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The English song tradition of the twentieth century is a glorious one, and never more so than when in the hands of such superlative musicians as we find here. Several new additions to the repertoire sit alongside favourites by Quilter, Finzi, Britten and others.
Within such an ethnography, the sphere of classical music occupies only a tiny space; within that in turn, an even tinier but highly distinctive solo repertoire emerged in Britain at the end of the 19th century that has since tended to be known simply and presumptuously as ‘English song’. Not that this distilled genre has been entirely sealed off from some of the other types of song indicated above. Both of the Shakespeare songs on this album, Quilter’s Fear no more the heat o’ the sun (track 6) and Iain Bell’s Feste (track 18), deploy poems sung by characters within his plays, Cymbeline and Twelfth Night respectively, which therefore need their musical settings every time the play is performed. Iain Bell’s song cycle These motley fools, commissioned by the countertenor Lawrence Zazzo who sings Feste here, puts together utterances from four different Shakespearean fools, the two Dromios and Launcelot Gobbo as well as Feste—though only Feste’s is a song, as opposed to a prose speech. Eric Thiman’s I wandered lonely as a cloud (track 8) crosses another boundary: it was first published as a ‘unison song’, a designation most commonly implying a school choir or a whole class of schoolchildren tasked with learning it. The solo and choral duet versions came later. Even Peter Warlock’s magically evocative Sleep (track 17) first appeared as a unison song.
A 20th-century song ‘recital’ (the term rarefied the genre in preference to ‘concert’) would entail a formal programme sung typically by a single professional singer, accompanied by a pianist, perhaps ranging in chronological order from the renaissance to the present and geographically from France and Austro-Germany to the British Isles. Schubert set the standard, Fauré and Debussy added the modern, the lute songs of Dowland and the continuo songs of his baroque successors provided the ancient, and the rural folksongs just rediscovered by urban collectors were often incorporated, arranged for bourgeois consumption with piano accompaniment. English composers of the time looked to all four of these components for their stance when providing new material, and have continued to do so. Indeed, Celia Harper’s My love gave me an apple (track 5), one of the most recent songs here, peels the genre right back to that of an unaccompanied folk artefact, though the words and tune are her own and the impulse religious (in its version with three additional vocal parts it is subtitled ‘Celtic blessing’).
The Wigmore Hall in London became the acme of English song culture, but such a restricted habitat would not explain why so many composers, especially in the first half of the 20th century, contributed to the genre, some of them voluminously (one composer, John Raynor, may have written as many songs as Schubert). Two salient reasons have a bearing on how we might listen to the repertoire now: composers could earn money by publishing their songs as sheet music, and they could fashion a vehicle for intimate self-expression.
The sheet music sold because people sang, played and taught the songs in their homes and at school or college. They also sang, played and taught a multitude of popular ballads; these were promoted as vocal interludes in orchestral concerts, the songs themselves often with orchestral accompaniment. Publishers preferred to issue both types of song singly, printing them at different pitches for high, medium or low voice and discarding the manuscripts after use, so that it is often difficult to know which was the original key. Finzi had a struggle with Boosey and Hawkes to get them to publish the ten songs of Earth and Air and Rain, of which Proud Songsters (track 14) is the final and most haunting one, as a volume, and probably had to put his own money into it. But a market for the classier type there certainly was, primed early on when Vaughan Williams published Linden Lea (track 3) in the very first issue of The Vocalist, a short-lived periodical aimed at developing the genre through its singers. Warlock wrote most of his songs as single entities, possibly when he needed the money, though to the listener thoughts of lucre make strange bedfellows with the exquisite intimacies of Sleep (track 17).
My own initial exposure to the repertoire was reading through songs and cycles with fellow musicians from my university college chapel, and this will have been typical. Something in it chimed with the church music we knew and loved: Herbert Howells’s King David (track 15), for instance, starts with an alternation of two mysterious hushed chords that can be imagined emanating improvisationally from the organ bench before Evensong. The wayward modulations in stanza three of Ivor Gurney’s I will go with my father a-ploughing (track 13), a tendency on which Howells himself commented, have something of the same lineage. Howells and Gurney were trained in the cathedral organ loft, as, up to a point, was Finzi, whose gently archaic counterpoint and pacing bass octaves heard in the piano part of The Sigh (track 4) were both learnt there. No surprise, then, that a whole generation of prominent English song artists, or at least the men among them represented on this album, can be found who all sang in King’s College Chapel Choir in Cambridge at one time or another. Latterly, singers crossing over from chapel to recital hall have included the countertenors, three of them singing on this album, whose nurturing nowadays is as often as not a sign of the Anglican tradition, though song composers with a church background have by no means all come from the Church of England: Eric Thiman was for many years organist of the Congregationalist City Temple in central London.
English song as a vehicle for self-expression presupposed a culture in which the reading of poetry was central. With the exception of the two songs by women, My love gave me an apple (track 5) and Rebecca Clarke’s The seal man (track 12), the latter setting to music an old crone’s prose narration from a book of short stories, A mainsail haul, by John Masefield, we can assume that every song on the disc was created because the composer had a published volume of poetry (or the plays of Shakespeare) open on his desk. Something drew him to add instrumental accompaniment and vocal melody to a particular poem, or a number of poems selected from a group. Finzi identified strongly with Thomas Hardy and set more than 50 of his poems to music for solo voice, sketching another two dozen fragmentarily. Young men in particular seem to have wanted to validate their feelings, philosophical or romantic, through stamping a poem with their music: half the tracks on this disc were composed by men aged 30 or less. Finzi even entitled the cycle from which The Sigh is taken A Young Man’s Exhortation.
The most common topic was love. We should not of course assume that composers were always voicing their own desires. Frank Bridge chose particularly fervid poems, such as Matthew Arnold’s Come to me in my dreams (track 7), for many of his early songs, but he was professional enough to be able to create bonds with his performers and listeners as though their feelings were his, whether or not they really were. Often the love was transgressive, going as far as inter-species romance (and doom) in The seal man (track 12). King David (in track 15) may have had no cause for his melancholy, but his restless sex drive is there for all to read about in the Bible. And any consumer in the know will have felt the frisson of Rossetti’s love scene in Silent noon (track 20), one of six sonnets from the poet’s enormous total of 101 chosen for Vaughan Williams’s intensely pre-Raphaelite cycle The house of life. Gay love undoubtedly drove Quilter’s, Britten’s, and Browne’s expressive urge, intimate music no doubt an invaluable safety-valve for secrecy in that legally restrictive age. Britten was however able to enjoy the more open pleasure of accompanying his life partner Peter Pears in inspired performances by them both of songs such as Since she whom I loved (track 16), its poem a vivid and complex weft of elegiac and religious eroticism that the music’s intricately plotted lines of flow more than complement, and The salley gardens (track 2), the very first and still possibly the most popular of his 75 folksong arrangements in nine volumes (some of them posthumous). The most egregious love song on the disc is surely Browne’s To Gratiana dancing and singing (track 1). An exercise in erotic voyeurism, it keeps the observer and the dancer on such separate planes that the 17th-century tune to which the latter dances is in a metre quite different from that of the poem, enunciated through the singer’s less continuous countermelody. Here the self-referential dimension can hardly be questioned. Browne had first encountered the anonymous tune in Cambridge University’s 1908 production of Milton’s Comus, in which Rupert Brooke acted and presumably danced the Attendant Spirit and Browne was musically involved. It is well known how the young Brooke’s path was in general paved with broken hearts, and there is every reason to believe that Browne’s was probably one of them. He in the end was the one to tend Brooke’s body for burial (they both died in the Gallipoli campaign). Even so, we should remember that it was a full five years after Comus that Browne set Lovelace’s poem to music.
More recent composers have been able to take comparable themes to very different places. In their different media, Vikram Seth and Jonathan Dove recreate with terrifying immediacy in Soon (track 10) what young men in particular, both sufferers and their lovers, were facing in the earlier years of the AIDS crisis; its fear, indeed depiction of dying alone resonates with new force in this era of COVID-19. Love always was as much about separation as about fulfilment, but rarely can that have been so sparely and perfectly expressed by poet and composer as in All you who sleep tonight (track 11). Dove’s tune, aslant an artlessly permutated ostinato, has as folk-like a simplicity as that of My love gave me an apple (track 5), and no musical tricks are played on Seth’s epigrammatically brief poem. Satire was not a common theme in English song, and it seems a new ingredient in God’s love (track 9). But there is already self-satire in The Sigh (track 4), and one realises that tight poetic wit flourishes in many modes, can be squared up to by song composers in many stylistic traditions, and is no less an attribute of Edmund Waller, who wrote 350 years earlier, than of Seth. Waller’s Go, lovely rose (track 19), with its vicious command ‘Then die —’, has been found by some commentators the perfect lyrical poem; I have long considered Quilter’s setting of it, cosy and feline in its musical language but unerringly constructed, the perfect English song.
Stephen Banfield © 2021