the ‘wise’ man’s advice is brilliantly emphasised by a mere one-bar extension of the tune at the conclusion of the song. In ‘Look not in my eyes’ Housman alludes to the myth of Narcissus. It is set to a flowing melody in 5/4 time and has a fine moment of word painting at the end of the first verse where, on the word ‘eyes’, the music literally halts with an arpeggiated chord of C major, epitomising the forbidden long deep gaze. It is contrasted by a devil-may-care rendering of ‘Think no more, lad’, a fine piece of musical irony with a superficially carefree manner that masks the darker undertones of the poem.
A characteristic of the songs is their economy of means, something which is amply demonstrated in ‘The lads in their hundreds’ with its lilting melody, piano ritornello between verses derived from it and spare harmony. Arguably Butterworth’s greatest Housman setting, ‘Is my team ploughing?’ is a conversation between the quick and the dead with melody and harmony that are heart-rending in effect. Irony, once again, is at the heart of the poem where the ghost poses a series of questions to his living friend about his former life and lover. The poignant falling sequence of bare chords uncannily suggests the cold of the grave; by comparison the chords underpinning his friend’s answers course with life. After the chilling last response, side-stepping the truth about the fate of the dead man’s girl, the chords of the ghost fade to end the song in utter bleakness.
‘Bredon Hill’ and other songs was published the year after Butterworth’s first group of Housman songs in 1912. Musical images of bells, from joyous pealing to funereal tolling, permeate and unify the setting of ‘Bredon Hill’. The clangour is set in motion by the oscillating chords at the beginning, and the scales in the accompaniment to the vocal line which for the first four verses radiate happiness. However, at the beginning of the fifth verse the change is stark and wintry, the doleful chords like a single bell tolling the coffin to the grave. At the end, there is a recall of the main bell motif, but now tainted with the experience of death and loss. Again it is Butterworth’s simplicity that is the principal means of the effectiveness of ‘Oh fair enough are sky and plain’, combined with apposite musical images to mirror the words of the poem, as, for instance, in the descending phrase at ‘As I stand gazing down’.
‘When the lad for longing sighs’ is a further example of how folksong was totally absorbed into Butterworth’s voice, for it could easily be taken as a traditional tune. The second verse has an accompaniment in thirds, a Butterworth characteristic, and the final cadence is unresolved as if posing a question. ‘On the idle hill of summer’ is the most ambitious of the songs in this group, with the syncopated added-sixth chords, heightened by the occasional rumble of an A pedal point, suggestive of both the languid heat of a summer’s day, as well as the sound of distant drumming. For the final verse the music is urgent and animated with triplets evoking the bugles of the text and rising to the climax of the song at ‘Woman bore me, I will rise’. In its simplicity of gesture, its nostalgia and melancholy, ‘With rue my heart is laden’ seems to sum up the mood of Butterworth’s art. Its opening phrase is quoted at end of the Shropshire Lad rhapsody and at the very end there is a final allusion to the opening of ‘Loveliest of trees’, as if the cycles of life, love and death have come full circle and are poised to begin again.
Andrew Burn © 2003