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Folk Music of the British Isles
Armonico Consort, Christopher Monks (conductor) Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: June 2013
St Mark's Church, Leamington Spa, United Kingdom
Produced by Christopher Monks & John Taylor
Engineered by John Taylor
Release date: April 2016
Total duration: 52 minutes 10 seconds

A celebration of music spanning the length and breadth of the British Isles, featuring mesmerising new arrangements of some of the most beautiful tunes ever written.


'Best are solo contributions from soprano Eloise Irving and tenor Matthew Vine, who take the lead in the exquisite opener, Lisa Lan' (Gramophone)

'The best is Holst's version of 'I Love My Love', which develops from simplicity gradually into more elaboration that works' (Early Music Review)

'This is a disc which works because the singers combine fine musical quality with a sympathy and enthusiasm for their material, giving us a delightfully evocative 50 minutes' (Planet Hugill)

Lisa lân (Fair Lisa) is a Welsh folk-song, a lover’s lament for his dead Lisa, finally expressing his wish to be reunited with her in the after-life. Variants of the tune have been collected in Anglesey, some of them revealing a similarity to the Irish melody Charley Reilly. The haunting melody of Lisa lân is used recurrently throughout Paul Haggis’s 2004 film Crash. The arranger of the version recorded here, Dr Geoffrey Webber, has been Precentor and Director of Music Studies at Gonville and Caius College Cambridge since 1989. He has also published monographs on aspects of 17th-century music.

The blue bird by Charles Villiers Stanford (1854-1924), with words by Mary E Coleridge (1861-1907—novelist, poet and great-grandniece of the famous Coleridge), is his most celebrated part-song. Marked Larghetto tranquillo, this gem is the third of 8 Part-Songs, Opus 119, all settings of texts by Mary Coleridge, who during her lifetime was much better known as a novelist. Highly regarded by a minority including some distinguished figures, her poetry is fresh and direct. Stanford’s admiration of her work was not shared by many of his contemporaries, though Frank Bridge and Hubert Parry are among the exceptions.

In the Irish folk-song The banks of my own lovely Lee a man fondly reflects on his childhood and the beauty of his native land. The River Lee flows through Cork and the song is known as the anthem of the 'Rebel County' of Cork. Though this nickname originated in the 15th century, it is most often associated with the prominent role which County Cork played in the Irish War of Independence (1919-1921). Dr Geoffrey Webber arranged this folk-song (as well as the five other arrangements included on this disc) to be performed by the Caius Choir at College Feasts, following in the tradition of his three predecessors—Charles Wood, Patrick Hadley and Peter Tranchell.

She moved thro' the fair is another Irish folk-song, though the melody has been traced in both Scotland and Ireland. The poet Padraic Colum and musicologist Herbert Hughes first collected scraps of it in County Donegal. Some verses were added by Colum and in this form it was published in 1909. Recorded here is a 5-part arrangement by Toby Young (born 1990, studied composition with Robin Holloway at Cambridge) which enhances its haunting character. Dating from 2013, it was premiered by Armonico Consort under Christopher Monks.

Lay a garland by Robert Pearsall (1795-1856) is an 8-part setting of a text from The Maid’s Tragedy—attributed to Francis Beaumont, but probably one of the many collaborations between Beaumont and John Fletcher. Born in Bristol into a Quaker family, Pearsall was an amateur, probably self-taught composer most of whose works were published posthumously. He wrote many madrigals and part-songs for the Bristol Madrigal Society, including Lay a garland, in which he employs suspension to poignant effect. In The Maid’s Tragedy Aspasia learns that her betrothed has been coerced into marrying the king’s mistress.

Sweet Kitty is the fifth work from the first series of Folk-songs from Somerset, an extensive collection by Cecil Sharp and Charles L Marson published in 1905. Searching for folk-songs, Sharp had spent the end of the summer holidays of 1903 in the village of Hambridge, Somerset. Marson offered little encouragement: 'The folk-song is like the duck-billed platypus … you can live for years within a few yards of it and never suspect its existence.' Eight years in Hambridge had left him 'in Stygian ignorance of the wealth of art which that village contained'. As Maud Kerpeles wrote in Cecil Sharp: His Life and Work: 'The utmost tact and patience were needed to extract the songs from the recesses of the singers’ memories and to overcome their shyness. ‘Forty years agone’, said one, ‘I’d a-zung ‘un out o’ sight.’ ‘When you come to me all at once I can’t come at it', said another and the only way was to leave him ‘to bide and stud’.' Sweet Kitty (also set by Imogen Holst among others) is a cautionary tale with the refrain 'Sing fol the diddle dero', etc.

Suo gân is a Welsh lullaby (the title simply means 'lullaby') which first appeared in print around 1800. The Welsh poet/musician Robert Bryan copied it from an old manuscript owned by Orig Williams of Llanberis at the foot of Snowdon and, adding some of his own words, published it in 1905. The melody features prominently in Spielberg’s 1987 film Empire of the Sun. Toby Young’s arrangement of Suo gân (2013) was premiered by Armonico Consort.

The arrangement by Holst (1874-1934) of the Cornish folk-song I love my love was composed in 1916 (shortly after the completion of The Planets) as the fifth of Six Choral Folk-Songs, Opus 36b. The folk-song itself was discovered by George Barnet Gardiner around 1904. The song tells of a maiden incarcerated in an asylum, mentally unbalanced after her beloved’s parents have banished their son to a life at sea. Holst’s arrangement is both dramatic and sensitive, with a successive più mosso, con passione and Vivace for the climax of the fourth verse.

Dadl dau (arranged here by Geoffrey Webber) is one of the most popular of Welsh folk-songs. Its earliest form in Wales was a melody called Fflanti Too, written down in abbreviated violin notation by John Thomas in 1752. When this was transcribed into traditional musical notation its relationship with Dadl Dau (Flaunting two) became clear. However, the tune appears in The Beggar’s Opera (1727) as The sun had loos’d his weary teams and only subsequently was it claimed as a Welsh tune. Yet it was popular in England even before The Beggar’s Opera and in Devon and Somerset about a century ago it was popular as The hemp-dresser or The London gentlewoman.

One of the most loved of Renaissance madrigals, Now is the month of maying by Thomas Morley (1557/8-1602) was published in 1595 as the third work of Balletts to Five Voyces, Book 1. A ballett is a dance-like part-song akin to a madrigal, often with fa-la-la chorus. This irresistibly joyful piece, modelled on Orazio Vecchi’s So be mi ch’a bon tempo (pub 1590), is an essential part of Oxford’s May Morning celebrations, sung by Magdalen College Choir from the roof of the Great Tower.

An rosen wyn (The white rose) is a popular Cornish folk-song of relatively narrow compass (a minor 7th). Apparently the song was first recorded by Peter Kennedy in Boscastle as late as 1975, from the singing of Charlie Jose. It has been suggested that the tune may have originated in America only to be, along with other songs, modified and adopted into the Cornish repertoire.

Greensleeves, in common with many folk-songs, has a fascinating history. Twice mentioned by Mistress Ford and once by Falstaff (The merry wives of Windsor, c1602), the tune must have been well-known at that time. William Ballet’s Lute Book of about 1580 seems to be the earliest known source. The suggestion that Henry VIII may have composed it for Anne Boleyn is easily discredited as the style has been shown to be based on an Italian model which was not adopted in England until after Henry’s death.

The Scottish folk-song Loch Lomond (or The bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond) was first published in 1841 in Vocal Melodies of Scotland. According to Scottish tradition, the words imply that when a Scotsman dies his soul travels to Scotland before passing on to the next world. Thus the high road pertains to the living and the low road to the dead. However, the original lyrics amounted to a Jacobean lament after the Battle of Culloden. According to one of the many interpretations based on this specific historical context, Loch Lomond is sung by the lover of a captured Jacobite rebel who is to be executed in London after a show trial. The executed rebels’ heads would be stuck on pikes and displayed at major towns along the main road (or 'high road') between London and Edinburgh, while relatives would walk back along the low road used by commoners.

O love, ‘tis a calm starry night is a folk-song of probable Irish origin. A footnote to the 1897 publication Irish folk-songs by Alfred Perceval Graves states: 'The words of this song are an adaptation of an old ballad supplied to us, with the air, by Dr P W Joyce from his unpublished collection of Irish music.' This Graves version is mentioned in Norman Cazden’s Folksongs of the Catskills in connection with a version of The little cabin-boy but the original folk-song itself was never found in the Catskills. The arrangement recorded here is one of many specially written for the Caius Choir by Patrick Hadley (1899-1973). Born in Cambridge, Hadley became a close friend of Vaughan Williams but never shared his missionary-like zeal for folk-song, although a subtle folk influence may be felt in his music. When he retired he planned to extend his interest in folk-music collection, but serious illness restricted his activities. Among his varied output the symphonic ballad The trees so high and the cantatas The hills and Fen and flood are widely admired.

The wraggle taggle gypsies, O! (arranged by Geoffrey Webber) appears in the same Cecil Sharp collection of Folk-songs from Somerset (No 9 in the First Series), yet is believed to have originated as a Scottish border ballad before spreading all across Great Britain and even to North America. In 1890 it was translated into Anglo-Romany by the Gypsy Lore Society. It tells of a woman who abandons her life of luxury to run away with a band of gypsies.

Phillip Borg-Wheeler © 2016

In its very early days, the singers of Armonico Consort travelled the length and breadth of the UK performing small scale programmes for Festivals and Music Clubs—it was during the second half of these concerts (Glory of Old England, Magic of Madrid, There’s Something about Mary etc) that we developed our love for singing arrangements of folk songs from the British Isles. The audience reactions have always been so striking, and when asked why we have not developed a programme of folk music in its own strength, we have never had a good answer.

I first began my fascination with folk melody whilst a music scholar at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge where the choir would often sing arrangements to entertain the hoards of inebriated dons after feasts. These arrangements—often brilliant, eye opening, and sometimes little gems of genius—were written by my director of studies, Dr Geoffrey Webber. Quite simply, he took on the work of Vaughan Williams and gave it a new harmonic language inspired by music from the late 20th century.

Shortly after this introduction, I studied nationalism in music with Robin Holloway, an eminent composer. Robin encouraged us to understand how deeply rooted in other countries was their folk music heritage. From this heritage, music from countries such as Russia and Czechoslovakia have an easily identifiable colour, emotion and musical language. Countries across the globe, from Germany to Italy, and Spain to France all had their own language. Following the death of Purcell, this was not the case with music from the UK, that is not until Vaughan Williams and Elgar began their work.

Vaughan Williams was the first British composer who reinvented our national musical language, very simply by bringing back to life what we already had—melodies that had existed for centuries. Folk music. By harmonising it with gorgeous and imaginative means and putting it into instrumental textures others would not have thought of, slowly, the UK regained a position in the world as having truly identifiable and individual characteristics, which have only been influenced by itself.

In short, folk music from the British Isles is incredible, and in the programme Greensleeves, we take a selection from almost every region—some traditional arrangements by Vaughan Williams and Holst, some arrangements by Geoffrey Webber (as mentioned above) and others which are brand new—commissioned by Armonico Consort from Toby Young, aiming to continue from where Geoffrey left off.

The beauty of this programme is its simplicity. The one arrangement which triggered my love for the genre? Lisa lân.

Christopher Monks © 2016

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