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The last rose of summer

The Queen's Six Detailed performer information
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: September 2016
Ascot Priory, Berkshire, United Kingdom
Produced by Matthew Bennett
Engineered by Dave Rowell
Release date: September 2019
Total duration: 72 minutes 50 seconds

The Queen's Six—select members of the choir at St George's Chapel within Windsor Castle—prove to be as at home in the rich seam of folksong arrangement as they are when despatching royalty down the aisle …

On 4 December 1903, Ralph Vaughan Williams was a slightly reluctant attendee of a tea-party given by the vicar of Ingrave, Essex, where he hoped to meet a few villagers who might know some songs. What occurred was little short of a Damascene conversion: Charles Potiphar, a 70-year-old shepherd and labourer, sang the haunting Aeolian melody of Bushes and briars, with the casual remark, ‘If you can get the words, the Almighty will send you the tune.’ Vaughan Williams noted only the first verse, later completing the text from a broadside; yet so profound was the encounter that he felt the melody was something he had known all his life. Following further collecting in East Anglia, the contours of these new discoveries immediately influenced his symphonic impression In the Fen Country of 1904, and remained an integral part of his musical language.

There were, of course, others who respected Vaughan Williams’ approach, while also viewing folk music as a rather tiresome straitjacket on the development of a full national style of composition: hence the oft-quoted aphorism by his pupil Constant Lambert that there was little left to do after playing a folksong other than playing it again louder. However, Lambert also acknowledged that ‘the best examples represent in embryo, as it were, the balance between emotional and formal content that has been struck by the greatest symphonists.’ Consequently—and especially since current educational policies have greatly impoverished the nation’s musical knowledge—the early specialists deserve unstinting praise, especially Cecil Sharp, who secured nearly 5000 tunes for posterity.

Both Vaughan Williams and Percy Grainger recognised the practical challenges of collecting, particularly the difficulties of preserving the spontaneous inflections and adaptions inherent in an oral tradition, as well as the restrictions of standard notation in recording them. They therefore employed a phonograph to capture singers in full flight, and this technology became particularly essential for Grainger, whose scholarly punctiliousness in detailing his methodology was exemplary: 216 wax cylinders remain as testament to his initial pursuits in Lincolnshire in 1906 and 1908. Grainger took down Brigg fair in Brigg itself on 11 April 1905 from Joseph Taylor, a farm bailiff from Saxby All Saints, who was brought to London three years later at the age of 75 to make the seminal recording for the Gramophone Company. His light tenor voice and flexible rendition inspired Grainger’s five-part arrangement of January 1906, first performed in Brigg a few months later with Gervase Elwes as soloist; although the composer had been obliged to purloin three verses from other sources, as Taylor and his colleague knew only the first two stanzas. Delius quickly obtained Grainger’s permission to use the melody himself, dedicating his titular orchestral rhapsody to him in 1907. In May of that same year, Vaughan Williams recorded David Penfold, landlord of The Plough Inn at Rusper, Sussex, singing The turtle dove. The tune of heart-melting loveliness amply matches the lover’s passionate declarations of constancy, words that are related to Burns’ verses from 1794, My love is like a red, red rose. This is itself based on an earlier text from obscure sources and was formerly sung to at least two other airs, but is now firmly associated with Low down in the broom: its earliest recording was made in Glasgow in 1899, sung by Robert Black.

The wraggle taggle gypsies, O!, one of the most prevalent Border ballads, appears under many titles, including Black Jack Davy; the protagonists are variously wraggle-taggle, draggletail, or simply jolly all in a row. Sharp collected versions at the turn of the century from Devon, Somerset and Oxfordshire, while Vaughan Williams recorded it in Herefordshire, but it had already been noted by Burns almost 100 years earlier. Daniel Brittain’s atmospheric retelling of the ballad treats it almost cinematically, employing many felicities of scoring to drive the action. The romance of Annie Laurie did in fact make a fine scenario for a substantial silent film by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (1927): she was born in 1682, the youngest daughter of Robert Laurie, who became the first baronet of Maxwelton three years later. The first verse was written around 1700 by William Douglas of Fingland, the rest is of later date. It was adapted by Lady John Scott, the composer of the glorious melody, which may be dated to 1834. In his Brother to the Ox (1940), the farm labourer Fred Kitchen recalled hearing a memorable account of the song, accompanied by concertina, melodeon, mouth organ and tin whistle, at a hiring fair on Martlemas (St Martin’s Day, 11 November) in about 1905, just when Vaughan Williams and Grainger were beginning their invaluable fieldwork.

Scarborough Fair also appears as The Cambric Shirt, since it is the making of the garment from a tiny piece of linen that is the central factor in the ballad’s many forms: as the folklorists Iona and Peter Opie pointed out, this task can be traced to the Middle Ages, while a relative of the lines first appears as The Elfin Knight on a broadsheet from circa 1670. The incantatory refrain is probably part of a longer list of plants possessing magical properties to assist resolution of otherwise impossible errands, although further transmutations scrambled it to ‘Every rose grows merry in time’. Some of the labours were incorporated into the 19th-century nursery song My father left me three acres of land, thus producing a tale of incredible accomplishments but shorn of riddle and mystery. The tune with which it is now most closely associated is quite unlike the long-abandoned melody collected by Sharp, and appears to be of comparatively recent origin, possibly collected in part from a Scottish miner by Ewan MacColl around 1950. It was popularised extensively by Simon & Garfunkel (who learned it directly from Martin Carthy), counterpointed with an anti-war lyric by Simon: although this later text is quite unrelated to the story, despite the inclusion of such generic imagery as ‘deep forest green’ and ‘scarlet battalions’.

Also in debt to the media for its propagation is Dance to your daddy, sung characterfully by Alex Glasgow in David Fanshawe’s genial theme for the 1976 BBC serial When the boat comes in. Tim Byram-Wigfield’s syncopated arrangement is equally good-humoured, building to an intoxicated climax. New verses were added at the end of the 19th century but the core of the song appears to be the work of a certain William Watson in 1826. When this was first published in 1848, the melody was given as The little fishy, which may itself be traced to at least 1842, so clearly both tune and words have long been inseparable. William Gillies Whittaker, Newcastle-born and a close colleague of Vaughan Williams and Gustav Holst, made a choral setting of The water of Tyne, remarking: ‘the fragrant beauty of the verses, mated to a tune of exquisite loveliness, shows that Northumberland just missed possessing its Burns’. Andrew Plant’s arrangement evokes the perpetual flowing of the river, gathering in intensity until it is blended with another song on a similar watery theme, O waly waly. This was collected by Sharp in Somerset in 1916, who noted five variants, but words and music have now coalesced into perhaps the most beautiful of all folksongs. Richard Bannan’s luminous setting blossoms with a magical key-change at the climax before sinking to quietude. Both The Water of Tyne and Bobby Shaftoe were published in 1812 by John Bell (sometime librarian to the Society of Antiquaries of Newcastle upon Tyne): the latter title was certainly familiar in 1760, having been annexed by Robert Shafto of County Durham for his successful parliamentary canvassing that year, but the customary lines begin halfway through the story. The boy has already received rebuffs to three marriage proposals, and gone to sea in despair, whereupon his intended strikes up the confident affirmation that he will return to marry her after all. This might be thought oddly optimistic, unless we are missing an episode, but it appears from Stephen Carleston’s resourceful arrangement that she whiled away the hours by writing a fugue.

The air Groves of Blarney was transcribed by Edward Bunting in 1792, and its publication inspired Thomas Moore’s poem The last rose of summer, to which it is now indissolubly wedded. Charles Villiers Stanford considered that the tune had suffered grievously in the process and did his best to make amends, but complained that it was now ‘so well-known in its corrupt version that it is hopeless to restore it completely’. It has nonetheless proved exceptionally popular: Beethoven made two arrangements of the melody, which was also transformed into a fantasia for piano by Mendelssohn, shoehorned into Flotow’s opera Martha as a showpiece, and adapted by several 20th-century composers. The lark in the clear air may be sourced to 1879, when the Swedish harpist Adolf Sjödén visited Sir Samuel Ferguson in Ireland, seeking new melodies: Ferguson’s wife sang him a tune called The tailor that she had learned but which had not apparently been noted before, and Sjödén requested that Ferguson write a poem to fit it. The result was taken down from the singing of Lady Ferguson and published in 1895; Vaughan Williams and Phyllis Tate both made memorable settings. The English words of My Lagan love, attributed to Joseph Campbell, are so evocative that one can almost smell the peat (it is a pity that Roger Quilter only set examples of his poorest work), and contain elements of the faery lover, a prevalent theme in folklore. They are set to an air collected in Donegal in 1903 by his colleague Herbert Hughes, but which appears to date from at least the 19th century. The song reached many shores through John McCormack’s 1910 recording, and was also disseminated by Margaret Barry, a charismatic Irish street-singer with a declamatory yet nuanced delivery of raw authenticity, who apparently learned it by listening at the door of a record shop to McCormack’s account. Paul Drayton recalls some of the freedom of improvisatory ornamentation in his richly sonorous, finely crafted arrangement.

Early one morning is widely dispersed and was to become especially popular in schools but its first publication is considered to be in William Chappell’s National English Airs (1840), the editor believing that the tune bore some relationship to ‘a hornpipe that was formerly played at the theatres’. If its theme of the forsaken lover is the epitome of folksong, its polar opposite is relished in Dashing away with the smoothing iron, the beloved being admired on a daily basis as her chores haste to fruition. ‘Prosper thou our laundry work’, as Michael Flanders might have observed; indeed, Donald Swann admitted drawing heavily on the Somerset song in 1963 for The gasman cometh, subtitled ‘A ballad of unending domestic upheaval’. The rich seam of parodied folksong continues to flourish, from Flanders & Swann’s ‘bonny army lorry’ to Dudley Moore’s wickedly hilarious lampooning of Britten’s impeccable arrangements, references that were immediately recognisable in their time. Remarkably, this appears to be the first recording of the ingenious setting by John Byrt, written in 1971 for Andrew Parrott and the Schola Cantorum of Oxford.

If a varnish of respectability occasionally veils the earthier aspects of folksong, Ruairi Bowen’s inebriated account (written at sea) of the hauling chanty, What shall we do with the drunken sailor? goes some way to removing it. Off-beat entries, hiccups, and grindingly unstable tonalities (at one point in three keys simultaneously) threaten to scupper the catalogue of rough remedies: many examples are extant, countless others were doubtless improvised. Richard Terry’s arrangement from 1919 included the tongue-twister, ‘Tie him to the taff-rail when she’s yard-arm under’.

In addressing the vexed questions of categories and classification, Steve Roud, one of the leading scholars in the field, has asserted that it is not the origin of folksong that defines it, but rather what the ‘folk’ do with it. Sharp was a pioneer but also a romantic, inclined to assumptions then current that melodies were of greater antiquity than they were; but while many are impossible to source with finality, the words are often more recent. Londonderry Air, set especially magnificently by Grainger, is now commonly referred to as Danny boy, thanks to the sentimental stanzas fitted to it around 1913 by Frederick Weatherly, who was also responsible for Roses of Picardy and The Holy City. Similarly, Down by the salley gardens was guaranteed immortality by the lines of W B Yeats (1889), a reconstruction of a half-remembered song he heard in Sligo, allied to the air The maids of Mourne shore. Suo gân (‘lullaby song’) is of similar vintage, probably fashioned by Robert Bryan (1858-1920) to a melody first published at the end of the 18th century. It made a powerful contribution to Spielberg’s 1987 film Empire of the Sun, with the treble James Rainbird as soloist. My sweetheart’s like Venus is the ninth of Twelve Welsh Folksongs, all with tunes conveyed to Holst in 1930 by a Mrs Herbert Jones of Gregynog, who assisted in the translations by Steuart Wilson. This is a brief, light and largely untroubled setting, simply yet meticulously harmonised. Finally, Hen wlad fy Nhadau (‘Land of my Fathers’) was fashioned in 1856 by the harpist James James, to words by his son, Evan. It gradually ousted God bless the Prince of Wales in popularity, and is now regarded as the country’s national anthem, regularly drawing its people together at the most prestigious events. Lambert, who considered it essential that music be viewed against its social background, would surely have approved, understanding the enduring power of the genre to address humanity’s hopes and dreams, ‘till the stars fall from the sky.’

Andrew Plant © 2019

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