Thursday, 19 January 2017

Wigmore Hall Sunday Muriel Herbert songs

An opportunity to hear a very unusual programme this Sunday at the Wigmore Hall. The Royal Academy of Music Song Circle presents the songs of Muriel Herbert (1897-1983),  a composer of promise whose career was restricted by the circumstances of her life and times.  Tickets are still available, HERE.

Although Herbert was born into  a large, musical family, her father died when she was 12, leaving the family in poverty. Her mother fell into depression. Yet Muriel started writing music in her teens and was ambitious enough to get accepted into the Royal College of Music in 1917, then in the grip of Charles Villiers Stanford, a man not given to innovation or to female emancipation. In front of all the other students, Stanford made he play, from sight, a Beethoven piano concerto arranged for two pianos. These days that would be deemed intimidation. Luckily, Herbert knew the arrangement well. Then, as now, talent alone isn't enough : women have to be extra capable simply to be able to be allowed into consideration. After her brief, unhappy marriage ended, Herbert returned to England from France, but not to London and spent the rest of her life in relative obscurity.  Fortunately her daughter, the biographer Claire Tomalin, preserved her manuscripts. In 2008, Herbert's songs were recorded by James Gilchrist, Ailish Tynan and David Owen Norris. This is the CD to get, from which I've taken the biographical information.

The Academy Song Circle (Nika Gorič, Katie Stevenson, Nicholas Mogg, Michael Mofidian, Yi-shing Cheng and Michael Pandya) are performing a selection of Herbert's songs including the lovely How Beautiful is the Night (1918) to a poem by Southey. and the  set of Children's Songs which Herbert wrote in 1938, when her own children were young.   Playful songs, setting a popular contemporary poem : songs about tadpoles, Jack Spratt, gypsies. Escapism, or the multitasking of a mother who wanted to write music but had to earn a living and raise children on her own. Or memories?  While Herbert's mother was giving birth to her, the doctor played Schubert,  Brahms and Schumann on the piano in the parlour.  Herbert set modern poets as well as old , like Robert Bridges When Death to either shall come, (1923) which has an early 20's feel.  

The Academy Song Circle perform Herbert's songs in context.  One of her most beautiful songs  Renouncement,, a setting of a Victorian poet,  was written after Herbert fell in love with Roger Quilter, not realizing that he was gay.  How she must have idolized father figures!  The wistfulness in this song masks genuine, personal anguish.  Herbert met James Joyce in her youth, and set one of his poems too, which isn't on this programme. Quilter's own songs are heard somewhat to Herbert's disadvantage as they are major works, like Love's Philosophy and Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal.  Several of Charles Villiers Stanfird's songs are also on this programme, showing that Herbert wasn't dominated by him. He had status, money and power. She didn't. But she did her own thing as best as she was able. 

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