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Iain Burnside and Ailish Tynan return to Signum with their second disc of Irish Songs and arrangements—this time from a range of different twentieth Century composers. Although all of the sung texts stem from Irelands rich heritage of literature (including poems from W.B. Yeats, Thomas Moore and James Joyce), the composers featured here have a more transatlantic feel, with works by John Cage and Samuel Barber programmed alongside others by Benjamin Britten and Herbert Hughes.
This disc continues Burnside’s series of recital discs with Signum—in particular his 2007 disc with Ailish Tynan of Irish songs by Herbert Hughes A Purse of Gold.
Earlier in the nineteenth century, antiquarians Edward Bunting and George Petrie had begun to gather and publish collections of Irish Airs. During this time Thomas Moore also published his collections of Irish Melodies, in which he provided words to be sung to many Irish Airs which had lost their original Gaelic texts. However, in spite of this musical activity it seems to be the literary movement that lead to the emergence of a distinctly Celtic impulse.
One of the founder members of the 1882 National Literary Society was the poet William Butler Yeats, who in 1898, alongside Lady Gregory and Edward Martyn, founded the Irish Literary Theatre, for which Yeats wrote a series of plays based upon Irish mythology, notably around the legendary hero, Cuchulain.
Ireland was not alone in its renaissance, similar revivals were taking place in England also, with the rediscovery of Elizabethan and Tudor literature, drama and music, and a great deal of activity in the collecting of folksong. As in Ireland, this brought a generation of writers and composers who sought to create a purely English identity in the arts, notably breaking away from the dominant Teutonicism in music. However, during the process the Celtic revivalism of the Irish seeped eastwards over the Welsh Marches and into the minds of the English. This happened to such an extent that it is notable that on this album only two of the composers and arrangers represented are in fact Irish: Hamilton Harty and Herbert Hughes, who were born in what in 1921 became Northern Ireland. The remainder are English and American.
Some of this might, at least in part, be due to the work of the Dublin born composer Sir Charles Stanford, whose greatest contribution to music was in the nurturing of so many composers in his teaching at London’s Royal College of Music. Arthur Benjamin recalled his first lesson with Stanford in 1911: ‘Hardly was I inside the room when Stanford pointed a finger at me and said: “And what d’ye think of Home Rule, me bhoy”’. Benjamin, fresh from Australia, knew nothing of it and found himself being admonished: ‘Well, go home and learn about it, and ye’ll be a better composer’. This encouragement, such as it was, wasn’t perhaps practised as deeply as might be by Stanford himself. Whilst he set numerous Irish poets and provided accompaniments for many Irish folksongs, notably producing an edition of Moore’s Irish Melodies in 1895, Arnold Bax accused him of ‘never penetrat[ing] to within a thousand miles of the Hidden Ireland’. His were domestic pieces, in thrall to the German tradition, which didn’t touch upon the mysticism found in the poetry by those English composers on the Celtic fringe.
Christopher Palmer has attempted to define this deeper Celticism, writing that ‘what lies at the root of Celtic mysticism and wonder is the sense of a great loss. [To those] possessed of the Celtic spirit, the material universe appears a symbol of a lost kingdom; and art is an incantation which can restore to a certain extent that which has been lost’. The restoration of national folklore and, musically, folksong, are therefore key elements of that spirit and a basis for the symbolism they wrought.
Rather than merely introducing this mysticism into their work, as many composers did, a few composers became thoroughly engrossed in this world. In his obituary of E.J. (‘Jack’) Moeran, Arnold Bax observes that ‘During his first thirty years he was an Englishman and a diligent collector of East Anglian folk tunes, whilst for the remainder of his days he was almost exclusively Irish’. The son of an Irish priest serving in Norfolk at the time of Moeran’s birth, during the last two decades of his life Jack returned to Ireland regularly, seeking musical inspiration and solace in Kenmare and its surrounding landscape, where he had been accepted as a native by the local people. Moeran observed that he found much similarity between the Norfolk folksong he collected in the first half of his life and that he later collected in County Kerry, the two counties being connected through the Yarmouth fishermen who fished Irish waters and went ashore in poor weather. The three arrangements by Moeran, The roving dingle boy, The tinker’s daughter and the haunting setting of The lost lover, are taken from a set of seven Songs from County Kerry. They were arranged towards the end of his life, whilst staying with a tinker family in County Kerry, although he had collected them over a number of years from around that county.
Moeran’s Symphony in G (1924-37) is seen by some as a work that bridges his Anglo-Irish transition, spiritually. The writing of this work was encouraged by Hamilton Harty, to whom it is dedicated. Harty is represented here with The stranger’s grave, a setting of a poem by Emily Lawless that commemorates a drowned man buried with three unbaptised babies on Inishmaan—one of the Aran Islands off the coast of Galway that also inspired the work of playwright J.M. Synge.
Bax would have seen himself in his description of Moeran, for he too found his spiritual home in Ireland, travelling extensively in the country and returning there annually during his last thirty years. Bax even adopted an Irish pseudonym under which he wrote poetry: Dermot O’Byrne. The 1910 song To Eire echoes his longing for Ireland, the text also drawing on much that makes up the Celtic fascination.
Benjamin Britten made numerous folksong arrangements, many of which were written for inclusion in recitals given with Peter Pears. However, Britten’s approach to the songs is far from the simple, modal approach adopted by some arrangers. He breathes an extraordinary life into the songs with often economical, highly characterful accompaniments that provide a striking canvas against which the song is somehow cast into sharper relief than might be with a plainer setting. His fourth published volume of arrangements is dedicated to songs from Moore’s Irish Melodies; from the well known Last rose of summer, its unsettling accompaniment heightening its evocation of loneliness, to the bell-like tones of At the mid hour of night and the purposefulness of Avenging and bright, clamouring for vengeance.
Given Yeats’s centrality to the Irish cultural renaissance, it is perhaps unsurprising that his poetry has drawn many English composers, notably in a work that epitomises the English assimilation of the Celtic: Peter Warlock’s The Curlew. His words frame this recording, in Thomas Dunhill’s setting of The cloths of heaven and Britten’s arrangement of what was originally titled by Yeats, ‘An Old Song Re-sung’, when first published: Down by the Salley Gardens. Yeats noted that the poem was an ‘attempt to reconstruct an old song from three lines imperfectly remembered by an old peasant woman in the village of Ballysodare, Sligo, who often sings them to herself’. Those few lines are now known to come from an Anglo-Irish Ballad, The rambling boys of pleasure. However, Yeats’s poem has in itself become established as a folksong, paired with the Ulster air The Maids of Mourne Shore.
This pairing of words and music was first made by Herbert Hughes, as published in his first volume of Irish Country Songs in 1909. Hughes was an important figure in Irish folksong, and was one of the founder members of the Irish Folksong Society in 1904. He claimed that Irish folk music had ‘more variety of mood than can be found in any other in Europe’. Hughes collected hundreds of melodies and published numerous folksong arrangements, his sympathy for which is exemplified in the lively and impatient Marry me now.
One of the successors to the Irish Literary Revival was James Joyce, who has become one of the most important figures in modernist avant-garde literature. Born in the same year as Herbert Hughes, the two became firm friends; a friendship perhaps cemented in music. For a time Joyce performed as a solo tenor, notably performing Hughes’s arrangement of ,<>Down by the Salley Gardens in 1904, and is known to have admired Hughes’s Cradle Song (‘Oh men from the Fields’), from the 1913 set of Songs of Connacht to words by Padraic Colum. Bid Adieu is based on a poem from Joyce’s Chamber Music (1907), also with an air by Joyce, for which American composer Edmund Pendleton provided the accompaniment; a song that with a tender eroticism marks the transition into womanhood. Frank Bridge’s selection from Chamber Music, Goldenhair, drew from him a wonderfully fluid and uncomplicated setting, composed in 1925.
In 1922 the publication of Ulysses brought Joyce both fame and notoriety, the book being banned in America for a decade. Hoping to help Joyce’s cause, in 1929 Herbert Hughes and Arthur Bliss decided to convene a musical tribute to Joyce: a set of songs based on Joyce’s Pomes Penyeach (1927), each poem taken by a different composer: The Joyce Book (1932). Herbert Howells’s setting, Flood, supplies the poem with a brooding modal torrent; and that set by C.W. Orr takes its name from the famous street in Leipzig, Bahnhofstrasse, where Joyce spent some of his self-imposed exile from Ireland, and where he was to die in 1941.
Samuel Barber had come to the poetry of Yeats and Joyce whilst exploring his own ancestry, being an American of Scots and Irish origin. In 1952 he fulfilled a dream to visit to Ireland, visiting Yeats’s grave in the shadow of Ben Bulben, only to find it surrounded by the graves of numerous Barbers—perhaps his own ancestors. Shortly afterwards he started work on a set of ten Hermit Songs: settings of medieval Irish poems that had been written as annotations in the margins of manuscripts that were being illuminated or copied by scholars or monks, finding the poems ‘direct, unspoiled and often curiously contemporaneous in feeling’. The two heard here, St Ita’s Vision and The desire for hermitage, present us with an ecstatic vision of the nursing of the Christ child, attributed to St. Ita, and an intense longing for solitude to prepare for death, which journey must be undertaken alone.
Barber’s setting of Joyce’s Solitary hotel, from his late cycle Despite and still, is a rather tongue-in-cheek affair, and a total contrast to the most recent work on the disc, by fellow American John Cage. For The wonderful widow of eighteen springs Cage selected lines from a section of Joyce’s experimental Finnegans Wake and set them for voice, using just three pitches, and closed piano. The limited tonal range gives the melody a chant-like feel, which combines with the accompaniment of tapping and knocking on the closed piano lid to create an extraordinarily haunting work.
Philip Lancaster © 2011