Centred around Vaughan Williams' Songs of Travel, this collection of English song brings together three now influential figures in the world of British music—Vaughan Williams, his contemporary (in age rather than compositional approach) Roger Quilter, and the younger Gerald Finzi (whose work Let us Garlands Bring was composed to mark Vaughan Williams' 70th birthday). The texts used are drawn from a variety of source: from traditional 'Dorset' songs, through settings of Shakespere, to the central song-cycle of poetry by Robert Louis Stevenson.
Baritone David John Pike has a widely varied repertoire covering early music, oratorio, symphonic, opera and commissioned works. In his native Canada, in the UK and across Europe, he has worked with leading ensembles including Glyndebourne Festival Opera, Academy of St. Martin-in-the-Fields, London Philharmonic and the Schweizerkammerchor under the direction of Christophers, Dutoit, Jurowski, Marriner, Mehta, Rattle and Zinman. He now has a growing reputation as an operatic and concert soloist.
When Fernand Weides, Director of Luxembourg’s radio 100,7, invited me to record a song cycle, we had in mind one of the masterpieces by Schubert or Schumann that are treasured in the German-speaking world and beyond. On reflection however, and as a Canadian-British baritone in my adopted Luxembourg, I was drawn to put our own mark on repertoire that is well known in English-speaking parts of the world but performed less frequently elsewhere. What better place to start than with Ralph Vaughan Williams whose works paved the road from the previous English parlour song tradition to a mature art song culture.
Vaughan Williams’ works, from hymns to his grand symphonies and of course, the songs which we have chosen for this recording, distill the British countryside into a quintessential, luxuriant and nostalgic musical form. His Songs of Travel, which have found their permanent place in the English songbook, and which are even referred to by some as the British Winterreise, were an obvious point of departure for us. The songs are settings from Robert Louis Stevenson’s collection of poems by the same name, recounting the literal and allegorical experience of the vagabond’s adventures, trials, disappointments, joys and resolve. They therefore easily evoke reflections of our own lives.
Key to Stevenson’s life journey was his rejectionof the rather sensible option of completing his engineering studies at Edinburgh University and taking up the family lighthouse building business (the cover of this booklet shows Rattray Head, built by Robert Louis’ cousin, David Alan Stevenson in 1895). Instead, he began his extraordinary life of letters, and travel took him well beyond the coast of Scotland on an astonishingly adventurous, bohemian and artistically-inspiring odyssey. He first sought broader horizons in continental Europe, most famously by canoe (An Inland Voyage, 1878) and donkey (Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes, 1879) through France and Belgium, where he was to meet his future American wife and step children. It was to join his new found family that he started a westward path first to New York, then to San Francisco. Ultimately, and quite remarkably, he ventured further to Samoa, where he was to spend the rest of his life, revered by the islands’ natives. His Songs of Travel, a collection of poems written over his eclectic lifetime, evoke sentimental memories of things very Scottish therefore, but also need to be heard in the enigmatic context of the South Pacific, with its own infinite shining heavens, and where Stevenson likely pondered some regrets, but also the satisfaction of having found his new home. Stevenson’s life story resonates with me, having myself taken up a musical vocation after following a more conventional path, and, after having left the familiarities of my origins, found comfort and satisfaction as a foreigner amongst warmly welcoming natives in my newly adopted homeland.
Vaughan Williams’ Five Mystical Songs are settings of poems from George Herbert’s celebrated collection The Temple. The five songs are normally performed by baritone, choir and orchestra; however, for this recording, we have selected three which are well suitedto piano and solo voice. I got me Flowers and The Call are superb examples of Vaughan Williams’ ability to elaborate simple tunes, plainsong and hymns into moving messages of faith and mysticism. Herbert himself wrote that music was ‘not a science only, but a divine voice’, a view that Vaughan Williams and many of us share. ‘Love bade me welcome’, through its rhapsodic mystical romanticism, demonstrates that transcendence and conveys the essence of the Christian message like few other works.
Gerald Finzi’s Let us garlands bring is an obvious accompaniment to the Vaughan Williams songs, not least because Finzi dedicated them to his great mentor on the occasion of his 70th birthday. This year marks the 70th anniversary of that dedication at the National Gallery. In war-torn London, the tolling bells of ‘Come away death’ and the equally sombre and elegiac but accepting ‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’ must have been particularly moving for that first audience. The remaining songs offer manic contrast with ‘It was a lover and his lass’ presenting a frivolous, if slightly naughty tonic of optimism to end the cycle. Quilter’s Three Shakespeare Songs include lighter interpretations of Come away, Death and ‘O Mistress mine’ which have also become favorites of the English songbook.
To round out our programme we come back to Vaughan Williams, starting with ‘Silent Noon’, taken from his House of Life cycle by Rosetti. This song transports me to the English countryside in June, high on the downs overlooking the shires, poppies nodding in fresh corn fields, slumbering with my girl. A more luxuriant evocation of the English countryside is hard to imagine. The ever popular Linden Lea and more jovial Blackmwore by the Stour are Dorset songs, although contrivances, inasmuch as they were the product of two gentleman scholars at Cambridge. They anticipate the nostalgic themes of homeward journeys in the Songs of Travel, and are early examples of Vaughan Williams’ fascination with and eventual invaluable efforts to preserve the English folk tradition.
Vaughan Williams, Quilter and Finzi
By Hugh Cobbe, OBE
Ralph Vaughan Williams and Roger Quilter were born five years apart, in 1872 and 1877 respectively, and died five years apart, in 1958 and 1953. They were thus contemporaries. However, though they knew each other and occasionally corresponded, they were not close friends. They both had similar well-to-do family backgrounds, the one deriving money through his mother from the well-established Wedgwood china business, the other from stockbroking in the City of London, but as composers they were very different. Quilter went in 1896 to study at the Conservatory at Frankfurt and thereafter became known as a composer of songs. His group of Three Shakespeare Songs were written early in his career in 1905. Vaughan Williams on the other hand went to the Royal College of Music in London for a year and then to Cambridge University to study History before returning for a final two years at the Royal College of Music to study composition under Charles Stanford. A bond between them was their friendship with the singer Gervase Elwes who had taken Quilter under his wing, and for whom Vaughan Williams wrote his cycle On Wenlock Edge. A warm letter of condolence from Vaughan Williams to Quilter on the death of Elwes survives in the British Library. Perhaps a key difference between the two composers was the extent to which Vaughan Williams became imbued with the spirit of English folksong whereas Quilter’s roots lay closer to the mainstream German artsong.
Once he left college, Vaughan Williams spent time in Berlin studying with Max Bruch in 1897-98 and on his return set about establishing himself as a composer. Apart from the Five Mystical Songs which were written in 1911, the songs on this disc were written in the period 1901-1904 when he was gradually finding his individual voice. Songs by new English composers were eagerly welcomed by the major singers of the day who wanted a respite from Edwardian drawing room ballads. Moreover, encouraged by Stanford, the newer composers developed their compositional techniques to pay particular attention to the rhythm and stresses of the English language, very different from the flow of French or German. A new periodical, The Vocalist, published Linden Lea, Blackmwore by the Stour and Whither must I wander? (later incorporated into Songs of Travel) in its first three issues. Linden Lea was thus Vaughan Williams’ first published work and indeed has remained one of his most popular pieces ever since. Settings of William Barnes were followed by settings of Dante Gabriel Rossetti, including a cycle entitled The House of Life, which included Silent Noon, and a cantata Willow Wood. His attention then moved on to the poetry of Robert Louis Stevenson and the cycle Songs of Travel quickly established itself as a major work in the vocal repertoire. Vaughan Williams’ nextinspiration was Walt Whitman, whose words he set in Toward the Unknown Region for chorus and orchestra (1907), and then the work which put Vaughan Williams’ name firmly on the English musical map, A Sea Symphony of 1909.
Vaughan Williams was a fairly young composer with two symphonies to his name when the First World War started. When it finished he had become one of the senior British composers, though looking back over his life we can now see how far he was a late developer, for the greater part of his career still lay before him. So it was that the 22-year old Gerald Finzi in 1923 introduced himself to Vaughan Williams, now a major figure in English music. There was a quick rapport between the two and a firm friendship grew. The younger man would seek the opinion of the older on his new compositions and indeed, after the death of Vaughan Williams’ close friend Gustav Holst in 1934, Vaughan Williams, in his turn, included Finzi in the circle of friends on whom he tried out his major new compositions. Lt was therefore natural that Finzi wanted to mark his friend’s 70th birthday by dedicating a new work to him, his cycle of Shakespeare songs Let us garlands bring. Finzi wrote to the composer’s first wife Adeline telling her of his intention which she warmly welcomed, though she requested the omission of any reference to her husband’s age in the dedication which reads ‘For Ralph Vaughan Williams on his birthday, Oct 12th 1942.’ The cycle includes one of Finzi’s best loved settings, ‘Fear no more the heat to the sun’, and was first performed at a lunchtime concert at the National Gallery on Vaughan Williams’ actual birthday by Robert lrwin accompanied by Howard Ferguson.
lt was only a few days later, on 24th October, that Vaughan Williams wrote to Roger Quilter thanking him for birthday good wishes and saying ‘I value it very much when my fellow craftsmen wish me well—because you know how things are done & must so often be amazed at my want of “metier”. In that in spite of this you find something to praise in my works gives me great pleasure—especially from one like you who have the whole craftsmanship of your exquisite art at your fingers’ ends.’ lt was a great loss to Vaughan Williams and his second wife, Ursula, when Finzi died prematurely in 1956. In their turn they visited his widow, Joy, at Ashmansworth just a few days before Vaughan Williams himself died on 26th August 1958.
G Pike © 2012