Friday, 12 June 2015

Walter de la Mare in song, Ludlow English Song Weekend (3)

Every child over a certain age who learned penmanship (remember that?) would know Walter de la Mare, whose poems we had to copy out endlessly in longhand (remember that!) It's hard to believe that he was almost a "contemporary" poet at that time, for he died only in 1956, aged 83. Even to my childhood ears,  he sounded like a relic from a distant past.

And so to the settings of Walter de la Mare at the English Song Weekend at Ludlow in Shropshire (listen here on BBC Radio 3).  Relatively few really front-rank composers were drawn to de la Mare, for many different reasons.  Britten set Tit for Tat, but he was only 15 at the time.  The recital began with Ivor Gurney The Scribe, distinctively Gurneyan with its parallel phrases, one low, the second flying skywards, though not one of his greater masterpieces. On the other hand, de la Mare seems to release something special in Herbert Howells, better known for his larger works and choral pieces. Perhaps it's the  story telling in poems like Lady Caroline and Andy Battle that Howells, and better still, settings from Peacock Pie, like Alas Alack !,  Mrs MacQuuen and best of all, Miss T. Reserved English gentlemen didn't do opera, until very recently, but in short songs they can "become" characters, acting out the roles the poet defines.

"Whom seek ye here Sweet Mistress Fell?" is a song for two voices, one asking questions, the other replying.  Benjamin Burrows (see more here) emphasizes the contrast. The male part is low and stern.  the female part soaring, almost strident. Where actually is Mistress Fell going, and why?   We don't know because the poem's opaque,  but Burrows's setting makes it work with the non-logic of magic.

Cecil Armstrong Gibbs (1889-1960)  may have found his metier in the whimsy of de la Mare  Five Eyes (a setting of In Hans's Old Mill, his three Black Cats) crackles with lively wit  How Britten would have relished the playful wackiness of this poem (which he didn't set).  Armstrong Gibbs's other songs, like The Stranger and Silover, while attractive are fairly generic. A Song of Shadows starts with an introduction that could have been lifted off Schubert, but Schubert got there first, and with more verve.

Much more original, Lennox Berkeley's  Another Spring op 93 from 1977,  written for Janet Baker,  which blends de la Mare's childlike charm with sophisticated technical craftsmanship.  The Song of the Soldiers is much more conventional, reflecting a poem that's less than wholly inspired.  Richard Rodney Bennett's The Song of the Wanderer shows that straightforward settings need not be dull,. Bu then, Gerald Finzi's The Birthnight, a deliriously joyful setting of a fairly nondescript poem  What is this poem really about? It speaks of darkness, cedar boughs, willows and silence (hardly the sound of childbirth.). Yet there's an erotic intimacy in this song, written for two voices, starting with the word "dearest".  What is the "lovely thing" that lies in its mother's arms? Perhaps it is a child, born after a labour of which the father is blissfully unaware. But given Gerald Finzi's predilection for mystical births  (see Dies Natalis) it could be a an altogether more mysterious  event, not that birth isn't a kind of miracle.

Perhaps even Walter de la Mare responded best to the wild   shores of the imagination. "Far are the shades of Arabia, where the Princes ride at noon...... ", painting an image of Arabia verdant with forests, purple flowers, vaulted stars and the heady sound of lutes played by "dim-silked, dark-haired Musicians In the brooding silence of night". It's a dream which the poet knows is forbidden. "Cold voices whisper and say, "He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia, They have stolen his wits away.".  W Dennis Browne's languid lines suggest exotic mysteries. their meaning best left unspoken,  to live again only in dreams. Ironically, Browne did visit "Arabia", for he later served in Gallipoli and the Dardenelles. He was pall bearer to Rupert Brooke, his close friend. Browne himself died of injuries almost exactly 100 years ago today. His To Gratiana Dancing and Singing is very well known (recorded by Ian Bostridge) Arabia is also highly regarded, so it's good to hear it again in this context.

Excellent introductions by Iain Burnside, pianist and Music Director of the Ludlow English Song Weeekend. This time, the BBC got the markings right and listed the songs in order. The singers were John Mark Ainsley, Anna Huntley and Marcus Farnsworth.

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