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A Most Marvellous Party

with Noël Coward and friends
Mary Bevan (soprano), Nicky Spence (tenor), Joseph Middleton (piano)
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Label: Signum Classics
Recording details: April 2023
Wathen Hall, St Paul's School, Barnes, United Kingdom
Produced by Raphaël Mouterde
Engineered by Mike Hatch & Tom Lewington
Release date: November 2023
Total duration: 77 minutes 20 seconds

Cover artwork: Photograph by John Alexander.

Introspection and more than a touch of whimsy cleverly permeate an album of exceptional high jinks from a consummate trio of performers. Purchasers please note: sung texts are not included in the booklet. Probably no bad thing.

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A Garrulous Host: Well my dear, how too divine to see you, now whom can I introduce you to? Noël Coward you know, of course. And that rather dashing American over there, that’s Ned Rorem, the American composer—strictly between ourselves, he and Noël had a fling … And of course you know Francis Poulenc, in that divine overcoat? Yes, the one who guillotined all the nuns—in his opera I mean, it was too upsetting—well, you know Poulenc’s divine little piece about Babar? Yes, the elephant—well Noël did the narration for a recording of that, and they met then, though I’m not sure what they made of one another … Who else is there—yes, Stravinsky is rather a surprise isn’t he, but do you know he actually asked Noël to collaborate with him, sometime in the thirties? But of course Noël said no, he can’t stand being thought of as highbrow. George Gershwin you’ll know—Benjamin Britten? Yes it is a bit of a surprise he’s here—but then he loved Noël’s Cavalcade. Noël thinks Britten has rather forgotten about tunes, darling, which can’t really be said of dear little Willie Walton—I’m amazed he’s here at all, given that big row he and Noël had when they were young … Which woman darling? Oh her, that’s Liza Lehmann, I’m told she’s a composer, isn’t it too funny …and Noël told me that his song “Dance Little Lady” steals from her music something dreadful—the first bit is pure Lehmann! Yes, she’s the one who wrote “There are fairies at the bottom of our garden” – and as Noël says, aren’t there always?

Enough. But the imagined party of this album shows the often surprising web of composers that can be woven around the protean figure of Noël Coward, whose own music, astonishing in its range, flicked between Edwardian musical comedy, European cabaret, Viennese operetta, jazz, blues, Gilbert-and-Sullivan patter, and the world of the American musical. This was a figure who—alongside his enduring plays and poems—wrote both music and words for what is now thought to be some 675 songs, their lyrics as brilliant as their melodies are memorable. And all this from a lower-middle-class child-actor from Surrey, who was an all-but-complete auto-didact. He learned to play the piano by ear and admitted to being at home only in a handful of key signatures. He did not know how to notate his melodies and relied instead on a series of amanuenses and orchestrators.

The well-known persona of Noël Coward (clipped diction, cigarette holder, dressing-gown) was a mask for a sadder and more conflicted figure, who like all great comedians knew grief and depression. One of the chief facets of his public character was a firm belief in his own easeful genius and he made no mention of the many hours spent at desk or piano, fine-tuning his plays and songs with manic discipline. Disdaining the “highbrow” or “modernist”, he made no secret of the fact that he wrote to entertain audiences and be well remunerated. But his work often tells a different story, fitting surprisingly well into the modern concerns of his generation. Beneath Coward’s varnished wit lies a radicalism that does not make the company he keeps on this recording (Stravinsky, Britten, Walton) so very surprising.

Coward’s daring, as playwright and musician, was to introduce to British audiences new and syncopated rhythm of modernity. Performing the lead role in his play The Vortex, he included snatches of Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue (picked up by ear in Manhattan) before the work had received its British premiere. His music appeared to its first audiences as the epitome of a new sound, torn with the blare of horn and engine, the swing and slither of jazz and blues. His songs were mainly introduced to audiences via revues, spectacular evenings of songs, dances and sketches, of which he became the age’s most famous exponent. But the syncopation of Coward’s songs is a disturbing arrhythmia, prophesying the dangers as well as the joys of life’s new and hectic pace. His notes are often tied to lyrics of a fizz and dexterity that bely their fearful warning: “You’re weaving life into a mad jazz pattern … Cocktails and laughter, but what comes after, nobody knows?”

The medley (track 1) with which this party opens combines his contradictory brand of the romantic and the cynical. “I’ll See You Again” is a Lehár-esque waltz from his smash-hit musical Bitter Sweet (1929), an attempt to revive Viennese operetta. “I’ll Follow My Secret Heart” (from a much less successful venture, 1934’s Conversation Piece) and “Someday I’ll Find You” are in the same vein of triple-time romance. The latter was first aired during the premiere of Private Lives (1930), and the play’s bitter view of the impossibility of love and the dangerous trappings of romance casts the song into a harsher light. A complementary pair from his 1920s revues—“Dance Little Lady”, and “Poor Little Rich Girl”—likewise reveals this darker side, wagging an admonitory finger at the archetypal partygoing flapper of his generation, so many of whom ended the decade in prisons or nursing homes, or died of botched abortions and drug overdoses. The dancing little lady, in her original staging, emerged from a crowd of eerily masked figures; the lyrics hiss with sibilance, the off-beat rhythm gives the dance a perceptible limp. Even “A Room With a View” espouses a wholly parodic, even sickly, view of conventional heterosexual relationships, replete with the fairytale fluff of stalks delivering babies. The medley ends with “Play Orchestra Play”, a rambunctious number from his 1936 sequence of one-acters, Tonight at 8.30.

The clearest view of Coward’s philosophy about love, born from a series of traumatic (and illegal) relationships with men, can be found in “If Love Were All”, also from Bitter Sweet (included in the medley and repeated in full at Track 20). The song’s autobiography is not the famous protestation that Coward possessed “a talent to amuse” (he had a higher estimation of his own talent). Soul-bearing comes in the song’s pining wistfulness: “I believe the more you love a man … the more you’re bound to lose.” The musical chirpiness of “Any Little Fish” (12) hides not only a rejection of monogamous relationships, but a similarly bleak attitude to love: “Freezing, burning, tossing, turning, never know whether to laugh or cry …”.

Performing “If Love Were All” in America in the 1950s, at a time of McCarthyite witch-hunts and consequent homophobia, Coward never included any line that might have cast it as a gay love-song. The interwar lifestyle had permitted greater daring. “Mad About the Boy” (2), immortalised by Dinah Washington in an advert for Levi’s jeans, was premiered in the 1932 revue Words and Music, staged as a number about young girls with a crush on a movie star. Young girls—and a young man, in an extra verse whose explicit rendering of homosexual attraction led to its being removed before the opening night. A 1930s recording by Coward himself, in which he resolutely refused to change the pronouns of the lyrics, was also deemed too risqué for release.

This recording situates Coward’s songs in their American context, not least with the numbers by Gershwin (19, 21). But it also shows how much he took from the European world of cabaret and art song. His one-night lover Ned Rorem (3, 4, 17) composed over 500 songs and, like Coward himself, was influenced by the French neoclassicist group Les Six, among them Darius Milhaud and Francis Poulenc (5, 6). Coward’s “Parisian Pierrot” (7) was his first hit song, and the highlight of his first revue, London Calling! (1923), in which Gertrude Lawrence cradled a Pierrot doll. In choosing the “divinely forlorn” figure of the Pierrot, Coward was harnessing a symbol of European modernism used by Schoenberg and Picasso. The song is at home in the company of André Messager (9), famous for his opéras comiques, and sits happily in the jazz-inflected world of Erik Satie (10,11). Coward’s “Twentieth-century blues” (18), more strictly a march than a formal blues, is more akin to the glittering violence of Kurt Weill (8) than the wit of Cole Porter or the sentiment of Ivor Novello. Its lyrics speak of a decidedly nihilistic world view. “World weary” (18) is a similar admission of fatigue, from this most urbane of figures, at urban expansion.

“Twentieth-century blues” is from Coward’s highly successful pageant Cavalcade (1931), and was first staged to a depiction of society’s general chaos before a rendition of the National Anthem made it clear that the young radical of the 1920s had taken a decisive turn towards patriotism. The song is credited with popularising the blues in the United Kingdom, and a young Benjamin Britten thought the show was “magnificently produced”; his theatrical collaborations with W.H. Auden show Coward’s sidelong influence on a younger generation of composers. (“When you’re feeling like expressing your affection”, 23, is a setting of Auden from The Red Cockatoo, a collection setting an eclectic group of contemporary poets; “As it is, plenty”, 25, also using an Auden text, is from Britten’s first published song collection, On this island.)

Cavalcade was an attempt to show to the partygoing generation that the Roaring Twenties had ceased to roar; a new world of conflict and financial depression was on the horizon. As Coward wistfully put it, in 1932: “The Party’s Over Now” (27). But Noël Coward’s sleight-of-hand is that his admonitory and mournful voice is so often disguised under the cover of sparkling wit and dazzling satire. “Something to do with spring” (14), from the same show, was intended not as a pastoral paean but an exposé of bucolic fakery. The singer was cocking a snook at the badly painted romantic backdrop behind him, and the song is almost a parody of the parlour-songs of Roger Quilter (15, 16) or Liza Lehmann (26).

Then again, Coward admired (and occasionally borrowed from) both Quilter and Lehmann; he particularly loved Quilter’s score for Where the rainbow ends, an Edwardian play for children in which he had twice appeared as a juvenile actor. Parody, for him, was a means of paying his respects. A scene in London Calling! dared to include a caricature of Façade, the series of poems by Edith Sitwell that she recited through an enormous megaphone to instrumental accompaniment by 21-year-old William Walton. Coward created the character of Hernia Whittlebot, given to spouting cod modernist poetry through a megaphone. Sitwell decided that Coward was her deadly enemy. Walton, not unamused, was more forgiving. When, not long afterwards, he and Sitwell revised Façade, they conversely made it more Coward-esque, adding, among a handful of new numbers, “Popular song” (24).

Above all, Coward is funny. “Don’t put your daughter on the stage, Mrs Worthington” (22), written onboard ship when its author had got rather tired of approaches from ambitious stage-mothers as to the theatrical prospects of their unpromising offspring, remains one of the great comic songs. So does “I went to a marvellous party” (28), originally a vehicle for the performer Beatrice Lillie and a hilarious display of Coward’s verbal skills at their most virtuosic. If the party was destined to end, it was fun while it lasted.

Oliver Soden © 2023

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