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Vaughan Williams, Venables & Gurney: On Wenlock Edge & other songs

Andrew Kennedy (tenor), Dante Quartet, Simon Crawford-Phillips (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: February 2007
Potton Hall, Dunwich, Suffolk, United Kingdom
Produced by Adrian Peacock
Engineered by Mike Hatch
Release date: January 2007
Total duration: 57 minutes 42 seconds

Andrew Kennedy performs Vaughan Williams’ great and innovative work, On Wenlock Edge, nearly one hundred years after its premiere performance in 1909. Written for tenor, piano and string quartet Williams explored a chamber combination previously unexplored by other English composers.

Followed by Ludlow & Teme and Songs of Eternity & Sorrow Op 36 by Ivor Gurney & Ian Venables, this disc provides the listener with renditions from three great English composers ranging from the late nineteenth- century to the present day, performed beautifully by Andrew Kennedy, Simon Crawford-Phillips & the Dante Quartet.


'These are striking performances' (BBC Music Magazine)» More

'A thoughtfully realised recital' (The Independent on Sunday)» More
On Wenlock Edge
It is a remarkable sign of insecurity that a composer with so many social advantages, a thorough musical training (under Parry, Stanford and Wood in England and Bruch in Germany), and with a growing reputation should, at the age of thirty-five, seek yet further study abroad with a composer three years younger than himself. Despite the successful première of his setting for chorus and orchestra of Walt Whitman’s Toward the Unknown Region at the Leeds Festival in October 1907 Vaughan Williams came to the conclusion that his work needed more refinement because it ‘had come to a dead end and that a little French polish would be of use’. After consulting Delius and a number of friends on which French composer to choose (Vincent D’Indy had been suggested) it was eventually Ravel to whom Vaughan Williams turned for help. In January the following year he arrived in Paris, staying in an uncomfortable hotel without a piano, and went to see Ravel four or five times a week for the next three months. Although it was mainly the orchestration of piano scores that Vaughan Williams practised during his studies with Ravel, it was the exposure to French (and Russian) music that clearly left its mark on the older composer. On his return to England Vaughan Williams recalled, ‘I came back with a bad attack of French fever and wrote a string quartet which caused a friend to say that I must have been having tea with Debussy’. That this was an important step for Vaughan Williams is shown by his restored confidence and the release of a creative energy that was to produce a number of significant works in the next few years including his first major achievement: the Fantasia on a theme by Thomas Tallis.

This new sense of confidence is immediately apparent in two works that received their first performance at London’s Aeolian Hall on 15th November 1909 in a programme jointly promoted by Vaughan Williams and the celebrated tenor Gervais Elwes. These were the G minor String Quartet and the song-cycle On Wenlock Edge. In setting six poems from A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896 at his own expense, by the late Victorian poet A. E. Housman, Vaughan Williams was to move in a strikingly new direction, not least in the innovative scoring for tenor, piano and string quartet. This chamber combination had not been previously explored by English composers, and while Vaughan Williams may possibly have known Chausson’s song Chanson perpétuelle (also with piano quintet) via his lessons with Ravel, On Wenlock Edge is an expansive work that, in its emotional breadth has an organic, almost symphonic quality.

What is also apparent and highly significant (just as in the String Quartet) is the guiding hand of Ravel. His influence seems to have removed the ‘lumpy and stodgy’ textures that Vaughan Williams had criticised in his own earlier works (with its echoes of Brahms and Parry) and is, in On Wenlock Edge, now replaced by a more transparent, lighter touch with the addition of several atmospheric effects’. The first of these ‘effects’ is heard in the nervous rhythms (with the composer’s characteristic triplet figuration and parallel fourths) of the opening storm scene of the title song. Fiery piano and string gestures vividly evoke Housman’s ‘gale of life’ that has always troubled men’s lives. Particularly atmospheric and harmonically arresting is the accompaniment to Bredon Hill (actually in the poet’s native Worcestershire, not Shropshire) where rich string sonorities of piled up chords beautifully capture both the tolling bells and the summer languor of Housman’s poem. After the cheerful pealing of the bells (themselves an image for birth, marriage and death) for piano alone in the third verse, they assume a more chilling aspect as summer turns to winter and the presence of death haunts the remainder of this extended dramatic setting. Equally dramatic is the dialogue between the ghost of a dead soldier and the young man who has appropriated his sweetheart in Is my team ploughing? The contrast between the sepulchral questions and the vibrant answers from the living world is brilliantly effective. So too is the rapt atmosphere created by the harp-like piano chords and a recitative-like melodic line that frame the gentle From far, from eve and morning. Light, transparent textures are a feature of Oh, when I was in love with you where a dancing piano accompaniment underpins playful pizzicato string chords. In the final song, Clun, (written as early as 1906) Housman’s calm acceptance of death is matched by music that forms a delicate epilogue to the cycle.

The rhythms and melodic contours inherent in Housman’s poems, idealised in a kind of half-imagined Shropshire landscape, and his recurring themes of loss, death and a rural nostalgia made his work a natural gift for composers wishing to ‘shake hands across the arts’. His poetry eventually enjoyed a widespread circulation (particularly during the Great War) and became increasingly popular with British composers following Arthur Somervell’s first Shropshire lad cycle for baritone and piano that appeared in 1904. Housman famously disliked composers setting his poems (although he never refused them permission) and complained that Vaughan Williams had removed two verses from Is my team ploughing? The lines, ‘The goal stands up, the keeper/ Stands up to keep the goal’ does Housman little favour and their deletion by Vaughan Williams is surely an act of kindness.

Ludlow and Teme
A year after Ivor Gurney arrived at the Royal College of Music on a scholarship in 1911 to study composition under Stanford, his near contemporary Herbert Howells recalled that he had a ‘wallet bulging with works of many kinds. There were piano preludes thick with untamed chords; violin sonatas strewn with ecstatic crises; organ works which he tried out amidst Gloucester’s imperturbable pillars’. Songs are also likely to have been there, considering his poetic leanings and early vocal settings. By 1914 Gurney had completed his first important collection; Five Elizabethan Songs (originally for the intriguing combination of mezzo-soprano, pairs of flutes, clarinets and bassoons and harp), setting texts by Shakespeare, Nashe and Fletcher. These songs reveal an astonishing confidence and maturity, something that the slow-developing Vaughan Williams simply could not have matched when he was in his twenties.

Before music college, and not long after completing his years as a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral, Gurney discovered A.E. Housman and in 1908 set his On your midnight pallet; the same year attempting Is my team ploughing?, a song he later revised.

As someone who possessed the exceptional gift of being equally talented as both composer and poet, Gurney was naturally drawn to the poetry of others but rarely set his own poems, unlike his fellow Englishman Thomas Campion (1567-1620)—also doubly gifted as poet/composer—whose lute song texts were always taken from his own words. During the war years when life in the trenches made writing music almost impossible it was poetry that pre-occupied Gurney and in 1917 his first collection of poems, Severn and Somme, was published (the second being War’s Embers that followed two years later). However, a handful of songs were written during this period and include In Flanders and Dinny Hill, (with verses written by his school friend Will Harvey) which express a longing for his Gloucestershire. In addition to these songs Gurney set further Housman verses: On Wenlock Edge. This seems to have been conceived in June 1917; a sturdy and so far unpublished setting which is markedly different from Vaughan Williams own arrangement and which was then unknown to Gurney. It is astonishing that since joining the 2nd/5th Gloucester’s with whom he served as a private from February 1915 and his arrival in France in May 1916 Gurney’s creative stimulus was undimmed, and had even ‘sharpened his pen’. Despite having suffered a minor bullet wound on Good Friday in April 1917 (the poet Edward Thomas was killed on Easter Monday) and a gas attack during the Ypres offensive in September, his letters home reveal a cheerful stoicism.

Following his recovery at Bangour hospital in Edinburgh and his discharge from the army, Gurney returned to the Royal College of Music in March 1919 where he now began studying with Vaughan Williams. It is from this period that his creative outpouring was at its most intense, setting over forty songs alone during the second half of 1919. It was at a concert in November 1919 that Gurney discovered his new teacher’s song cycle On Wenlock Edge. So excited was Gurney by this experience that he immediately began work on his own cycle of Shropshire lad poems, and set seven verses for an identical ensemble, completing Ludlow and Teme in just a few weeks. The following March the cycle received its first performance at the home of Gurney’s college friend Marion Scott who recalled that after the performance ‘No composer being forthcoming in spite of repeated calls for him, Gurney was sought, and at length found, bashfully hiding behind the big bookcase at the far end of the back drawing-room.’

Just as the On Wenlock Edge cycle follows no continuous narrative thread or incorporates any musical connections between the songs, neither does Gurney make any attempt in Ludlow and Teme to create a real sense of unity. The songs are, however, linked by their affection for the English countryside and a love of the rural way of life. So strong in character are they with their own individual mood (as well as their considerable vocal demands) that separate performance of these songs can still be effective. When smoke stood up from Ludlow makes an arresting and dramatic beginning; its opening triplet figure perhaps a passing tribute to Vaughan Williams. In the long-limbed lines and quiet intensity of Far in a western brookland Gurney creates an almost unbearable longing for home; its nostalgia, so typical of Housman, raised to an ecstatic level, despite Gurney’s failure to reproduce faithfully Housman’s lines in the right order. Tensions are released in the quicksilver ‘Tis time, I think where the poet wishes to see the spring in Wenlock. The melodic charm of On the idle hill of summer surely refutes Trevor Hold’s assertion that Gurney’s music ‘rambles like an unkempt English hedgerow’. While the accompaniment is a little inelegant the melodic inspiration is as effortless as When I was one and twenty or The Lent lily—a superb marriage of words and music that is amongst Gurney’s finest. According to Vaughan Williams, the Georgian poets ‘had just rediscovered England and the language that fitted the shy beauty of their own country’. He then added, ‘Gurney has found the exact musical equivalent both in sentiment and in cadence to this poetry’.

Gurney composed a little over 300 songs (of which about one hundred have been published) and include a second song cycle to Housman’s verse: The Western Playland, scored for baritone soloist, string quartet and piano. Sadly, his increasingly erratic behaviour and mental instability noted before the war when a friend declared ‘…he did not seem to belong to us’, led to his eventual incarceration in the City of London Mental Hospital, Dartford in December 1922 where he remained there until his death on December 26th 1937.

Ludlow and Teme is performed here in the new edition by Philip Lancaster, published by Stainer & Ludlow, and incorporates a number of revisions made by Ivor Gurney in 1925.

David Truslove © 2007

Songs of Eternity and Sorrow Op 36
In Songs of Eternity and Sorrow, commissioned by Finzi Friends, Ian Venables continues a tradition of setting the English poet Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) for tenor, string quartet and piano. However, whereas Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney set poems from A Shropshire Lad, Venables has chosen lesser-known poems from More Poems and Additional Poems.

In his preface to the published score, Venables states ‘…my attention was drawn to those poems that were either infrequently set, or had not been set at all. Why, I asked myself, had composers avoided these poems? Trying to answer this question was really the starting point of my work and the beginning of the compositional process. Reading through these ‘discarded’ poems it became clear to me why composers had passed over them. A few were not really ‘vintage’ Housman, whilst others seemed to lack musicality, or touched upon poetic themes that were not suitable for setting. Moreover, amongst them were a number of poems that may have been ignored for the simple reason that their subject matter was probably too controversial. This is consistent with the fact that many of them were not published until after Housman’s death in 1936.’

The first, Easter Hymn is a powerful evocation of Housman’s religious anxiety and one that questioned the most fundamental tenet of Christianity, namely the Resurrection. The two-stanza poem is ideal for setting because of its bold and striking visual imagery. Venables achieves a myriad of changing moods with the introductory material for piano and string quartet belying later moments of tortured anguish. The dichotomous nature of the poem is further highlighted by a passage of sepulchral calm and mock majesty, simply to be shattered by a return to the movement’s opening idea, only this time uncompromising and challenging, as the poem’s final line demands that the God that is, ‘…come hither out of heaven and see and save’.

If Easter Hymn shows Housman’s more strident poetic style, then the short pastoral poem When green buds hang redresses the balance. In this beautifully crafted lyric, Housman evoked the eternal ‘scholar gypsy’. This theme, combined with the poem’s pastoral imagery inspired Venables to express some of life’s more affirmative sentiments. Its feel of the Dorian mode sets in motion a gentle, oscillating triadic figure for strings that underpins the majority of this short but evocative setting. Two climaxes of breathtaking sensuality lead to a gentle coda. Ending on a low G natural from the piano, its mood is neither desolate nor affirmatory.

The symphonic nature of Ian Venables’s Song Cycles—from a Mahlerian rather than Brahmsian standpoint—firmly places the emotional heart of each work in its final movement, leaving the penultimate song to act as a kind of scherzo. This is nowhere more apparent than in Housman’s Oh, who is that young sinner?, a clever and sardonic commentary on the trials that befell Oscar Wilde. In altering the ‘crime’ to ‘the colour of his hair’ Housman was able to suggest the absurdity of prejudice. Venables’s setting takes two important musical ideas, both of which—a strong rhythmic ostinato and the extensive use of the tritone—gives the movement an almost unbearable, claustrophobic sound-world. Each verse builds in tension as these two musical features vie for prominence. False hope is presented as the final verse, ratcheted up a semitone, builds into a frenzied climax on the words ‘for the colour of his hair’. Stricken, the music collapses in on itself.

Because I liked you better is a sad, yet hauntingly beautiful poem that tells of an unrequited love which at that time was forbidden. The strong, yearning syncopation, peppered throughout the movement, allied to a harmonic language that can only be described as desolate, creates a landscape of unbearable poignancy. This is broken only by a short climax on the words ‘“Goodbye” said you “forget me”’ again suggesting mock majesty but in which irony rather than sincerity is the overriding musical sentiment. The coda to this movement contains some of the most beautiful music in the whole work ending a 21st century view of Housman which, in many ways, reveals a less familiar side of his creative life—an aspect that has, until recently, remained in the shadows, and as such has been unexplored by composers. It is nevertheless part of Housman’s creativity that demands a musical response in equal measure to the more ‘acceptable’ face of this ‘scholar poet’.

Graham J Lloyd © 2007

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