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Who is Michael Head? His name may be largely forgotten but the music here forms part of the rich seam of English song in the manner of Quilter, Gurney and Warlock. Born in 1900, he worked modestly as a singer, pianist, teacher, broadcaster and adjudicator, writing his first song (The ships of Arcady) aged nineteen, studying at the Royal Academy of Music, where he became a professor of piano aged twenty-seven, remaining there for the rest of his career.
At the centre of his composing life were songs, which he used to perform as a kind of one-man band, accompanying himself at the piano. Out of more than 100, here’s a choice selection: setting poets such as Walter de la Mare, John Masefield and Christina Rossetti, many of them focus on the pleasures of England—its flora and fauna, its changing seasons and lyrical landscapes.
They’re sung by three of the brightest stars in today’s vocal firmament, Ailish Tynan (making her Hyperion debut), Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Roderick Williams, accompanied by Christopher Glynn, who adds Head to his previous recordings of Reger and Brahms.
Head composed more songs during the 1920s, and in 1927 he was appointed professor of piano at the Academy, a post he held until his retirement. Two years later he sang to Sir George Henschel, who encouraged him to follow his own singular practice of performing both as singer and accompanist. Head embraced the proposal, giving his first recital in January 1930, and he continued to perform in this manner throughout the rest of his career with conspicuous success. In the next decade two other strands of work, adjudication and examining, commenced. By 1939 he had written some fifty songs, but during the war he sought the advice of Alan Bush, by now his brother-in-law, which led to Head’s studying with him. Also at this time Head played in many chamber concerts across the country under the auspices of CEMA (the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), and he established himself as a broadcaster.
After the war Head’s adjudication and examination activities expanded with tours abroad, including to Canada, during which he also gave his most ambitious broadcast ‘The History of Song in Words and Music’ for CBC Transatlantic Canada. In 1952 he made his first recital tour to the USA and established a duo partnership with the oboist Evelyn Rothwell, for whom he composed his Elegiac Dance and Presto (both 1954). To this decade also belong a children’s opera, The Bachelor Mouse (1951), with a libretto by his sister Nancy, and incidental music for a series of radio plays by Pamela Hansford Johnson based on Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Although song-writing remained his core compositional activity, his range broadened during the 1960s and 1970s: he composed a cantata Daphne and Apollo (1964), with a text by his sister, who also provided librettos for several satirical one-act light operas including After the Wedding (1970), first performed at the Royal Academy in 1972 under the baton of a student conductor—Simon Rattle. After retiring from the Academy in 1975 Head continued working for the Associated Board of the Royal Colleges of Music, and he was on a tour examining in South Africa when he died on 24 August 1976 in Cape Town.
What are the impressions of Head the man? His fellow professor at the Royal Academy, Margaret MacDonald, recalled that ‘he was such a readily sympathetic person, with an acute critical facility, a wry sense of humour and an old-world courtesy’. Of his pianistic skills, Maurice Cole enthused that ‘neatness and precision remained a feature of his playing, even when accompanying himself, with his face turned towards his audience and only giving an occasional fleeting glance at the keyboard’. As for his gifts as a singer, one critic commented that his voice was not large but ‘undeniably pleasant in quality and smoothly produced’, and after his first USA recital his ‘immaculate enunciation and unpretentious style’ was praised. Margaret MacDonald also remarked on his skills as an adjudicator: ‘He seemed to have the knack of combining encouragement with criticism in such a way that all competitors felt that they had had a measure of success.’
When describing Head’s legacy of over 100 solo songs, words like ‘elegant’ and ‘refined’ readily spring to mind. His style, which changed little over the years, bears kinship with Roger Quilter and frequently recalls the charm of Edwardian parlour songs. His use of major and minor keys are sometimes varied with modal inflections, and he exploited chromaticism to heighten mood or emotion, or to emphasize a particular word. Head himself made a distinction between his songs which predominantly spring from the lyrical impulse, as characterized by his earlier works, and those in which the piano accompaniment sets the mood. Towards the end of his life he recoursed to dissonance more, and even embraced aspects of serial composition (he admired Berg’s music, in particular, Wozzeck).
Head set over sixty authors, as varied as Henry Vaughan, James Joyce and Thomas Hardy, but he was instinctively drawn to texts about the countryside and to the Georgian poets so popular in his young manhood, such as W H Davies and Francis Ledwidge. Sometimes he concentrated on one poet for a time until a group of songs by them was completed. Contemporary poets included Ruth Pitter, Edith Sitwell and Louis MacNeice. Many leading singers performed his songs, including Isobel Baillie, Kingsley Lark, Keith Faulkner, Astra Desmond, Kathleen Ferrier and Janet Baker. Being a singer himself his melodies are unfailingly sympathetic to the voice, following the natural accentuations of the words: Alan Bush noted that he ‘always kept in mind not only the compass, but the type of voice, whether lyrical or robust’. The result, as demonstrated by this recording, was a varied body of songs that range from the elegiac (The Garden Seat) to the whimsical (A Piper), and from the hearty (My sword for the King) to the dramatic (Nocturne).
With words by Walter de la Mare (1873–1956), Dear delight (1965) exemplifies the lyricism characteristic of Head’s music. It is marked by frequent key changes, tender harmony and a recurring decorative figure on the piano. In Oh, for a March wind (1965) the dotted rhythms of the piano introduction create the spring-like breeziness expressed in the poem by Winifred Williams (1907–1990). Sweet Chance, that led my steps abroad is the penultimate song from Songs of the Countryside (1926), setting poems of W H Davies (1871–1940). Here Head reacts to the poetical conceit of the simultaneous occurrence of a rainbow and a cuckoo’s song with music of pastoral serenity. In its portrayal of the restless traveller setting out on the open road, Tewkesbury Road (1924) is an extrovert response with a vigorous accompaniment to the words of John Masefield (1878–1967).
According to Head’s sister, The Estuary (1945), with words by Ruth Pitter (1897–1992), was her brother’s personal favourite amongst all his songs. The last in the cycle Six Poems of Ruth Pitter, it was dedicated to his publishers Leslie Boosey and Ralph Hawkes, and is one of his most extended and thematically developed songs. To reflect the words he uses the piano accompaniment in a highly effective and imaginative way, beginning tranquilly and building through the series of poetical images to the song’s climax at ‘The sea-born crescent arising’, before returning to the opening calm. Limehouse Reach (1948), the second of the Six Sea Songs to words by Cicely Fox Smith (1882–1954), was dedicated to Head’s mother. A tale of unrequited love, it is cast in the manner of a strophic folksong with a winsome tune, and harmony that has the same archaic ‘Elizabethan’ character of some of Warlock’s songs.
During his war service in the munitions factory in 1918, Head counteracted the tedium of his labours by working on settings of four poems by the Irish poet Francis Ledwidge (1887–1917). The first, The ships of Arcady, was published in 1919, with the complete group following as a cycle the next year under the title Over the rim of the moon derived from the opening line of the last song. Dedicated to his teacher Jean Adair, it was first performed by Astra Desmond at the Royal Albert Hall in 1919. The piano sets the scene in The ships of Arcady, its sequence of serene chords suggesting the gathering dusk and still sea as the Arcadian ships glide out of harbour to the voice’s wistful melody. By contrast Beloved is a love-song with a passionate vocal line and ardent accompaniment. A blackbird singing is set to a rhythm of rocking regret and a melody tinged with sorrow in the face of loss. The final song, Nocturne, is a dramatic scena in miniature, marked by a recitative-like opening, menacing chords and urgent syncopated accompaniment in the second verse underpinning the anguish embodied in the poem.
The words of October Valley (1951) are by Nancy Bush (1907–1991). It was dedicated to Kathleen Ferrier, whom Head had met in 1944 when he accompanied her for a BBC broadcast. He recognized her consummate musicianship and she included this and other songs by him in her repertoire. The song is riven with melancholy, bound together by a refrain heard on the piano. More Songs of the Countryside is a collection of songs including two settings of Thomas Hardy (1840–1928). The Garden Seat (1932) is the second song and is dedicated to Head’s friend Maurice Cole. It is an instance where Head uses chromaticism to create the overall mood of the poem, in which Hardy imagines the ghosts sitting on the seat as they had done in life. The sombre piano chords of the opening suggest the age and fragility of the seat (one can almost hear it creaking), while a triplet figure falling by semitones emphasizes the words ‘freeze’ and ‘drown’, before a magical transformation to pure diatonic harmony for the final words ‘light as upper air!’.
Foxgloves (1933), has words by Mary Webb (1881– 1927), and is the first of More Songs of the Countryside. Head focuses on the poet’s comparison of the foxglove’s flowers to the bells of fairyland with a delicate folksong-like melody and a pealing accompaniment. The Viper (1944–5), the second song of Six Poems of Ruth Pitter is one of Head’s most impressive, atmospheric and economical compositions. It is built around the slithering, chromatic piano fragment heard at the opening, and a parlando vocal line conjuring both the sultry heat of a summer’s day and the poet’s transfixed wonder at the ‘fallen angel’s comeliness’.
A further Ledwidge setting, Had I a golden pound (subtitled ‘After the Irish’, 1962) has a jaunty tune and a gaily vamping accompaniment. Head’s sole setting of James Joyce (1882–1941), Lean out of the window (1961) is the fifth poem in the poet’s collection Chamber Music. It is a relaxed song, with a graceful vocal line in which a recurring triplet rhythm is prominent, and piquant harmonic word-painting on the word ‘gloom’.
A Piper (1923), with words by Seumas O’Sullivan (1879–1958), was one of Head’s most popular songs during his lifetime. Its dancing piano part, flecked with impish chromatics, is combined with a sprightly melody and rises to a lush harmonic climax at ‘all the world went gay, went gay, / For half an hour in the streets today’. Dedicated to Head’s sister, A Green Cornfield (1923) sets Christina Rossetti (1830–1894); the music has an open-air quality with the piano introduction evoking the rippling song of the skylark hovering above a field. Another Rossetti setting, Love’s Lament (1918) is one of Head’s earliest songs and is dedicated to his mother. It is a heartfelt threnody with a stark funereal tread and falling chromatic melodic phrases in both voice and piano which create a powerful expression of grief.
Margaret Rose (died 1958) wrote the poems for the next two songs. The words of Star Candles (1942) refer to the constellation ‘The Southern Cross’, which in South Africa is also known as ‘Star Candles’, following an old belief that each of the five pointers denotes a gift to the Christ Child. Head responds with a beguiling melody. The little road to Bethlehem (1946) immediately became a best-seller and Head’s most popular song. Rose’s poem, with its imagery of sheep, is set to an insouciant melody, reminiscent of a folksong, which encapsulates the innocence of the Holy Child. Here is music of simplicity and sentimentality that charms, rather than cloys. Characterized by an emphatic rhythmic accompaniment and a vigorous tune, Money, O! (1926) is the concluding song of Head’s W H Davies settings Songs of the Countryside.
Nancy Bush wrote the words for the Three Songs of Venice (1974), which were composed for and dedicated to Dame Janet Baker (who had memorably recorded A Piper on an anthology of English song released in 1963, masterminded by Ted Perry, founder of Hyperion Records, when he was working for Saga Classics). They are among Head’s most ambitious settings in their range, subtlety and scope and a fine envoi to his career as a song composer. Sadly Head did not live to hear the first performance at a concert for the ‘Save Venice Fund’ on 24 October 1977. The Gondolier has a mysterious quality with a decorative opening idea on the piano which binds the song together; it is combined with a lapping rhythm that effectively portrays the sensation of the gondola plying its way through the narrow canals. In the middle of the song, the rhythm is interrupted by the eerie call of the gondolier. The bustle of people and the flights of wheeling pigeons find their musical equivalent in St Mark’s Square, where a variant of the piano idea from the previous song is prominent. Rain storm also has thematic links to the first song and reaches its climax with a memorable melodic phrase at the words ‘A city more beautiful than any other’.
My sword for the King (1930), to words by Helen Taylor, has a swashbuckling heroism to the melody and accompaniment, as the warrior sets aside the pleasures of peace and love, to serve his King. The words for You cannot dream things lovelier (1936) are taken from the collection The Unknown Goddess by Humbert Wolfe (1885–1940); Head’s use of syncopated rhythm and rich chromatic harmony established in the piano introduction perfectly matches the sensuality of the poem.
Andrew Burn © 2012