Sunday 8 November 2015

Hubert Parry English Lyrics - the English language in song

From Somm Recordings, the first of a projected series of songs by Hubert Parry: Twelve Sets of English Lyrics and other songs. This series could lead to a re-evaluation of the development of English art song. The generic title English Lyrics symbolized, writes Jeremy Dibble in his excellent notes, " artistic manifesto and advocacy of the English tongue as a force for musical creativity, shaped by the language's inherent accent, syntax, scansion and assonance". (Read Dibble's book on Parry HERE In short an approach to singing in English distinct from the British choral tradition. After unification, the German economy prospered so rapidly that it became a major, and global,  competitor with the British Empire. Parry's approach thus mirrors the growth of German Lieder. Why not art song based on great English poetry?  While Stanford set approximations of folk poetry and Elizabethan verse, Parry went for the most challenging. Fourteen of the 30 songs in this volume are settings of Shakespeare. Others include texts by Robert Herrick, Beaumont and Fletcher, Philip Sidney  et al.

Parry's songs are sophisticated art song, far removed from Victorian parlour song or even folksong, with which English song is so often associated, rather ironically since Britain industrialized earlier and more thoroughly than the rest of Europe.  Written between 1874 and 1918, Parry's English Lyrics herald the work of later composers, like Roger Quilter and Gerald Finzi. Parry's knowledge of Shakespeare's plays enhances his settings. The plaintive delicacy of Willow, willow, willow suggests Desdemona's innocence: she doesn't know what's coming but feels distressed and expresses herself in child-like song.  O mistress mine is livelier, even the notes tripping bright and agile. Parry's When icicles hang by the wall sparkles. Short phrases crackle, the way frost makes the sense tingle. The refrain "Tuwitt ! tuwhoo !" seems embedded, wordlessly, in the piano part. This sprightliness also reinforces the contrast between the images of cold and cosy comfort. "When blood is nipt and ways be foul", good folk go about their daily tasks, tending the fire and cooking. A perceptive  setting which challenges Purcell.

Parry responds to No longer mourn for me when i am dead, a setting of Sonnet 71 with great sensitivity.  The sonnet is dignified, but deep emotion breaks through. Parry emphasizes the words "for I love you so" soaring out of the longer phrase in the poem. The piano introduces a firmer mood. From "Oh, if I say, you look upon this verse", Parry's lines stretch as if they could reach out into the future, defying time.
The first set of Shakespeare songs are followed by songs that reflect Parry's appreciation of different poetic styles. To Jocasta on going to the wars and To Althea, from prison, both to texts by Richard Lovelace, blend poise with confidence. ""Stone walls do not a prison make, nor iron bars a cage".  To mark the change in mood, a change in singer. James Gilchrist and Susan Gritton sang the first songs, Roderick Williams most of the next ten. This balance between voices creates further contrast. Williams's direct style is extremely effective in songs like On a time the amorous Silvy Follow a shadow, an altogether more graceful setting of a poem by Ben Jonson, then Ye little birds that sit and sing (Thomas Heywood) where Parry writes brisk bird-like trills which Williams carries off with aplomb.

 Finest of all, To Julia (Robert Herrick) where the ease in Williams's voice lets the sensuality in the song flow pointedly yet discreetly.  Susan Gritton sings two more Herrick settings, and Gilchrist sings Rosaline (Thomas Lodge) with its charming refrain "Heigh ho, fair Rosaline!", soaring up the register at the end with impassioned verve. Under the Greewood Tree, the vigorous, jaunty lines sung by Williams with evident pleasure.  Then Shakespeare with a twist. If Germans could set Shakespeare in translation, so could Parry. It's interesting to compare Parry's "German" Shakespeare to his English Shakespeare.. The piano parts take on greater prominence, as if Parry were remembering Schumann.  To further mark the difference, Gilchrist sang in the English Tenor style, though he normally sings German quite idiomatically.  The English Tenor style is partly based on class pronunciation and on the choral tradition where individual voices have to cut through the voices around them. Hence the crisp articulation of consonants, and the precision of delivery. The very finest English tenors can add great depth to German song - think Bostridge's performances of Henze. With this recording, where Parry addresses the sound of English syntax, we can learn to appreciate the unique quality of the English language in song.

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