Fragment 1: Hymn to Aphrodite Daugher of Zeus
Fragment 2: I loved thee once, Atthis, long ago
Fragment 3: Evening Song Evening, thou bringest all that bright morning scattered
Fragment 4: Stand face to face, friend
Fragment 5: The moon has set
Fragment 6: Peer of gods he seems
Fragment 7: In a dream, I spake
Fragment 8: Bridal Song O fair, O lovely, As the sweet apple
Fragment 9: Muse of the golden throne
As it is, what we have is one complete poem, ‘Ode to Aphrodite’ (Bantock’s first song), an extended fragment of a second (Bantock’s ‘Peer of gods’), and a succession of fragments of one or two lines, surviving as quotations in the work of others. These Helen Bantock has taken from the Wharton translation, stringing together unrelated fragments and where necessary changing the order of the words and adding linking verses of her own. She thus constructed nine poems with a narrative and emotional thread. Possibly of the total number of lines that Bantock set, quite a number were actually written by his wife. Certainly much of the shaping and the thrust and meaning of the work is hers, rather than that of her great mentor of twenty-five centuries earlier.
To understand Helen’s catalytic role in assembling Bantock’s text, we might briefly consider the first verses of the last song. Taking Wharton’s English version of fragment 26:
Wharton: O Muse of the golden throne,
raise that strain which the renowned elder of Teos …
Bantock: Muse of the golden throne, O raise that strain,
Which once thou used to sweetly sing.
Helen has moved the ‘O’ to the end of the first line and deleted the following twelve words, incidentally changing the meaning. She has inserted the words ‘once thou’ and rearranged Wharton’s final words in a more poetic scansion.
This is her method in the majority of the songs. Thus, in her ‘Bridal Song’ she juxtaposes Wharton’s fragments 93, 103, 106, 91, 92, 133 and 105 (in order). The penultimate of these fragments is probably not by Sappho at all, but rather an imitation of her style.
Sappho lived on the island of Lesbos (origin of the modern term ‘lesbian’) and it is clear that hers was an erotic and passionate nature. Several readings are possible. Helen Bantock may well have intended to present her husband with a broadly heterosexual narrative; Bantock himself surely reacted in this spirit (as did early audiences), perhaps taking his cue from Alexander Pope’s well-known translation of Ovid:
Say, lovely youth that dost my heart command,
Can Phaon’s eyes forget his Sappho’s hand?
However, the nature of the passion that Helen Bantock was celebrating—and her husband illuminating—with these songs is vividly portrayed. What is certain is the consuming immediacy and ardour of the heroine and the vigour with which the story is told. Bantock responds to the poetess’s constantly changing moods, her light and shade and spectral shadows, the transition from moments of highest passion to cold stillness and back again all in the space of seconds.
Of importance is the handling of the songs which might be regarded as interludes—Nos III and VIII—and in particular No VIII, ‘Bridal Song’, which can seem out of style with the rest of the work, with its lilting no-nonsense tune and generally Griegian textures, the rhythm and tambourine reminding us of something familiar. But what? Several parallels come to mind. Lohengrin was suggested by one early reviewer, but Grieg or Delius strike the present writer as better parallels. From an end-of-century perspective Delius’s Florida Suite or his operas Koanga or A Village Romeo and Juliet have comparable moments, but it is unlikely that Bantock could have known of these when writing Sappho.
Sappho was one of a circle of girls on whom she seems to have had violent crushes and jealousies: erotic passions experienced within a close-knit circle of female friends. It is said she was short and dark and unattractive and she may well have had the role of older teacher, a sort of Aeolic Jean Brodie. Such is the power of her narrative that she gives passionate life to what may have been to the passing observer trivial events. As Joseph Addison remarked as long ago as 1711: ‘She felt the Passion in all its Warmth, and described it in all its Symptoms.’ Thus in the first song she appeals to the goddess of love because one of her girls has spurned her: the petulant reaction of one rejected. And yet could it be that her reaction to these powerful feelings was the grit that enabled this particular oyster to spin a string of exquisite pearls. Again in the second song she remembers a favourite of long ago. In the sixth she despairs because her favourite had looked at a man.
At this stage in his life, Bantock was increasingly being recognized for his large-scale orchestral and choral works, an output to be crowned, simultaneously with Sappho, by his complete setting of Omar Khayyám, running for some two-and-a-half hours. This is a fascinating juxtaposition, for Helen Bantock’s role has remarkable resonances of Fitzgerald’s Victorian realization of Persian verses. Modern scholars of each poet doubtless have similar reservations about their mutation into Victorian verse, and yet they are remarkable English-language works in their own right.
Sappho is associated with the metre named after her, which we can hear in the first and sixth songs. Bantock also evokes Sappho’s musical character in his treatment of her words. Sappho is reputed to have played the harp or lyre and also to have been a singer, and Aristoxenus is quoted by Plutarch as asserting that she invented the mixolydian scale (G to G on the white notes of the keyboard).
It was Sir Thomas Beecham who, in his autobiography A Mingled Chime, remarked on Bantock’s ‘quick penetration of the true lyrical writer for reaching the heart of a poem and re-creating it in fitting and telling turns of melody … and when I recall the texts of … the Sappho songs, I cannot help believing that Bantock’s settings of them will remain unchallenged for some time to come’.
Bantock clearly assembled the music over several years, for the second song is dated as early as 25 November 1900. On 27 October 1904 Bantock wrote to his wife remarking: ‘I have been copying out the Sappho Song with its unfinished ending as you suggested, and commenced work on another of them—‘O fair, O lovely’, which will have to be more lyrical.’ The manuscript of the completed cycle is dated 7 May 1905 and it seems probable that much of the work on pulling it together was done during the early months of that year. The very existence of the Prelude suggests that Bantock intended it to be an orchestral cycle from the outset, and it was the Prelude which he orchestrated first, completing the score on 8 August 1905.
The orchestral score of the fifth song, ‘The moon has set’, has the date 5 May 1907, so when the Prelude was played and a song sung twice during the 1906 Proms (three songs had been promised), it seems likely that the complete orchestrated cycle was far from ready. The ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ had been first heard with piano accompaniment, and it was sung by the Canadian contralto Edith J Miller at the Aeolian Hall on 25 May 1906, and on 7 June at the same hall the ‘Hymn’ and ‘Evening Song’ were both heard with piano. These performances may well have triggered Henry Wood’s interest and Sappho’s subsequent appearance in the Promenade Concerts at Queen’s Hall. In those days the programmes for the Proms were planned much more flexibly than today, allowing repeats and last-minute insertions to catch the popular reaction day by day. The first performance of any of Sappho with orchestra took place at a Queen’s Hall Prom on 7 September 1906, when Florence Oliver sang the ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’, Henry Wood conducting. It must have impressed because on 20 September it was repeated with Edith J Miller as soloist, and then five days later, on 25 September, Wood conducted the Prelude in its first performance.
What now followed was a succession of performances of small groups of the songs usually preceded by the Prelude; but no singer emerged to champion the complete cycle round the country, or indeed in Europe. Nevertheless Miss Grainger Kerr took up ‘Evening Song’, giving it at Nottingham early in November 1906 and again in Glasgow on 13 January 1907. Various organizations also adopted the Prelude, playing it as a new Bantock tone poem; it was given by the Society Armonica in Birmingham on 16 January 1907, at Bournemouth on 1 February 1907 and subsequently round the country.
‘I loved thee once, Atthis, long ago’, the second song, was heard in Manchester on 10 February 1907, its announced pairing with the ‘Hymn to Aphrodite’ failing to materialize. However, the latter very demanding song was given by a student, Miss Gwladys Roberts, at a Royal Academy of Music concert at Queen’s Hall on 26 March 1907.
And so it went on, the various songs getting their first and subsequent performances. Extracts were heard twice in London’s Queen’s Hall in April 1908: on the 9th, at a Philharmonic Society concert, the Prelude was followed by Edith Clegg singing Nos IV, V and VIII conducted by Henry Wood, while on 14 April Phyllis Lett, with Beecham conducting, included No VIII and three others. Later that year the Prelude and Nos VII and VIII (VII seeing its first performance) followed the second part of Omar Khayyám at Hanley on 3 December. On 10 January 1909, while away from home, Bantock wrote to his wife asking her to copy out the words of I, III, V, VIII and IX and send them to Liverpool, presumably signalling the performance of another, more extended selection.
But the work appears not to have been quite the success its publishers had hoped. As the piano score was published by Breitkopf und Härtel and the words are bilingual in German and English it may well have been played complete in Germany around the time of its first publication; Havergal Brian certainly thought so, writing in The Staffordshire Sentinel in November 1909: ‘… His Sappho songs, which an eminent German critic describes as the finest in existence … seem to have entered upon an excursion round the continent of Europe.’
But any complete performance in the United Kingdom, at least, seems to have been long delayed. When it was done at Bournemouth during the war (‘Miss Foreshen’ on 18 December 1916) only two songs were presented (I, IX), while Phyllis Lett at the Hereford Three Choirs performance on 7 September 1921 presented three songs (II, III, IX).
The complete performance given on 5 March 1921 at the Usher Hall, Edinburgh, in the fifth season of the Reid Orchestral Concerts conducted by Donald Francis Tovey, did not claim to be a premiere but it may well have been. The soloist was Denne Parker, then aged thirty-one, and despite the success of that occasion there was no opportunity for her to repeat her achievement because almost immediately she went abroad and lived in Rangoon until the following year (though on 29 January 1923 she gave the complete cycle, with Bantock himself at the piano, in the unlikely location of the men’s dining room in Cadbury’s chocolate factory in a concert promoted by the Bourneville Works Musical Society). Later she gave the first complete performance in Canada, though again with piano accompaniment.
The Prelude and three songs (I, V, VIII) surfaced in South Africa, performed by local soloist Margaret Roux in a Bantock concert given by the Durban Municipal Orchestra on 23 October 1930 to mark the composer’s visit. Small groups of songs with piano accompaniment continued to be given occasionally, including at the Bantock memorial concert in Birmingham after the composer’s death (when Astra Desmond sang five of them), but other than Sir Adrian Boult’s performance of the Prelude just after the War the music was not heard again with orchestra until the Bantock Centenary in 1968 when there were two broadcast performances, by Johanna Peters with the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by Norman del Mar, and by Sibyl Michelow with the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra conducted by Maurice Handford. The Handford broadcast was billed and announced as complete, but what was actually heard was only the Prelude and five songs (I, II, III, VI, IX). A few weeks later del Mar included the Prelude and six of the songs in his performance (I, II, III, V, VI, IX).
What may have been only the second complete performance was given by the Birmingham University Orchestra with Sarah Walker as soloist, under the baton of Professor Stephen Banfield. This was on 10 November 1996 in a concert at the Adrian Boult Hall of the Birmingham Conservatoire to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Bantock’s death. For this performance new performing materials were prepared; these have been used for this recording.
The Prelude includes themes from the songs and opens with five harp arpeggios—surely Sappho herself improvising on her lyre?—a motif that recurs at the outset of the second and the last songs. Three themes now follow that appear in the fifth song, ‘The moon has set’. The first of these soon arises from the depths, Bantock marking it ‘with yearning’; in the song it has the words ‘I yearn and seek—I know not what to do’. Then there is a big climax with a trumpet motif which will underline the words ‘Fatal creature, bitter-sweet—Yea, Eros shakes my soul’, and this is reinforced by the motif to which Bantock sets Sappho’s next words, describing how the passion strikes her in her haunted dream as a ‘wind on the mountain falling on the oaks’, before the bold lyrical presentation of the motif from the sixth song, ‘Peer of gods’, to the words ‘Dare I to love thee’. Briefly looking back we are next taken to the instrumental music that leads to the words ‘Ah! a hue as honey pale o’erspreads thy cheek’ in the fourth song before returning to the sixth for the despairing chromatic line at the words ‘Sight have I none, nor hearing’. Finally come allusions to the seventh and ninth songs at the words ‘Death is evil, the gods have so judged’ and finally ‘Delicate Adonis is dying’, from the seventh and the end of the ninth song. In the space of ten minutes Bantock tells the story, or at least evokes the emotions, visiting most of the significant incidents and reflecting all the passionate facets of Sappho’s personality, and to that extent it is a character portrait.
This is a cycle to be sung dramatically, the soloist embodying the changing emotions of the love-lorn Sappho. In the first song she appeals to the goddess of love to help her in her predicament: it is clearly not the first time. In the second she dismisses her former love whom she contemptuously says will be forgotten; but she, Sappho, will live in memory because she has gathered ‘the roses of Pieria’. Pieria was in fact a part of Macedonia, north of Mount Olympus, the home of the Muses. The roses of Pieria are thus simply poems, and Sappho is saying with Keats ‘high-piled books, in chancery, hold like rich garners the full ripen’d grain’. The way Bantock repeats ‘Thou art nought to me’ perfectly catches her resignation, for by the third repetition we know all too well she has admitted to herself it is an empty lie.
We come to a brief interlude in the drama with ‘Evening Song’, in which (under the influence of Hesperus—the morning star, in fact the planet Venus) the soloist hails spring’s messenger ‘the sweet-voiced nightingale’ in a poem redolent with images later adopted by many English poets.
In the fourth song Sappho remembers the light in lovers’ eyes and sings in praise of love—‘Let us drain a thousand cups of Love’. But the fifth song brings a contrast. Sappho sleeps, and in a passionate troubled dream is tormented by longing and ends resignedly ‘Alas! I shall be ever maiden; Neither honey nor bee for me’. This song probably has the widest range of moods in the cycle, and the transition to the ‘yearning tune’ and the build-up of the following climax is the pivotal moment of the whole work. The haunted atmosphere at the end—as the soloist suddenly faces the possibility that all will not come right and sings ‘Alas! I shall be ever maiden’—finds Bantock in spectral mood, the voice entirely below the stave and directed to sing ‘with mournful tone’; the poignant closing chords are punctuated by the thumping of her heart.
Wharton’s text ‘That man seems to me peer of gods … that indeed makes my heart flutter in my bosom’ is rendered more poetically by Helena in the sixth song: but do the Bantocks think our heroine has now met the man of her dreams? In fact the original meaning is more probably Sappho describing the symptoms of the despair which engulfs her when she sees a girl she loves laughing in the company of a man, a reading underlined by the seventh song: she contemplates suicide and in another dream is told by Aphrodite (‘the daughter of Cyprus’) that Death is evil. Helen Bantock has run this on to the lyric lamenting the death of Adonis. The annual festival for the death of Adonis signalled vintage time and the harvest.
The force of the ecstatic ‘Bridal Song’ which follows can be read in a number of ways—at face value, the marriage of Sappho’s girlfriend from the first song; or perhaps as a dream of what might have been. Bantock ends with a hymn to Aphrodite, goddess of love. Bantock makes clear that his music celebrates all love, an archetypal passion, the moods and emotions it creates. The whole work might just as well be called ‘Aphrodite’s Spell’, and indeed over thirty years later his third symphony would be called The Cyprian Goddess and be a paean to Aphrodite.
How should we assess the music? I remember listening to an acetate of Sir Adrian Boult’s performance of the Prelude with Bantock’s son Raymond at the time of the Bantock Centenary in 1968. His asked me, in doubting tones, whether the chord of the added sixth was too sweet—it may have been then, but it no longer seems so today in the context of this music. Indeed this listener at least has no such stylistic reservations, but prefers to assess the music on its own terms. The clue comes from the printed vocal score—all eighty-six pages of it—the music framed in a double-ruled border with art nouveau (or should one say Jugendstil) decorated corners. This is very much a fin de siècle score with its vivid invention and true-to-life emotion and story-telling, and viewed in this context it begins to make glorious sense.
from notes by Lewis Foreman © 1997