Vaughan Williams: Songs of Travel; Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad
Composers of World War ICDA67378
No 1: Such a starved bank of moss
No 2: Meeting at night
No 3: My star
No 4: Nay but you, who do not love her
No 5: The worst of it
No 6: After
No 7: From Easter Day
No 8: The year's at the spring
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.
from notes by Andrew Burn © 2003