Monday, 18 June 2018

Haunted Arabia - W Denis Browne

W. Denis Browne (1888-1915),  as a schoolboy at Greyfriars, Leamington Spa.  This photo might sum him up better than the usual photos of him in uniform, for his last music was written in June 1914. Almost exactly a year later, he would be killed at Gallipolli.  In this photo his youthful spirit  is captured forever, gazing wistfully but unafraid.  Browne went on to Cambridge and later studied with Busoni. He heard Stravinsky, and was impressed enough by The Rite of Spring and Petrushka to embark on his own ballet, never completed.  Today he's best known for a handful of songs, particularly To Gratiana, Dancing and Singing to a poem by Richard Lovelace (1617-1657).  Though that song is well represented on recordings,  most of the other songs are less well served.  I wish there were better versions on record of Arabia, for example, Browne's last completed song, which I've heard live in much better performance.

Arabia is an adventurous piece which seems to reach out, exploring new musical territory.  The poem, by Walter de la Mere, describes "the shades of Arabia, where the Princes ride at noon, 'mid the verduous vales and thickets under the ghost of the moon". The piano part moves with mysterious deliberation, firm single chords separated by silence, allowing the voice to ring out. The idea  might be to suggest a voice reaching over vast expanses. Not expanses of desert, though, but a "vaulted purple" where "flowers in the forest rise and toss into blossom against the phantom skies".  Warm breezes seem to propel the second verse, "Sweet is the music of Arabia" each line infused by gentle, swaying rhythms.  The vocal line rises high, and the piano part changes, suggesting the plucking of "strange lutes" that "ring loud with the brooding silence of the night". Despite the beautiful sounds around him, the poet is haunted by someone, something others cannot see. "Stll eyes look coldly upon me, cold voices whisper and say "He is crazed with the spell of far Arabia, they have stolen his wits away". Not a romantic reverie ! Thus the jumbled images of moon and noon, of feverish, unhealthy imagination.  Ideal territory for the kind of English tenor who can express archness and horror behind luminous limpidity. Not straightforward at all. 

No comments: