Saturday, 23 May 2020

The personal Roger Quilter : Mark Stone - Songs of Roger Quilter vol 3

Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow present Volume III in their series the Complete Roger Quilter Songbook, on Stone Records. Quilter made more settings of Shakepeare than most others, so Volume I in the series focussed on his Shakespeare settings, while volume II featured his settings of Jacobean poets. In contrast, this third volume highlights Quilter's interest in folk-inspired sources.  This shows a more informal Quilter than the greatly admired art songs, but reveals the intimate side of Quilter's personality. Superb notes enhance this series, which re-assesses the range of Quilter's output.

The Arnold Book of Old Songs was c ollected for Arnold Vivian.  Quilter and his older brother Arnold, for whom their nephew was named, seem to have ben very different personalities, though they were very close.  Arnold was extravert, athletic, tall (6 foot 7) and had served in the Boer War.  He was also part of the circle around Rupert Brooke, whom he helped bury.  Two weeks later, he, too, was killed at Gallipoli.  When the younger Arnold joined the Grenadier Guards at the outbreak of the Second World War,  Quilter expanded a smaller collection published in 1924, for Arnold to sing when he was away.But yet again, tragedy struck, when Arnold was shot in September 1942 while trying to escape from a prisoner of war camp.

The Arnold Songs are based on songs from earlier vernacular songs, which are so well known that they've enetered the mainstream almost as popular song.  Drink to me only with thine eyes is a setting of Ben Johnson, based on Philostratus, the second-century Greek poet,  the tune we know now published in the late 18th century.  Similarly, My Lady Greensleeves was first published in 1600 as a lute song, though there are references to it in Shakespeare's The merry wives of Windsor, suggesting that it was well-known long before. Barbara Allen  was mentioned in Pepys diaries.It is folk song as popular music, a best seller in the ballad-selling broadside trade, enabling its dissemination, with many regional variations,  throughout the English-speaking world.  Quilter's version adapts the tune with great sensitivity.  Delicate piano figures illuminate the name "Barbara Allen", suggesting her beauty: perhaps it even suggests a softer side of her nature, which explains her change of heart. Dramatic chords evoke the "dead bell". Barbara dies, chastened and meek : this is no simple love story.

The Irish songs in the Arnold Bookof Songs also originate from the end of the 18th century. The text for Believe me, if all those endearing young charms could come from two sources in the mid 17th century, but the form suggest traditionl ballad.  The jolly, rythmic Oh ! 'tis sweet to think seems to stem from country dance. All three of the Scottish songs have connections to Robert Burns, who collected and adapted songs as part of his fascination with all things Scottish.  Ye banks and braes is now so famous that it's almost basic repertoire.  Charlie is my darling  refers to  Bonnie Prince Charlie. Though the text is by Lady Nairne, the song may have  had topical appeal for people who knew the Jacobite cause and its brutal suppression at Culloden in 1746.  Quilter's Ca' the Yowes is very different to earlier arrangements, such as the version by Maurice Jacobsen made famous by Kathleen Ferrier, and the version by Benjamin Britten, much more frequently perfomed.  Jacobsens's version is gentle, like a lullaby, while Britten's version is more austere and plaintive, as befits a song which might once have been a lament from harsh times, long ago.  Both Britten and Quilter evoke a sense of abandoned desolation, recognizing the context from which the song might have arisen. Quilter's version is even closer to lament, particularly in favouring a lower, masculine register : the piano part is understated, suggesting, perhaps, the bleak internal landscape. In the final verse, the voice swells in intensity : "I can die but canna part, My bonnie dearie".  The  song is attrributed to Isobel "Tibbie" Pagan (1741-1821)  a colourful character, who owned an alehouse where she wrote poems and sang songs for her customers. Robert Burns heard it sung by a clergyman, who may or not have got it direct.  Burns himself revised his version of the poem three times. (Please read more here). 

Also of interest is Quilter's version of The Rose of Tralee based on  a poem from 1846, set  in the same period. The song is so popular that it has entered into the canon as "traditional song", and may well have antecedents.  Quilter develops the piano part with subtle sophistication : art song without artifice.. Although Quilter has been described by some as a "walled garden", perfect but intensely private, he was well aware of what was happening in the world around him.  Marian Anderson and Quilter were friends,  and he accompanied her in his own songs at her WigmoreHall debut in 1928.  I got a robe was written for the occasion, based on a an arrangement of a spiritual arranged by Harry Burlieigh as Heav'n, heav'n.  Quilter also worked in musicalm theatre, partnering Rodney Bennett (father of Richard Rodney Bennnet) in several popular musicals, of which Where the rainbow ends was successful enough to encouage Quilter to write a light opera The blue boar, premiered as Julia..  Two songs from Songs from "Love at the Inn" suggest a more modest, vaguely pastoral theme.  More substantial  is The Man behind the Plough, Bennett's adaptation of a 19th century French song, which is  included among the four French songs in the Arnold Book of Songs, The Pretty Month of May derived from a composer at the court of Louis XIII. Quilter's Four Songs of Mirza Schaffy  set poems in German based on an Azerbaijani poet who taught languages in Germany.  of these Die helle Sonne leuchtet is lyrical, the piano - Quilter's instrument - radiant, emphasising the glorious crescendo in the final verse.

More personal is Daisies after the rain by a contemprary of Quilter's, Judith Bickle, published in 1951. All his life, Quilter was plagued by ill health, yet survived, unlike his more robust relatives and friends. Like the wild daisies in the poem,  humble blooms can defy odds that fell more showy flowers.  Thus it is appropriate that Stone and Barlow conclude this recording with The Ash Grove, fromThe Arnold Book of Songs. The song as  Llwyn Onn was first published in 1802 in  a collection of Bardic songs called The Bardic Museum, which implies that even then it had early origins.  Texts vary. Quilter set words by Rodney Bennett who understood  very well how their  meaning applied to Quilter's personal life.  The piano line is discreet, intensifying the suppressed emotional anguish.   Once friends gathered in the Ash Grove  "How little we knew, as we laughed there so lightly,/ and time seemed to us to stretch endless away,/The hopes that then shone like a vision so brightly/ Could fade as a dream in the coming of day!"   But memories live on in the  song of a lone bird and the whisper of the wind.   In 1950, Quilter was nearing his own end, so it mattered to him that "there in the Ash Grove my heart be at rest".

Wednesday, 20 May 2020

Hi'ilawe - one of the loveliest songs, ever



Hi'ilawe is one of my favourite songs ever, which is saying a lot since I've been doing Lieder and art song since I was a kid.  More than most people have been alive.  On what woud have been Israel Kamakawiwi'ole' s 61st birhday,  hearing him sing this song is as refreshing and life-enhancing as the waters that feed the crops beneath the falls in the Waipi'o Valley on Big Island, Hawai'i, sustaining farmers growing crops for sustenance.  It's a traditional song, attributed to Martha K. Maui under the title of Ke Aloha Poina ʻOle (Unforgettable Love), and also to Sam Liʻa Kalainaina, Sr. and first printed in 1902, four years after annexation by the United States.  Kawakawiwi'ole, also known as Bruddah Iz, was passionate about Hawaiian identity, sovereignity, another very good reason for loving his performance.  Instinctively, I identify with what he was about, and why.  And what a voice he had - so pure, so agile!  Hawaiian vowels are elegant,  the syntax flexible, single words held together like a phrase.

For the text and translation, please see  Huapala.org HERE 

Kūmaka ka ʻikena iā Hiʻilawe
Ka papa lohi mai aʻo Maukele
Pakele mai au i ka nui manu
Hau walaʻau nei puni Waipiʻo
ʻAʻole nō wau e loaʻa mai
A he uhiwai au no ke kuahiwi
He hiwahiwa au na ka makua
A he lei ʻāʻī na ke kupuna *(A he milimili hoʻi na ka makua)

No Puna ke ʻala i hali ʻia mai
Noho i ka wailele aʻo Hiʻilawe
I ka poli nō au o Haʻi wahine
I ka poli aloha o Haʻinakolo
Hoʻokolo ʻia aku i ka nui manu I like ke ka ʻina meka uahoa
He hoa ʻoe no ka lā leʻaleʻa
Na ka nui manu iho haunaele
E ʻole koʻu nui piha akamai
Hala aʻe nā ʻale o ka moana

Hao mai ka moana kau e ka weli
Mea ʻole naʻe ia no ia hoʻokele
Hoʻokele o ʻuleu pili i ka uapo
Honi malihini au me kuʻu aloha
He aloha ia pua ua lei ʻia Kuʻu pua miulana poina ʻole
 Haʻina ʻia mai ana ka puana
Kūmaka ka ʻikena iā Hiʻilawe
 

Saturday, 16 May 2020

Ca' the yowes to the knowes - folk song and art song


New from Stone Records, Part 3 in their Roger Quilter Complete Songs series,  Roger Quilter's Ca' the yowes with Mark Stone and Stephen Barlow.  Quilter's Ca' the yowes comes from a a set named the Arnold Book of Old Songs, written for Arnold Vivian, Quilter's nephew, named after Quilter's brother Arnold, killed at Gallipolli.  Tragically, Vivian, too, was killed, in 1942, shot while attempting to escape from a prisoner of war camp. Quilter's Ca' the Yowes is very different to earlier arrangements, such as the version by Maurice Jacobsen made famous by Kathleen Ferrier, and the version by Benjamin Britten, much more frequently perfomed.  Jacobsens's version is gentle, like a lullaby, while Britten's version is more austere and plaintive, as befits a song which might once have been a lament from harsh times, long ago.  Both Britten and Quilter evoke a sense of abandoned desolation, recognizing the context from which the song might have arisen. Quilter's version is even closer to lament, particularly in favouring a lower, masculine register : the piano part is understated, suggesting, perhaps, the bleak internal landscape. In the final verse, the voice swells in intensity : "I can die but canna part, My bonnie dearie".  The  song is attrributed to Isobel "Tibbie" Pagan (1741-1821)  a colourful character, who owned an alehouse where she wrote poems and sang songs for her customers.  Click HERE for a well researched piece on the evidence of Pagan's life It seems she was an outsider, not only because of her looks, but may have been born illegitimate. Nonetheless, the song's origins may well go much further back, to undocumented traditional ballad.  (Pagan wasn't a farmer, nor was she illiterate).  Robert Burns heard it sung by a clergyman, who may or not have got it direct.  Burns himself revised his version of the poem three times. The version in the photo at right was published in 1790.

Ca' the Yowes demonstrates one of the fundamentals of vernacular song, that the music and text are  flexible, depending on the performer or composer.  Furthermore, these songs were being collected, and notated, too, long before the "folk revival" at the turn of the 20th century.  It's just a question of luck which performer happens to be collected, and that doesn't stop good composers and performers from making the most of the material at hand.   

Please also see my piece Morbid Lullabies : ballads, folk song, art song and creative vision 

Wednesday, 13 May 2020

Herbert Howells Missa Sabrinensis, revealed in its true glory

At last, Herbert Howell's Missa Sabrinensis (1954) with David Hill conducting the Bach Choir, with whom David Willcocks performed the piece at the Royal Festival Hall in 1982. Willcocks commissioned the Mass for the Three Choirs Festival in Worcester in 1954, when Howells himself conducted the premiere. "Such was the level of intricate detail of Howell's counterpoint", noted Wilcocks, "that he was like a medieval stonemason carving high in a cathedral, knowing that his details would be perceptible only to the composer."  This new edition by Paul Spicer and David Hill, recorded irded by Hyperion using modern sound technology, reveals those details in their full intricate glory.

In Missa Sabrinensis, Howells adapts the Mass format to celebrate the river Severn, (in Latin, "Sabrina") and by extension its role in British history, and specifically its connections to British music. The 1954 premiere of Howells’s Missa Sabrinensis was paired with Vaughan Williams' Hodie, dedicated to Howells in his maturity.  By extension, the Mass  also celebrates the Gloucestershire landscape and its personal significance for Howells and Ivor Gurney, with whom he would go walking in the surrounding countryside.

Nonetheless, Howells breaks away significantly from conventional choral tradition in the sophistication of this Mass. As Jonathan Clinch writes in his notes "the Mass can be heard as more of a choral symphony, in which he gradually builds up significant blocks of sound, using the soloists, chorus and orchestra as contrapuntal forces. This is the main reason that the work was considered so difficult, as the orchestra was not there to support the chorus in the traditional manner, but rather to build more and more lines of polyphony.  The river metaphor is appropriate as Howells writes such long lines, which are subsumed into the overall mass of sound, surging forward through the first four movements and gradually dispersing in the final two; thus, despite the complexity and number of Howells’ parts, it is the overall symphonic arch that dominates." 

The surging lines of the Kyrie with their complex melismata suggest vast horizons, such as the flow of a mighty river, or plainchant under the vaulting of a cathedral.  Soprano (Helena Dix) and tenor (Benjamin Hulett) function as an extension of the chorus. Their lines undulate, creating dense textural patterns, as if the search for faith were greater than the need for simple resolution, the final movements ending in diminuendo. Though Clinch identifies elements of Debussy and Ravel in this Kyrie, as well as Parry and Vaughan Williams, the synthesis is distinctively Howells’, closer to the spirit of Howells' English Mass, from the following year, 1955 (Please read more here )  In the Gloria, Clinch notes "ecstatic fanfares and constant dotted rhythms... creating a texture teeming with life, reinforced with bright high brass and percussion.". Again, the image of a great river, fertile and fertilizing,  while the underlying flow remains strong and unhurried.

Of the Credo, Howells wrote "this movement is begun in full cry, chorally and orchestrally, using a theme that will return at all cardinal moments.....At ‘in Spiritum Sanctum’ the theme of ‘Qui sedes’ and that of ‘Kyrie’ and ‘Agnus Dei’ are quoted. Thereafter the movement’s climax is reached through the style of opposed diatonic chords (‘et apostolicam Ecclesiam’), recapitulation (‘Confiteor’) and coda (‘Et vitam venturi saeculi’).". This Credo is a statement of hope and faith : all four soloists (Dix, Hulett, Christine Rice and Roderick Williams) join in, their voices reflected by the their counterparts in the choir.  For a moment the soloists sing with relatively little accompaniment, but on "et resurrexit tertia die secundum scripturas" all voices combine. Here, too, the orchestra (the BBC Concert Orchestra) comes to the fore, in glorious finale.

Howell's Sanctus begins with reference to Stravinsky's Symphony of Psalms,  which he regularly cited in his teaching at the Royal College of Music. The Symphony of Psalms is a hybrid, its texts drawn from Psalms 38, 39 and 150, blending the form of ritual religious music to orchestral style, at once ancient and modern, with the unmistakable austerity that would mark Stravinsky's later style. Huge blocks of sound, hewn as if from a rockface, yet moving forward with slow but monumental pace. There are connections between the two works. Howells creates a wall of sound,  building up dense, complex textures culminating in an outburst where the organ leads voices and orchestra. textures building up in density : "Osanna in excelsis" before yet another return to pregnant stillness, from which the Benedictus emerges.  The voice parts here are spare, resembling plainchant, enhancing the purity of the text, creating luminous contrast with what has gone before. 

In the Agnus Dei, Howells reiterates themes from the Kyrie, emphasizing the cyclic symphonic structure of this Mass.  It is as if Howells were looking back while at the same venturing forward to new musical territory.  It reminds us of the tragedy that generated the Hymnus Paradisi, as if the offering up of the life of Michael Howells, so many years previously, had made the tenderness and resolution of this conclusion possible.  Howell's Missa Sabrinesis is a masterpiece, its true genius revealed in this exceptionally sensitive performance, recorded so lucidly that it defies its reputation for being difficult to perform.   This is essential listening for anyone into Howells and the true greatness of his work. 

This recording pairs the Mass with Michael, written one morning whern Howells was having breakfast with his son. It's a joyous hymn tune employing youthful voices, highlighting the simple joys of life. The brass fanfares might evoke adventure, hope, and promises that tragically, would never come to pass.

Sunday, 10 May 2020

Mahler Festival Online LINKS


Plans for the 2020 Mahler Festival with the Royal Concertgebouw Amsterdam had to be cancelled at short notice, thanks to coronavirus. Not daunted though, the RCOA  created a new programme of recordings made live over the years,  every symphony in order, with conductors like Mariss Jansons, Daniele Gatti, Pierre Boulez, Bernhard Haitink, Ivan Fischer and Fabio Luisi. Sponsored by the Mahler Foundation,  the Festival is now the Mahler Festival Online, all concerts, talks and specially filmed documentaries available for free, internationally.  Please follow THIS LINK for the complete schedule.  Scroll down past the schedule for individual events. 

Years ago we would have been there or sure - we love Amsterdam - but in the circumstances no-one sane would want to risk the musicians, patrons and the people of the city to be put at risk.  And in lockdown, listening (and relistening) is all the more welcome !

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Prophetic Nemesis : Hitchcock the Birds


In times of COVID pandemic, it's scarier than ever to watch Alfred Hirtchcock's The Birds, released in 1963.  Since I used to live round there, the dichotomy between art and reality had an even greater impact than an ordinary movie.  We knew that gas station when it was still  hand pumped, and the pier when it was still worked by fishermen, bringing in their catch. We used to drive past the schoolhouse, up a narrow lane.  One year the rose covered cottage where Annie the schoolteacher supposedly lived, but didn't join the crowds of tourists who went to view. Some scenes filmed on location, others copied in studio, but absolutely convincing. So scenes such as Melanie sitting "driving" a car against a badly cut filmed background of birds  might have been deliberatly unsettling - what is real, what is not ?

Hitchcocks The Birds works on many levels. Melanie Daniels (Tippi Hendren) is a rich bitch whose life is aimless so she does silly stunts like dancing naked in a public fountain and smashing. Daddy's a millionaire newspaper owner., so she gets away with anything, including getting reporters to track people down by their car licence plates - illegal then, as now.  While she's in a bird shop, a lovebbird escapes and goes berserk flying round the room.  What does it know ? Mitch Brenner (Rod Taylor) gently catches it and puts it back in its cage. Melanie becomes obssessed with Mitch and figures out a way to stalk him, even if it means sailing a boat across Bodega Bay to his home.  She brings him a pair of lovebirds, but lies non stop about her motives. Yet he lets her into his life.  Annie, (Susanne Pleshette) knows something's wrong with Melanie but she loves Mitch so much she's willing to play second fiddle rather than lose him.. Mitch's mother Lydia (Jessica Tandy) also has psychiatric issues so perhaps Mitch, Annie and his family are in cages of their own.  Melanie blames hrer problrems on her mother who walked out on her but doesn't wonder why her mother needed to do that in the first place.  Though the mayhem doesn't start til the birds go mad, the people here are already waiting to explode.

Birds attack the children playing at Cathy (Mitch's sisters)'s birthday party, burst in the balloons. Seagulls come down the chimney and attack Mitch's family as they sit after dinner - rural bliss destroyed by something alien.  On the farm next door,  the chickens haven't been feeding, something's amiss.  Next moring, the farmer is found dead, his eyes picked out by birds. This is no silly prank. Chickens, who don't fly, avenged by crows. Then the famous schoolyard scene. While the kids sing in the classroom, Melanie waits outside, smoking a  cigarette.  A crow appears on the climbing frame, then another, and another...... Calmly tells the kids to move as quietly as possible  but the birds descend on them as they walk to the cars.  Melanie goes to the local gas station to phone her Dad. No phones at home, then !  And goods delivered by horse and cart.  The crows attack. Gasoline spills and ignites into a fireball. Melanie hides in a phone booth ( a glass cage). She and Mitch go fetch Cathy, who is at Annie's but Annie is dead. She died, pushing Cathy into the house before she was pecked to death on the doorstep.

The family hides out at their farm, which is boarded up in vain defence. But the birds get in, through the attic and attack Melanie. They don't really know what's happening outside Bodega Bay except that most locals have evacuated, they're alone and attacks have occured in Santa Rosa (nearest major hospital) so they start to drive to San Fransisco.  But as they're fleeing, the car is besieged. What happens ? Hitchcock's The Birds is a masterpiece. Nature can turn the tables without notice.  The trappings of civilisation collapse quickly when people think they know better than Nature



Friday, 1 May 2020

After COVID, what will workers (and non workers) do ?

Luton Town Hall burhed down, May Day 1919 worker's revolt
What happens when COVID 19 is "over" ? Unprecedented economic collapse,industries that may never recover, billions of lives destroyed. Is it OK that big corporatioins get bailed out, especially if they're  built on dodgy financial models.  Some industries, like airlines and holiday travel, are based on delusion - tourism destroys the places it gets inflicted on, plus it's environmentally unsustainbable : but rich white folk want to get drunk and think they're doing the natives a favour.  And offshore tax havens which could at a single swoop pay for the damage done all over the world.   But what about small businesses on which the economy  is dependent  And what about the gig economy and those living hand to mouth ? And the long term toll on survivors, families, key workers, who include cleaners, underpaid care workers and so on.  This includes orchestras, musicians, soloists : professionals whose lives have been built on years of expertise, suddenly cut adrift, perhaps never to recover.  Let them harvest strawberries for the rich !

But how will people respond ? It says a lot about the UK that a 100-y ear old man can raise more money for the NHS than self righteous folks who think clapping at 8pm compensates for lack of PPE testing etc etc.  Let's drink bleach ! Hail Our Leaders even if they kill us. When the working class themselves are deluded, what hope is there for the world ?  More than ever this year on May Day we should be thinking about the rights of workers and non-workers, the disenfranchised, the unacknowledged, the poor.