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The twentieth Century composers Peter Warlock, Herbert Howells, Michael Howard and Betty Roe were all inspired by the music of their country, both in the words they set in song and the music they composed. Tim Travers Brown, accompanied by Jeremy Filsell, explore the counter-tenor's role in British songwriting. Whilst Roe and Howard wrote specifically with the counter-tenor voice in mind, Warlock and Howells did not, providing the counter-tenor with a fantastic opportunity to highlight some of their best works in a new perspective.
This programme forms a delicate balance between modern styles and historical influences featuring the songs 'My Little Sweet Darling' and 'The Night' by Peter Warlock, 'The Painted Rose' by Michael Howard, 'When the Dew is Falling' by Herbert Howells and 'Noble Numbers' by Betty Roe.
During the 1920s Warlock undertook sporadic journalism; wrote books on Delius (his mentor and friend since 1911) and Gesualdo (with Cecil Gray); and composed The Curlew song cycle after Yeats, (1923, his masterpiece) and the Renaissance inspired Capriol Suite for strings (1926/28). A deal of time was spent with his mother and step-father in Cefn Bryntalch in the Severn valley, the family home in Wales. But there was also a scandalous sojourn of hedonism and womanising in Eynsford near Swanley, Kent (1925-28), where he and E.J. Moeran rented a house in the High Street. Walton and Augustus John visited, the baritone John Goss too and barefooted girls fresh from the metropolis. A ‘zest for sin’, ‘wild, drunken anarchy’, threesomes at dawn.
‘Here lies Peter Warlock the composer Who lived next door to Munn the grocer He died of drink and copulation A sad discredit to the nation’ (autoepitaph). In December 1930, just over a week before Christmas, he was found unconscious in his Chelsea flat in Tite Street, dying later in hospital, from gas poisoning. Given ‘insufficient evidence on which to decide whether death was the result of suicide or accident,’ an open verdict was returned, reported in the press. From the witness box John Ireland believed he’d been ‘worried about his work as a composer. I think that he felt, as I suppose many composers do, that he had not yet received the recognition his work deserved.’ A young woman who preferred to remain anonymous, living at the time with Warlock (Barbara Peache), said ‘he had threatened to [take his life], but I thought it was just talk … He said he felt he was a failure … and that he could not go on. He said he seemed not to be able to do any more … He seemed to worry about things’ (Times, 23 December 1930).
‘Mr Philip Heseltine Composer and Song Writer,’ the Manchester Guardian obituary, contributed by Neville Cardus and Eric Blom, focussed both on composer and personality (18 December 1930). ‘Many of his songs will live for their sensibility to the words to which they are set. Without the aid of a superficial “Englishness” such as can be exploited by the use of folk-song idioms, Peter Warlock’s songs are definitely of this country. They take their English character from the music’s kinship with the rise and fall of the language. Warlock’s rhythms are born an identification of melody and rhythm with the verbal stresses, yet we never feel that the composer has slavishly followed the accents of verse; the fusion is entirely musical; the composer has recreated his poetic content in terms of his own art … Perhaps Warlock was too critically minded ever to write music of bigness: a composer cannot hope to burn a hot flame of inspiration if some part of his mind is withdrawn from the sphere of creative activity and is on the watch for faults of taste’ (NC). ‘He was a man from whom anything might be expected … His appearance—tall, fair-bearded, and rather overbearing—was that of an Elizabethan courtier or an Italian Renaissance prince rather than a twentieth Century musician. Unlike most of them, he was a connoisseur, a controversialist, an epicure, and a roisterer. It may be doubted whether there is anyone in Chelsea who can take part in a carousal as he could with an air and a style … Peter Warlock, the figure of fiction, was the man who wrote innumerable songs to Old English poetry, always chosen with unfailing taste. Philip Heseltine was responsible, one felt, for the smaller amount of music in a modern style’ (EB).
A man of prodigious musical and literary output, whose word settings have been compared with Purcell’s and Britten’s, and who stood in the tradition of Schubert, Fauré, Duparc, Wolf, Vaughan Williams and Quilter, Warlock was influenced by Delius, van Dieren, Bartók, the Tudors and Elizabethans, folk music and parlour song, his Celtic sympathies and travels through North Africa and Eastern Europe no doubt adding other dimensions. Reviewing his Memorial Concert at the Wigmore Hall, the Musical Times concluded (April 1931): ‘if [Warlock] was dissatisfied because he could not develop an extended musical argument, we for our part are content to have had him capable of exposing a thought briefly, lucidly, and gracefully’.
1) My little sweet darling (? 1918-19) Anon, late sixteenth Century. Inspired by William Byrd, to whom a setting of these words is attributed. In 1922 Warlock transcribed and edited this setting—‘from an early 16th Century set of viol part-books in the British Museum (Add MSS 17,786-91)’—including it in his seven Elizabethan Songs for voice and string quartet (published 1926). The present piano introduction comes from the quartet version. 2) Take, o take those lips away (2nd setting 1918) William Shakespeare (Measure for Measure Act IV sc I. 3) And wilt thou leave me thus? (1928) Sir Thomas Wyatt, The Appeal—An Earnest Suit to his Unkind Mistress, not to Forsake him. 4) Sleep (1922) John Fletcher, The Woman Hater. 5) The Droll Lover from Seven Songs of Summer (1928) Anon, seventeenth Century. 6) Mourn no more (1919) Fletcher, The Queen of Corinth. ‘In the autumn of 1927, Warlock arranged this song for voice and string quartet (unpublished), adding two bars of introduction—the original possessing none—and having second thoughts about the vocal line. 7) My Own Country from Three Belloc Songs (1927) Hilaire Belloc, The Four Men. A farrago. 8) My Gostly Fader (1918) Charles Duc d’Orléans. 9) The Frostbound Wood [Sacred Song] (1929) Bruce Blunt (1899-1957). This first appeared in the Christmas 1928 issue of Radio Times, replacing, at Warlock’s request, a four-part setting of a poem by Frank Kendon, The Rich Cavalcade, with which he was unhappy. 10) Bethlehem Down (1930 from the 1927 SATB original) Blunt. Warlock penned this solo version, his last-known work, for Arnold Dowbiggin, an amateur singer and close friend who’d championed his music in Lancaster. 11) The Night from Three Belloc Songs (1927).
For over half a century Michael (Stockwin) Howard (1922-2002) was one of Britain’s leading lights. As organist, conductor, composer, scholar and lecturer; and as No 2 to Deryck Cooke in the BBC’s Radio 3 Music Presentation Unit (from 1968). From an artistic/musical family, he attended the Royal Academy of Music, studying composition with William Alwyn and organ with George Dorrington Cunningham. He completed his training under Ralph Downes (Brompton Oratory) and Marcel Dupré (St Sulpice, Paris). His principal Anglican appointments were at Tewkesbury Abbey (1943, Organist) and Ely Cathedral (1953-58, Organist and Master of the Choristers). Pursuing a passion for early music and performance practice, he founded The Renaissance Society and Singers (1944-64) and, at the suggestion of Basil Lam, Cantores in Ecclesia (1964-86). The last thirty years of his life consolidated his roots and sympathies. Organist of St Marylebone Parish Church (1972); co-founder, with George Dushkin, of the Rye Spring Music Festival (1976); Organist to the Franciscans of Rye (1979); Rector Chori of St Michael’s Abbey, Farnborough (1984). ‘Here, as custodian of a magnificent Cavaillé-Coll organ, his series of 1989 [Herald] recordings of Widor, Vierne, Tournemire, Saint-Saëns and Franck, reveal him as an organ virtuoso at the height of his powers’ (K Shenton, Independent obituary, 17 January 2002). ‘Registrations, tempos, dynamics, phrasing are given meticulous attention … The real stamp of authenticity’ (Gramophone, June 1990). He also found time to write two volumes of memoirs, appropriately titled The Private Inferno (1974) and Thine Adversaries Roar (2001).
‘One of the defining choral conductors of his generation [playing] a significant role in the revival of Renaissance music in post-war Britain’ (Shenton). ‘Howard,’ Alistair Dixon elaborates, ‘developed a new system of choir training that concentrated on the production of pure, open “Italianate” vowels that were consistent from the bottom to the top notes … “Lips Tongue and Teeth” was his favourite aide memoire. Diction was perhaps his greatest preoccupation and his legacy of recordings demonstrates the extent to which he demanded that his singers project their consonants … Howard brought a new quality to Anglican church music. Cathedral organists had traditionally accompanied their choirs from the organ loft, leaving the singers to conduct themselves. Howard conducted the Ely choir whilst his assistant [Arthur Wills] played. Most cathedrals have now adopted this pattern and sixteenth Century music is now always to be found on the music lists’ (The Renaissance Society, January/June 2002).
Michael Howard never got a university degree. But his scholarship was formidable. At the BBC—where William Glock’s Music Division amounted to a creative, debating university forum, with the likes of Basil Lam, Hans Keller, Robert Simpson, Leo Black, Julian Budden and Robert Layton on the ‘faculty’—he flourished. In the nicotine/alcholol fumed Presentation Unit at Yalding House, where a 9-5 routine rarely applied, he carried his erudition quietly, crafting scripts accommodating independence of phrase within changing guidelines, and counseling younger colleagues (the present writer not least). He was British to the core. Publicly, in his dapper style and Queen’s English. Privately, in his Chelsonian/Bloomsburian disposition—his ‘Byronesque approach to the opposite sex’. At Ely it forced his resignation. At Yalding House it fragranced the hours. He married six times.
The Painted Rose (1951 rev 1973)
The first two songs draw on the goliard love and vagabond texts of the medieval Carmina Burana codex, discovered in the Abbey at Benedictbeuern in 1803. The third sets a text by Aurelius Prudentius Clemens (fourth/fifth Century), the last one by Peter Abelard (twelfth Century). ‘Here Abelard, whose love for Eloisa has been immortalized as a central and beautiful heterosexual love story, writes movingly of David and Jonathan’ (TT-B). First commercial recording.
‘I have composed out of sheer love of trying to make nice sounds.’ From Gloucestershire Herbert Howells (1892-1983) studied with Stanford, Charles Wood and Parry at the Royal College of Music. He caught public attention with his russified First Piano Concerto, premiered by Arthur Benjamin at the Queen’s Hall in 1914. He taught at the RCM for over fifty years (from 1920), succeeded Holst at St Paul’s Girls’ School (1936- 62), and in 1950 was appointed King Edward VII Professor of Music at the University of London. A retiring, kindly man, more at home in the cathedral close and university chapel than London, valuing the support and encouragement of Vaughan Williams, his very personal music was English without being folkloristic. ‘Inner echoes and half-tones’, ‘intricate but luminous counterpoint’, ‘veiled melancholy’ (Hugo Cole) … an ‘idea of paradise … far more than just languid’ (Edward Greenfield) … ‘Music of life and life’s transience’ (Christopher Palmer) convey something of the mood and nuance informing an exquisitely thought-out corpus of work. ‘The finest-grained of the Georgians’ (Hugh Ottoway).
1) Mrs MacQueen or the Lollie-Shop from Peacock Pie (1919) Walter de la Mare. 2) When the dew is falling from Songs for Low Voice Op 7 (1913) Fiona Macleod. This comes from a collection composed while Howells was a student at the RCM. For his text he turned to Macleod, the pen-name of the Scottish poet William Sharp (an associate of Rossetti and Yeats). Sharp was one of the Celtic Revivalists, a fraternity whose poems Howells admired but grew to have misgivings about setting. ‘Their work, as poetry, is on a high level,’ he wrote. ‘But the music of words is in it so evidently, so sonorously, so delicately, that the addition of music proper is in most cases wrong because it is superfluous. And such an imposition of one essentially musical expression on another which is itself already unmistakably musical leads to that sort of essence of beauty which, commendable enough as an oasis of beauty in a desert of ugliness, is out of place and unnecessary in modern British settings … It were less unhealthy to set blatant jingoism such as Land of Hope and Glory … than to steep our musical selves in the vague, slender, highly imaginative, and mystical poems of the Fiona Macleod type’ (The Athenaeum, December 1916). By 1919 he had disowned the Op 7 songs. Consigned to oblivion, their existence forgotten, they were only to re-surface in 1998. 3) Full Moon from Peacock Pie (1919) de la Mare.
Contrasting her peers, and predecessors (the Liz Lutyens generation), Betty Roe (born 1930), grew up in modest surroundings. Her father was a fishmonger in Shepherd’s Bush Market, her mother a book-keeper in the local butcher’s. Her early piano lessons, in the years leading up to the Second World War, were with one ‘Madam Dorina’. In 1942, despite her audition pieces (Ketelby) being judged unsuitable, she gained a Junior Exhibitionership to the Royal Academy of Music. At the RAM proper (from 1949), she studied piano with York Bowen, cello with Alison Dalrymple (Jaqueline du Pré’s first teacher), and singing under Jean McKenzie-Grieve. Later Lennox Berkeley gave her some composition lessons. From 1968 to ‘78 she was Director of Music at LAMDA, the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. Her website interestingly reflects the way she sees herself: ‘Musician, Composer, Performer, Teacher, Adjudicator’. A jobbing professional skilled at anything from playing the organ and directing choirs to session singing and working with Cliff Richard and Cilla Black. Church hall to intimate review to Top of the Pops. Pantomime to showsong, opera to ballet. Songs from the Betty Roe Shows (the school stage) to Noble Numbers (the concert room). ‘I recognise myself as a miniaturist,’ she writes, ‘and have been described as a natural word-setter … My composing life started by accident, around the people I was singing and playing with at the time. I loved the music of Peter Warlock, Benjamin Britten, Bach, Monteverdi, Purcell, Quilter, and eventually recognised my love for English music, particularly of the twentieth Century. I don’t enjoy big music—I find large-scale orchestral works overwhelming and frightening to my ears, so it is unlikely that I will ever compose a symphony. Strangely enough, I do like jazz and the big-band sound … I do not like vibrato in voices; well, just enough to keep them interesting, but not so much that I cannot define the actual pitch of the note … I aim to entertain’ (October 2008). A Londoner all her life, she lives today next-door but one to the house where she was born: in North Kensington near Ladbroke Grove.
Noble Numbers (published 1972) Robert Herrick.
‘Pious pieces’ from ‘the greatest song-writer … ever born of English race’ (Swinburne), each set for a different counter-tenor: 1) David Ross (To his Saviour, A Child; A Present by a child). 2) James Bowman (To God: an Anthem, sung in the Chappell at White-hall, before the King). 3) Paul Esswood (To God). 4) Ian Hunter (To his angrie God). 5) Owen Wynne (To his sweet Saviour).
Ateş Orga © 2009
Whilst Roe and Howard wrote specifically with the counter-tenor voice in mind, Warlock and Howells did not, yet their referential approach to ‘old style’ music hopefully gives some credence to their music’s translation to the ethereal yet very human qualities of the counter-tenor voice.
I have felt an affinity with the purity and elegance of Howells music since first encountering it as a cathedral chorister—his music is, for me, a personal evocation of a bygone era. When I first performed the ‘Noble Numbers’ I was charmed by the innocence and honesty of the textual and musical settings, and it is a pleasure to include them here. On first hearing the songs of Peter Warlock I was excited by the wealth of colour I heard in the music. His easy juxtaposition of jazz elements with a Tudor-style Consort idiom is unique. Jeremy Filsell introduced me to the music of Michael Howard, and I was immediately struck by the songs profound intimacy, and the compelling manner in which the piano weaves and floats around the unusually low vocal tessitura.
I would especially like to thank Jeremy who, with his own pianistic sensitivity and brilliance, has brought these songs to life. I also wish to thank Betty Roe and the late Michael Howard for permission to record their songs. I would like to extend my gratitude to Nigel Short, Steven, Alison and Henry for their advice, Andrew and Adrian for their skills as engineer, producer and editor, and to my father for all his patience and support.
Tim Travers-Brown © 2009