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Hughes: A Purse of Gold & other songs

Ailish Tynan (soprano), Iain Burnside (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: March 2007
St Paul's Church, Deptford, London, United Kingdom
Produced by Alexander Van Ingen
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Declan Zapala
Release date: October 2007
Total duration: 65 minutes 47 seconds

Cover artwork: February's poor grazing and Mary chasing curious cattle on my work site by Melita Denaro (b1950)

Despite the tradition of passing folk songs from generation to the next, aurally, the Irish folk song had lost its importance somewhat in nineteenth century Ireland, but by the turn of the twentieth-century the revival of Ireland’s native music was coming to a head.

Belfast-born Herbert Hughes set about collecting and distributing Irish airs. From there he began arranging the melodies for voice and piano, but at a lecture in Dublin pointed out the relationship between the original song, as sung by ‘the peasant, giving voice to an ancient tradition’ and the same song as put into print with a piano accompaniment. This original disc brings together both the old and the new, transforming the traditional folk song into an ‘art-song.’ The 25 folk songs tell of stories both happy and sad and make this album as much a literary landscape, as a musical one with words by Thomas Moore & James Joyce. Beautifully performed by Ailish Tynan & Iain Burnside.


'Soprano Ailish Tynan's feeling for the musical idiom and, above all, the poetry of her countrymen, matched by Burnside's delightfully poetic pianism, prove irresistible. Highly recommended' (Classic FM)» More

During the second half of the nineteenth century the political movements towards Irish independence—the ‘Home Rule’ bills proposed by the Liberal government in England, and the nationalist movements that were to bring the Irish question to a head with the declaration of an independent Irish Republic at the Easter Rising of 1916—were being reinforced by the development of an Irish cultural identity. In 1893, the year of the second proposed ‘Home Rule’ bill, Douglas Hyde and Eoin MacNeill founded the Connradh na Gaelige—the Gaelic League—a body devoted to restoring the Irish language which was on the verge of dying out. Later in the 1890s Lady Gregory and William Butler Yeats spearheaded an Irish Literary Revival, from which emerged a significant line of authors, poets and playwrights, some of whose work drew extensively on Irish folklore.

By the time of these nationalist revivals, work on another part of that cultural identity had already been underway for some time, but was coming to a head at the end of the nineteenth century: the revival of Ireland’s native music.

The musicologist Edward Bunting (1773-1843) is said to have been the first person to transcribe tunes and songs ‘in the field’, publishing his first collection in 1797. This publication sparked Thomas Moore’s interest in folk-song which resulted in ten volumes of Moore’s Irish Melodies, published between 1807 and 1834 and issued as a single volume in 1846. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, as in the slightly later folk-song revival in England, ‘classical’ composers began to publish arrangements of these songs. Charles Stanford—the Irish patriarch of the English musical renaissance—published his first volume of arrangements, Songs of Old Ireland, in 1882, and further collections followed in 1892, 1893 and 1907, as well producing a volume of new arrangements of Moore’s Irish Melodies in 1895. Between 1902 and 1905 Stanford also produced the first complete edition of George Petrie’s major collection of 1,582 Irish melodies, only 140 of which had been published by Petrie in 1855. In 1897 Charles Wood—like Stanford an important figure in English music, teaching in Cambridge and at the Royal College of Music, published a volume of twenty-five Irish Folk-songs, which was followed by two volumes of Irish Country-side Songs in 1914 and, posthumously, in 1927. Stanford, like Vaughan Williams, also wove some of the folk-song material into his original compositions, notably in the six Irish Rhapsodies; as in the work of Vaughan Williams, their integration perhaps attempted to engender a national musical style, albeit one that thrived with the Celtic movement amongst English composers.

Herbert Hughes became one of the successors to this work in promoting folk song, affirming Ireland’s national identity through the promotion of its cultural heritage.

Born in Belfast in 1882, it appears that Hughes was immersed in his native folk song from a very young age through his childhood nurse, Ellen Boylan, from whom he later transcribed a number of songs. Whilst still a boy Hughes was appointed organist of St. Peter’s Church in Belfast. He won a place at the Royal College of Music in London, completing his studies there in 1901. He was taught at the College by a fellow Belfast man, Charles Wood, who may have encouraged Hughes’s interest in Irish folk song, for in 1904 both Hughes and Wood became two of the founder members of the Irish Folk Song Society of London, the purpose of which was to collect and publish traditional Irish airs. Hughes declared that ‘it requires the eloquence of no professional essayist to point out the deep human feeling, the simple pathos, the wise humour of some of these ballads, for their wonderful qualities are self-evident. Most ballads are human (if not historical) documents’.

Although Hughes had a significant career as a critic for the Daily Telegraph, latterly becoming the paper’s chief critic, and also composed a number of original works—chamber music and the score for the 1934 film, Norah O’Neale amongst other works—it is for his arrangements of some of the 1,000 folk songs he collected that he is principally known, notably for the four volumes of Irish Country Songs published between 1909 and 1936, the year before Hughes’s death. It is from these that most of the songs on this disc are taken.

In a lecture to the Royal Dublin Society in 1933, Herbert Hughes spoke of the act of arranging folk songs and the relationship between the original song, as sung by ‘the peasant who is giving voice to an ancient tradition’ and the same song as put into print with a piano accompaniment. In the introduction to volume III of his Irish Country Songs, he expands on this, stating that by the very fact that it has been brought to print, through its harmonisation, and in the strait-jacketing of the tunes into the ecclesiastical modes and the constraints of the tempered scale, the folk-song at once becomes an art-song. As a result the song immediately becomes ‘a period affair’, subject to the whim of fashions whereas the original tune may survive for generations unaffected by fashion, its origin lying in ‘the remotest antiquity’.

Hughes’s ethic dictated that, of those tunes that he himself collected, he arranged only those whose melodies were closely allied to the tempered scale; and the accompaniments were written in a quasi-improvisatory manner so as to avoid imposing formal harmonic modes on the tunes. By these means he hoped to attain a universality that would reduce the possibility of the arrangements becoming period pieces. Likewise, where Hughes had only been able to collect unpolished fragments of songs, such as in the case of Reynardine (a part of the Donegal version of an Ulster Ballad that developed out of a tale of an Irish faery that turns into the shape of a fox), I will walk with my love, and the Belfast street song, B for Barney, he generally tried to present them as originally heard, without padding them out or cleaning them up. However, in a few cases he did cut verses from some of the longer songs, such as in The Fanaid grove, a song collected in County Donegal in which he pieced together two incomplete verses, added a missing line to another, and reduced the original five or six verses to just three.

In one of his prefatory notes, Hughes rues the loss of the original Gaelic words to many of the songs, lost through centuries of oppression under the English. The English language was apparently enforced and so the ‘rhapsodic beauty’ of the original songs were ‘shorn and trimmed into a neat Anglicisation’, often producing verses described by Hughes as ‘words of appalling banality’. Hughes claims that only occasionally will one find in a song just a few lines ‘of a quaint, remote beauty not found in those that have been written under a more immediate foreign influence…the Gaelic imagination expressing itself strongly, although in a foreign tongue.’ In the nineteenth century revival some of those working in the field thought only to gather either the words or the music of songs rather than transcribing both, perhaps due to the limitations of language or musical skill. A number of the arrangements are therefore given a greater degree of artifice, reinforcing the transformation from traditional to art song, in that they either bring together previously unassociated traditional words and melodies or are supplied with an entirely new text. The Spanish Lady and The Gartan mother’s lullaby, for instance, are given texts by Seosamh MacCathmhaoil—the Gaelic name of the Belfast poet Joseph Campbell (1879-1944). The latter of these comes from Hughes’s first published arrangements, Songs from Uladh [viz. Ulster] (1904), for which Hughes adopted an Irish pseudonym, Padraig mac Aodh o Neill. Campbell was himself active in collecting folk songs in County Antrim, and his collaborations with Herbert Hughes, providing sympathetic verses to extant melodies, prove that the act of Ballad making was still very much a living tradition. Hughes also collaborated with Padraic Colum (1881-1972), notably in the set of nine Songs from Connacht, who provided an adapted version of She moved thro’ the fair and wrote two verses of the County Derry ballad Cruckhaun Finn—a song collected from Hughes’s nurse, of which she could presumably only recall the last verse.

In the case of The leprehaun, Hughes took the song from a collection of songs published by Patrick Weston Joyce in 1872. Joyce had collected the air from a ballad singer in Limerick in 1853. However, when it came to publication Joyce could only remember one line of the ballad and so provided the rest of the words himself. In Joyce’s Ancient Irish Music (1901) he writes: ‘It may be necessary to state, for the information of those who are not acquainted with Irish fairies, that the leprehaun is a very tricky little fellow, usually dressed in a green coat, red cap and knee breeches, and silver shoe buckles, whom you may sometimes see in the shades of evening, or by moonlight under a bush, and he is generally making or mending a shoe…If you catch hold of him, he will, after a little threatening, shew you where treasure is hid, or give you a purse in which you will always find money. But if you once take your eyes off him, he is gone in an instant; and he is very ingenious in devising tricks to induce you to look round…Every Irishman understands well the terms cruiskeen and mountain dew…but for the benefit of the rest of the world I think it better to state that cruiskeen is a small jar and that mountain dew is potteen or illicit whisky.’

Although the origins of many traditional songs are unknown, the closeness and common tongues of Ireland, England and Scotland and its borders, means that some of the songs have a shared ancestry. Three of the songs on this disc, for instance—Oh father, father build me a boat, A young maid stood in her father’s garden and Tigaree torum orum—were collected by Hughes in County Kerry, but he asserts that they ‘must have come to us from England generations ago in spite of the Irish tang’. Hughes goes into the uncertain history of another of the songs at some length: the antiwar song, Johnny I hardly knew ye. Hughes initially traces it back to the time of the American Civil War, but after further research he conjectures that it probably dates from shortly after the 1802 Treaty of Amiens ‘when Irish regiments were extensively recruited for the East India Service.’

Another of the songs heard here is also traceable to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Hughes attributes the text of Oh, breathe not his name to Thomas Moore, having taken it from volume one of Moore’s Irish Melodies where it is indicated that it is to be sung to the air ‘The Brown Maid’. In his preface to a later edition of the volume, Thomas Moore states that it had sometimes been supposed that the song alluded to the revolutionary aristocrat, Lord Edward Fitzgerald, but tells us that ‘this is a mistake; the song having been suggested by the well-known passage in Robert Emmet’s dying speech, “Let no man write my epitaph…let my tomb remain uninscribed, till other times and other men shall learn to do justice to my memory”.’ This ‘dying speech’, which is echoed in Moore’s opening lines, was made by Emmet from the dock after he had been tried sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered for directing the failed 1803 rising in Dublin, thus securing his place as a martyr to the Irish nationalist cause.

There is one entirely original song on this recording: the setting of James Joyce’s She weeps over Rahoon, written in 1933 for The Joyce Book: an anthology of settings of the poems from Joyce’s 1927 collection of Pomes Penyeach (viz. poems a penny each; the volume sold for twelve-pence, but Joyce follows the custom of Irish tradesmen in giving customers a little extra—a tuilleadh, or tilly—the equivalent of the English baker’s dozen).

Joyce, one of the successors to the Irish Literary Revival, came to notoriety with the publication of his novel, Ulysses. The novel had begun to be serialised in 1918 but encountered censorship difficulties, and although it was published in its complete form in 1922, the book was banned in America until 1933. The composer Charles Wilfred Orr summed up the book’s reception in an amusing poetic account of the conception of The Joyce Book, to which he was also a contributor: ‘James Joyce…Once wrote a book that brought him fame as well as notoriety; Its name was Ulysses…The plot was mixed in equal parts of bawdy and profanity, And certain lurid portions seemed produced by sheer insanity; Each chapter was a masterpiece of unashamed impurity…And sure enough the powers that be pronounced the book libidinous, And Ulysses was put upon the list of things forbidden us.’

Orr’s poem goes on to tell us of Joyce’s poverty as a result of the censored novel, and states that the idea to produce The Joyce Book came about when a number of his friends wanted to find a way of restoring his name and his finances. Orr writes:

Then up rose Herbert Hughes and said: ‘Me bhoys, I’ve got a notion here,
And by St Patrick and the Saints, ‘twill cause no small commotion here;
Ye’ll admit, begorrah, that our James has got a poor look out;
Well, what say ye if we begin and get a fine new Joyce Book out?’

Hughes, who co-ordinated the tribute to Joyce, wrote in the introduction to The Joyce Book that the idea for the collaboration of a number of artists ‘in producing the book arose during a conversation he had with Arthur Bliss whilst in Paris. He wrote that ‘the subjective association of chamber music—that is, of intimate music—with the poetry of Joyce was to us like the association of wind and wave, of light and heat’. Hughes’s description is that of a casual, amiable beginning to The Joyce Book, perhaps conflicting with the more purposeful origin as described by Orr. Joyce certainly received little, if any revenue from the publication of the book, and the volume, which was only issued in a limited edition, is now a great rarity.

Philip Lancaster © 2007

Those stuttering lovers have a lot to answer for. For decades Herbert Hughes has languished in Encoreland, the same handful of his songs rounding off recital programmes either w-w-wittily (and to 21st century ears rather d-d-dodgily) or poignantly. From Kathleen Ferrier onwards many singers have known where they’re going. And who’s going with them. Yet look up Hughes in Grove’s Dictionary, and you will draw a blank: he merits only a namecheck as father of the writer and jazz musician Patrick Cairns Hughes.

His music surely deserves more. My own moment of epiphany came in a Wigmore Hall audience, moist-eyed as Ann Murray broke my heart in I will walk with my love. Just two pages with, at the top, Hughes’s marking: ‘County Dublin. A fragment’. Yet those two pages could have come from a Chekhov short story, such is the richness of the situation, the understated beauty of the language. And how deft is Hughes’s arrangement, with its beautifully spaced chords and gentle harmonic twists.

Is arrangement, though, the right word? At what point do they become compositions? This CD clearly has examples of both, together with many delicious hybrids. As Philip Lancaster points out in his note, She weeps over Rahoon stands out as the one unambiguous artsong, holding its head high in The Joyce Book. How revealing that when he lined up alongside Bliss, Bax, Ireland and Moeran, Herbert Hughes should have withdrawn into his most translucent, less-is-more style. Rahoon is a masterpiece of economy. Paradoxically it is deep in his folksong collections that Hughes is at his most experimental, flexing his muscles in Cruckhaun Finn, with its extended structure, heroic rhetoric and harmonic daring.

Together the songs we have chosen form a sort of Irish Songbook, exploring twists and turns of daily life in the manner of Hugo Wolf’s Italienisches Liederbuch. The contrasts are there for all to see: the cheeky with the sad; expansive narratives with thumbnail snapshots; Thomas Moore’s exquisite turns of phrase cheek by jowl with children’s pavement songs. Opposite harmless bits of fun like The leprehaun comes the enigmatic, open-ended magic of Reynardine.

We go all over Ireland, too. And while the only borders Hughes recognises are musical, tensions simmer below the surface. ‘I go to Meeting and my true love goes to Mass,’ the girl sings in Johnny Doyle, and we know immediately there will be no happy ending. Unhappy endings, indeed, come thick and fast. Hughes’s Ireland, Ireland at the turn of the 20th century, is at heart a sad, hard place, where babies die and ships sail away. Look over the hills of Encoreland and you will find dark valleys, hidden glens.

Ian Burnside © 2007

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