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Songs of the Sea, Op 91

author of text

It was not long after the enormous success at Leeds in 1886 of Stanford’s patriotic choral ballad The Revenge Op 24 that the composer first met Henry Newbolt in the rooms of Augustus Austen-Leigh, the Vice-Provost of King’s College, Cambridge. Their meeting on that occasion left an indelible impression on the young Newbolt who, in his autobiographical My World as in My Time (1932), described his senior as ‘a gust of Irish humour who blew in among us’. Newbolt also remembered the occasion for Stanford’s volatile moods, of his ‘youthful capacity for sudden angers and genial repentances’, of his ability to fall out with his friends, and of his disarming conciliatory manner for which many forgave him. But most of all Newbolt cherished memories of his partnership with Stanford in the two sets of sea-songs, Songs of the Sea Op 91 and Songs of the Fleet Op 117 written for Leeds in 1904 and 1910 respectively, when he commented:

He was the most subtly appreciative critic and interpreter of poetry that I ever met with. Again and again he would receive my verses by the morning post, and set them before noon to irresistible music. I always felt that to hear those songs, given as Harry Greene could give them, was to be told secrets about myself, to set my own thought reflected with perfect accuracy but irradiated with the magic lights of a dream.

Newbolt’s first collection of poetry, Admirals All and Other Poems, appeared somewhat appropriately on the anniversary of the Battle of Trafalgar on 21 October 1897 as the eighth of a series of slender chapbooks called the Shilling Garland, edited by Laurence Binyon. The collection was an instantaneous success and launched Newbolt’s career overnight. Four further editions appeared within two weeks of the first publication and, in all, twenty-one editions appeared in print before his next collection, The Island Race (which was effectively an expanded edition of Admirals All), was published in 1898. Across Britain and the Empire the poems were sung, chanted, learned by heart, quoted by ministers in the House of Commons and by bishops in the pulpit. The patriotic content of Admirals All appealed at the time to a broad cross-section of the public, just as Henley’s Lyra Heroica (1891) and Kipling’s Barrack-Room Ballads (1892) had done a few years earlier. Such poems expounded a sense of ‘moral activism’, an impassioned belief in a chivalric code of honour, a sense of history, glory in battle and adventure, heroism, and, as Quiller-Couch remarked, a Roman stoicism and service suffused with Christianity, values promulgated in the British public schools of which Newbolt was a prominent exemplar. While today we may recoil from a goodly number of these sentiments, it would be disingenuous, not to say inaccurate, to claim that they were not held with conviction during the late Victorian and Edwardian periods by people across the political spectrum; and it was into this sensibility that Newbolt tapped with an authentic fervour. But in addition to such patriotic ardour, Newbolt, like Henley and Kipling, was also capable of lyrical, and at times profound emotion expressed in a rich, skilfully ordered language that drew approbation from Hardy, Bridges, Yeats, Sassoon and de la Mare. What is more, his seascapes and nautical images, notably those of his third publication, The Sailing of the Longships (1902), still have the power to impress, and are, arguably, among the finest of their kind in English poetry.

According to Plunket Greene, the Songs of the Sea began with only two settings, ‘Devon, O Devon, in Wind and Rain’ and ‘Outward Bound’, both taken from the recently published The Sailing of the Longships. After Stanford had shown them to Greene (the intended executant and dedicatee), the latter was enthusiastic for more, and so composer and singer wrote to Newbolt for another poem to create a trio of songs. The result was The Old Superb which Newbolt recalled was written ‘all in one piece and next day ... [Stanford] set ... in one morning’. Delighted with the third song Greene begged for yet two further songs, suggesting Drakes’s Drum as an opening number (published in Admirals All) and Homeward Bound, which Newbolt rapidly produced.

The autograph full score does not give the individual completion of these songs (where available) in quite the same order, though it may be that the dates only pertain to their orchestration: Outward Bound and The Old Superb are both undated, while Drake’s Drum was finished on 24 January 1904, Devon, O Devon on 1 February, and Homeward Bound on 29 March. A vocal score (in a version for voice and piano used in this recording) was also completed in March 1904.

Newbolt based his poem Drake’s Drum on a state drum, painted with the arms of Sir Francis Drake, preserved at Buckland Abbey, seat of the Drake family in Devon. In his gallery of nautical heroes, Newbolt expounds the myth of Drake, buried in Nombre Dios Bay. Yet, dreaming all the time of Plymouth, he will return (in true Arthurian manner) at the call of his drum to save England in her direst need. Newbolt’s three stanzas are set strophically as a sturdy march, with a broader, more tonally exploratory final verse in the tonic major. Just as it proved to be Newbolt’s best-known ballad, so it became Stanford’s most popular song and remains so today.

Outward Bound, a melancholy reflection on leaving port and Mother Earth, and a plea to be remembered, is an expansive lyrical effusion in which Stanford shows his true skill in the art of self-developing melody. And in support, the harmonic ingenuity and range does much to intensify the song’s pensive character. This is underlined at the entrance of the voice in bar 3 (‘Dear Earth’) which, with its passing cadence in F minor, solemnly contradicts the opening statement of A flat. Other instances include the yearning suspensions of the supplication, ‘O Mother’, and the fluid progressions of the last, extended phrase (‘Fast dawns the last dawn’) which are so aptly married to the poetic sense of the last two lines of the verse.

The fiery, energetic Devon, O Devon, in Wind and Rain not only commemorates Drake, his defeat of the Spanish and his death off Nombre, but also the valour of Devon men in general and, most notably, the bravery of the three Devonshire companies who drove the Boers off Wagon Hill at a crucial juncture in the British army’s attempt to relieve Ladysmith. The Devonshires’ courageous defence took place in a violent thunderstorm, when rain and hail fell in sheets to impede the combatants’ visibility. This gallant action (powerfully vivid in the minds of the British public of the time) is remembered in Newbolt’s third verse and in the defiant refrain.

Homeward Bound reveals the strong imprint of Brahms, not least in the (presumably unconscious) quotation from the latter’s First Piano Concerto in the preludial bars. This is a truly symphonic song, both in the highly organic development of the thematic material and the interdependence of voice and accompaniment (an interaction that is especially conspicuous in the orchestral version); moreover, with a true Brahmsian preoccupation for integration, the luminous shift to the flattened submediant (A major) sets a bold precedent for the tonal behaviour of the rest of the song which seems continually predisposed to rich and striking changes of harmonic direction. Such moments as the melancholic ‘Faint on the verge’ (which sumptuously reaches F flat major) and the magisterial piano interlude are deeply memorable, but it is perhaps the final line of the poem, ‘There lies the home of all our mortal dream’. where Stanford achieves his greatest emotional profundity.

After its production for Stanford’s song-cycle, The Old Superb appeared at the end of Newbolt’s The Year of Trafalgar, Being an Account of the Battle and of the Events which led up to it, written for the centenary of the Battle of Trafalgar in 1905. Cast in ballad form with a truly popular chorus (‘So Westward Ho! for Trinidad’), the briskly delivered text recounts the poor condition of the ‘Old Superb’ and her crew, four years at sea; yet, after determined sailing day and night across the Atlantic, reached Trafalgar in time to engage the French fleet.

from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 2000


Stanford: Songs, Vol. 2


No 1: Drake's drum  Drake he's in his hammock and a thousand miles away
Track 7 on CDA67124 [2'36]
No 2: Outward bound  Dear Earth, near Earth, the clay that made us men
Track 8 on CDA67124 [3'15]
No 3: Devon, O Devon, in wind and rain  Drake in the North Sea grimly prowling
Track 9 on CDA67124 [1'49]
No 4: Homeward bound  After a long lab'ring in the windy ways
Track 10 on CDA67124 [6'52]
No 5: The old superb  The wind was rising easterly, the morning sky was blue
Track 11 on CDA67124 [3'02]

Track-specific metadata for CDA67124 track 11

The old superb
Recording date
14 October 1999
Recording venue
Rosslyn Hill Unitarian Chapel, Hampstead, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Mark Brown
Recording engineer
Antony Howell
Hyperion usage
  1. Stanford: Songs, Vol. 2 (CDA67124)
    Disc 1 Track 11
    Release date: June 2000
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