Barber had a lifelong enthusiasm for Celtic, especially Irish literature: like the British composers Bax and Moeran he identified strongly with Ireland and its people—their humour, their melancholy, their love of words—and considered himself a sort of Irishman ‘in spirit’. He retained a great affection for the writings of James Stephens and James Joyce. His earliest published songs (the Three Songs
Op 2, published in 1936) combine two settings of Stephens with a poem from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad
. The unforced naturalness of their utterance and the sheer charm of their appeal is enhanced by the clear textures and simple, grateful piano parts. The carefree ditty of Stephens’s The Daisies
is followed by a plangent B minor setting of Housman’s With rue my heart is laden
. More ambitious—indeed frankly dramatic—is the second Stephens setting, Bessie Bobtail
, with its melancholy dragging rhythm (the piano’s figures in contrary motion have a drum-like effect), breaking out at last in tragic appeal. The bleak mood is confirmed by the piano’s chorale-like postlude in D minor, marked ‘with eloquence’.
from notes by Calum MacDonald © 2007