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A Fire of Turf, Op 139

composer
author of text

 
The County Wexford poetess, Winifred Letts, published her first set of poems, Songs from Leinster, in 1913. Stanford evidently read the poems soon after they were in print, for in July of the same year he completed A Sheaf of Songs from Leinster and, a month later, A Fire of Turf, a subsection of Letts’s larger collection. A Fire of Turf consisted of nine poems of which Stanford set seven, leaving out only ‘Voices’ (No 3) and ‘Questions’ (No 6); the remaining poems were set in their existing order with the exception of The Fair (originally No 4) which was placed sixth. Though Letts’s verse is not especially distinguished, the message and world of her poetry clearly struck a chord with Stanford. Nostalgic for a world that was fast disappearing, and for an Ireland remembered vividly from his youth (albeit idyllically), the composer clearly experienced a fascination for the colours, smells and sounds of Letts’s Hiberno-English dialect which, for him, were powerful creative stimulants with a deeply personal (one might even say autobiographical) overlay.

Central to A Fire of Turf are the passing seasons of the year, the changing winds, the supremacy of nature and (in true Hardyesque fashion) its oblivion to man. On a human level this is paralleled in the phases of a man’s life, which, with the rapid passing of time (symbolised in the blowing of the winds), sees our protagonist dream of his past existence through childhood, youth, love and old age, from summer’s energy to winter’s reflection, memories kept alive by the heat and glow of the turf. This lies at the heart of the first song, A Fire of Turf, a broad lyrical exposition, muscular yet tender in sentiment.

The second song, The Chapel on the Hill, is one of Stanford’s gentle modal meditations infused with elements of traditional Irish melody. At first we are filled with the impressions of pastoral childhood innocence, of religious piety and communal security, but all this is quietly unsettled by sexual awakening as, replete with tierce de Picardie, ‘the noonday sunshine [is] caught in Mary Connor’s hair’.

Having established a tonal base of D for the first two songs, Stanford subtly lifts the third song, Cowslip Time, up a semitone to E flat major, a shift underpinning the optimistic, new-found warmth of spring and the symbolism of perennial fertility.

In the relative minor, Scared provides an entertaining foil with its melodrama, ghosts and ‘things that go bump in the night’, though aside from its humorous badinage it obliquely suggests the uncertainties and unexpected turns that life may bring.

As a counterpart to Cowslip Time, the melodically euphonious Blackberry Time captures a day of arduous travelling, of collecting blackberries in the country and selling them in the town. As with so many of Stanford’s strophic songs, an ostensibly simple design is, in detail, highly sophisticated. In this instance the composer suspends the entire structure above a dominant pedal (bringing resolution only in the final bar), thus equating the sense of musical continuity with the central theme of ceaseless and fatiguing travel. There is also a subtle matrix of harmonic variegation, notably in the augmented fourth verse (‘We traipis round from door to door’) and at the climax of the last (‘Och! sure the thought of home’) which, as part of a rich, fertile diatonic idiom, must have been influential on the emerging Ivor Gurney.

In The Fair there is a sense of gaiety and prosperity as our couple arrive in their ‘fine new ass-and-cart’ before the people ‘kilt with envy’. Elements of modality, notably the potent Dorian E minor that obliquely begins the song and colours the penultimate phrase of each verse (‘with pride and joy of heart’), lend a spirit of folksong to the ditty, and there is much in common with Stanford’s well-known folksong arrangement, Trottin’ to the Fair, in the distinctive subdominant close to all four verses, leaving the piano to provide the cadence.

The final song of the cycle, The West Wind, is by far the most discursive and substantial composition. Cast in three sections, it depicts the wild wind from the Atlantic as it hurls itself against the landscape and our protagonist’s plea for rest. This turbulence (a metaphor for life’s eternal struggle) is vividly imparted in the central paragraph which embarks from D minor (the tonal centre of the first two songs). Departure from D, however, is marked with conspicuous rapidity as the tonality shifts chromatically upwards, a tendency absent from the rest of the cycle. Framing this stormy passage are two sections of more lyrical inclination in F major, the first contemplating the peace of a tranquil autumn, and the second a gentle postlude full of reflection and release, as well as a passing valedictory reference to the opening song.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2000

Recordings

Stanford: Songs, Vol. 2
CDA67124
A Treasury of English Song
This album is not yet available for downloadHYP30Super-budget price sampler — Deleted
The Essential Hyperion, Vol. 2
This album is not yet available for downloadHYP202CDs Super-budget price sampler — Deleted

Details

No 1: A fire of turf  In summer time I foot the turf
Track 20 on CDA67124 [3'54]
No 2: The chapel on the hill  the chapel of my childhood
Track 21 on CDA67124 [2'49]
Track 19 on HYP20 CD2 [2'49] 2CDs Super-budget price sampler — Deleted
No 3: Cowslip time  God bless the time when cowslips grow
Track 22 on CDA67124 [1'31]
No 4: Scared  These dusky evenings in December
Track 23 on CDA67124 [2'01]
No 5: Blackberry time  In blackberry time herself and me
Track 24 on CDA67124 [2'07]
Track 24 on HYP30 [2'07] Super-budget price sampler — Deleted
No 6: The fair  Oh! We're off to the fair now the lot of us together
Track 25 on CDA67124 [1'38]
No 7: The west wind  Last night the air was cold and still
Track 26 on CDA67124 [4'22]

Track-specific metadata for HYP30 track 24

No 5: Blackberry time
Artists
ISRC
GB-AJY-00-12424
Duration
2'07
Recording date
14 October 1999
Recording venue
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell
Hyperion usage
  1. Stanford: Songs, Vol. 2 (CDA67124)
    Disc 1 Track 24
    Release date: June 2000
  2. A Treasury of English Song (HYP30)
    Disc 1 Track 24
    Release date: April 2004
    Deletion date: November 2011
    Super-budget price sampler — Deleted
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