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The Spanish Gypsy, Op 1

published 1868
author of text

George Eliot’s dramatic prose-poem, The Spanish Gypsy, was written in the winter of 1864/5 and further amplified and reworked after a visit to Spain in 1867. It was published in 1868. At the centre of the tragic yet noble story is Fedalma, a gypsy girl brought up in a noble Spanish family yet unaware of her background. On the eve of her marriage to Don Silva she is reclaimed by her gyspy father (an enemy of society), at which stage a conflict of cultural loyalties arises for Fedalma. In the end she discovers her identity and, true to Eliot’s own ethical imperatives, settles for her gypsy roots out of solemn duty and becomes queen of her people.

Stanford was evidently inspired by the operatic scenario of Eliot’s plot and resolved to set the songs (which form an important part of the drama) to music in 1872. In 1873 he wrote to Eliot informing her that he had already written three songs and asked permission to publish them as well as the remainder of the songs in the poem when they were composed. Eliot duly gave her consent and the songs – eight in all (out of a possible fourteen), written between 1872 and (probably) 1875 – were published in various groups between 1873 and 1878 by Chappell and Novello. Spring comes hither and Came a Pretty Maid appeared in 1873 (Chappell), The World is Great, Bright, o bright Fedalma and The Radiant Dark in 1874 (also Chappell) and Blue Wings, Day is Dying and Sweet Springtime in 1877 (Novello). This was the original order of publication, though a second order was suggested by Novello’s publication, which printed them as ‘Nos. 1-3’ and Chappell’s republication of the first five (in 1878) as ‘Nos. 4-8’. As to the order of composition, the information is extremely limited. Bright, o bright Fedalma is the only song to survive complete in manuscript (dated 6 May 1872) while Spring comes hither was given at a concert of the Cambridge University Musical Society on 22 May 1872. Only these two songs can we date with any accuracy. The Radiant Dark was first given at a CUMS concert on 18 May 1875, a year after its publication. Blue Wings, on the other hand, was first sung (again at a CUMS concert) on 19 May 1876, a year before it appeared in print, and may give an indication of its composition at that time; but it may on the other hand, like many of its companion pieces, have been written much earlier. This hypothesis is supported by Bright, o bright Fedalma which was not heard until 17 May 1878 and Sweet Springtime not until 3 February 1886 (when it was sung by Stanford’s wife, Jennie Wetton).

The eight songs (all, save one, from Book I of Eliot’s drama) are an indication of Stanford’s developing ambition in the province of art song, and of his more general growth as a composer in the early 1870s while he was undergraduate at Cambridge (1870 to 1873) and a private composition student in Leipzig and Berlin (1874 to 1876). His hugely impressionable disposition was saturated with the world of German lieder, and most of all the intense romanticism of Schumann with all its rich harmonic nuances and tonal detours. This is certainly the case with Spring comes hither, the first of Pablo’s songs sung in the Plaça Santiago. The simple strophic construction is subtly variegated by a series of tonal shifts to the subdominant, flat submediant and submediant, but equipoise is always restored by the refrain (‘O ja là’). This song and the amorous Came a Pretty Maid, a ‘lute song’ sung by Juan, were dedicated to Gerard Cobb, Fellow of Trinity, an organist, a keen amateur musician and a close colleague of Stanford. The World is Great (from Book II), dedicated to the singer Herbert Thorndike, conveys the loneliness of Don Silva after Fedalma has returned to her gypsy kind. Once again, Stanford’s design is an interesting elision of strophic and variation form cemented by a common refrain (‘and I am lonely’), a reference to Silva’s confusion and despair. Also dedicated to Cobb is Bright, o bright Fedalma, another strophic song full of fertile variation, and harmonic resource to match Eliot’s sensuous, not to say erotic, words. Here Stanford’s natural lyrical gift is given room to expand. By contrast, The Radiant Dark explores a much later nineteenth-century archetype – the lyric scena – which has much more in common with Liszt and Wagner. This is a big song, full of noble, passionate gestures more akin to opera. The sentiment of the text, the joy of night over the day, also has an operatic affinity with Tristan, a work well known to Eliot, a declared Wagnerian. Stanford, for his part, chose to match the poet’s heady emotionalism with a potently symbolic G flat major (viz. Act II of Tristan), and punctuate the spacious canvas with continuous reference to a voluptuously chromatic rising motive in the accompaniment and two arresting modulations to the flat submediant (D major).

Pablo’s second song, Blue Wings is a deft musical structure. The first two verses, using contrasting material, conclude with the same musical gesture, particularly distinctive in its shift to the mediant (C major) before recovering to the tonic (A flat). In the third verse, however, the familiar opening (recapitulating the material of the first verse), rapidly gathers momentum, reaching a climax that transforms the closing material of the previous two verses (‘Leaned to clutch the thing divine’). Stanford’s concluding bars, which capture the text’s fleeting vision, are also masterly. Arguably the finest song of the set, Day is Dying (dedicated to the soprano Sophie Löwe) is a modified strophic design in which the final verse, short and tonally intense, develops and distils harmonic and melodic elements of the previous two verses. The final song of the set, Sweet Springtime is an elfin scherzo, in two related, yet deftly contrasting verses.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2000


Stanford: Songs, Vol. 1


No 1: Blue wings  Warm whisp'ring through the slender olive trees
Track 2 on CDA67123 [2'18]
No 2: Day is dying
Track 3 on CDA67123 [2'44]
No 3: Sweet springtime  It was in the prime of the sweet springtime
Track 4 on CDA67123 [1'12]
No 4: Spring comes hither
Track 5 on CDA67123 [2'16]
No 5: Came a pretty maid
Track 6 on CDA67123 [1'14]
No 6: The world is great
Track 7 on CDA67123 [2'18]
No 7: Bright, o bright Fedalma  Maiden crowned with glossy blackness
Track 8 on CDA67123 [2'09]
No 8: The radiant dark  Should I long that dark were fair?
Track 9 on CDA67123 [3'30]

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