FELICITY LOTT: AT HOME
In the world of song, dominated as it is by European composers, the luxury of singing in English is not to be taken lightly � although in the case of this disc it is, and deliberately so! In order to sing German Lieder and French mélodie one has to master the intricate highways and byways of other cultures. Having long become a consummate mistress of these arts, Dame Felicity Lott here demonstrates for us one of the greatest advantages of understanding foreign languages: the return to one�s own dear English can be made again and again with a sense of gratitude and almost new-found delight.
Sometimes in this regard one is tempted towards a touch of flag-waving jingoism. Just like Dame Rose Macaulay who, in her poem A Patriotic Protest, demolishes, one by one, the famous tourist spots of Europe in favour of their home-grown equivalents. Here she is decrying the sights of Rome and Greece: So you want a Colosseum? Well in St. Martin�s Lane There stands one with a roof and walls, where you may well obtain A performance you can look at without sitting in the rain.
Writing more than 70 years ago, Dame Rose even prophesies a present-day controversy: And Greece is but a history book, an outworn mausoleum, From which our British diplomats, with their finer sense of meum Than of tuum, took the treasures long since for our museum. She ends her poem with advice for the traveller (or indeed lover of English music): Then stay at home, you English folk; be not so continental. The beauties that you think you see are really only mental; They could occur quite anywhere; and are not incidental To foreign shores and foreign climes. Of any built-on hill You can make your own acropolis and admire it if you will. Brightons�s as good as Brioni, and Sheffield as Seville. See England first, see England last, before the silver chord Be loosened, and the gold bowl breaks, and you get old and bored �.
If only Dame Rose had ended her poem at this point, we would have felt justified in presenting you a programme of the purest, unadulterated English song; but she could not resist delivering a final envoi, a coup de grace typical of her rapier wit:
O stay you home, I beg, and leave more room for me abroad! Oh well, and bother! As much as we may try, it is really too late for Flott and her pianist
to become little Englanders. Instead we find ourselves insisting here on the best of both these worlds � a programme sung entirely in our wonderful English langauge, yes certainly, but one that aims for a touch more inclusivity: there are songs in English here by four French composers (an acknowledgement of the entente cordiale) and by six Americans whose transatlantic influence has been something with which we all grew up,
for better or for worse on the whole, but with music of this quality and life-enhancing wit, definitely for the better. This leaves us with no fewer than twelve English composers for this recital in English, as well as a number of important English poets. Chief of these is Shakespeare, and we make no excuse for beginning this disc with four settings of the Bard. Geoffrey Bush (1920-1998) was a pupil of John Ireland, a delightful man and an underestimated song and opera composer. His It was a lover and his lass is one of hundreds of settings of this great lyric, but it ranks as one of the most bracing and exciting � a kind of musical fanfare with which to signal the fact that our party has begun. Fancy by Francis Poulenc (1899-1963) is the composer�s only song in English, written at the request of Marion Countess of Harewood in 1958, shortly after the Poulenc had visited Aldeburgh the first and only time (he hated the sea and the cooking) and attended a performance of Britten�s opera The Turn of the Screw: this little Fancy is dedicated �To Miles and Flora� the two children characters in that work. The setting of the same lyric for The Merchant of Venice (this time entitled Fancie) was also commissioned by Marion Harewood for an anthology of children�s music: as usual Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) demonstrates his mastery of vocal writing and provides a deliberately different viewpoint of these words, quicker and more exciting than the dreamy song by his fondly valued colleague from across the Channel. Lord Horder (Mervyn Horder, 1910-1997) was also a friend of Britten�s from the 1930s; son of a famous Edwardian doctor he became a distinguished publisher and entered the song-writing lists relatively late in his career with simple but usually highly effective settings; he was also the complete English eccentric.The slinky tango recorded here shows Horder�s talent for melody.
It is an unlikely fact of musical history that Charles Gounod (1881-1893) should have written some 70 songs in English, including the Shelley setting recorded here (The fountain mingles with the river, a poem better known in Roger Quilter�s setting, Love�s Philosophy). Escaping to London from the vicissitudes of the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, Gounod took refuge in a Tavistock Square orphanage run by a certain initially attractive Mrs Georgina Weldon; but she virtually imprisoned the bemused composer and
required him to write English songs to raise funds for her institution. The whole episode ended badly and Gounod, begging his wife�s pardon, took his English songs home and had them adapted to completely different French texts. As a result, the full extent of �the English Gounod� still awaits discovery.
Both Reynaldo Hahn (1875-1947) and Camille Saint-Sa�ns (1835-1921) before him were more tranquil visitors to London. The Swing (more famous perhaps in Liza Lehmann�s setting) is one of five Robert Louis Stevenson songs he composed from The Child�s Garden of Verses. The unexpectedly touching Cherry Tree Farm on the other hand boasts no famous poet � it seems to have been dashed of as a homage to one of Saint-Sa�ns�s
well-to-do English hostesses and it remains a lesson as to how the most seemingly simple pieces of music benefits from a sovereign compositional technique. The song Oh that it were so by Frank Bridge (1879-1941) was written in 1913 (the year of the birth of Bridge�s most famous composition pupil, Benjamin Britten). The sentiment of this music with its highly perfumed poem by Walter Savage Landor seems illuminated by a plush Edwardian sunset � entirely different music from Bridge�s later style, but typical of its epoch of Imperial certainty. In complete contrast is the deliciously deft anonymous setting about sisters� rivalry, A Melancholy Song by Antony
Hopkins (b.1921) who � leaving his actor-namesake apart � was a famous and omnipresent BBC broadcaster on music for many years. His well-made songs and chamber operas deserve revival.
There are three songs by No�l Coward (1899-1973) on this disc, a composer who been a regular and delightful part of our musical lives since the earliest days of the Songmakers� Almanac. For this recital we have sidestepped Coward the crisp and facetious word-virtuoso (dazzling though he always is in this incarnation) in favour of his sheer genius for melody, and for a sentiment that still brings a lump to the throat. If love were all was a hit of the musical Bitter Sweet (1929) where it was sung by the French diseuse Ivy St. Helier. It is in arioso style, half recitative and half songconfessional,
and there is scarcely another piece that better describes the emotional
challenges of the performing life. You can�t make love by wireless by Jerome Kern (1885-1945) is the fruit of one of that great American tunesmiths�s early visits to these shores � there was considerable two-way traffic between London and Broadway in the 1920s and 30s. The distinguished words could only have been written by an Englishman
however, and one cannot get much more English and more ingenious than P.G. Wodehouse. Equally, a more English poet from the next generation than John Betjeman would be hard to imagine; he provided the words for Song of a nightclub hostess � a wonderful portrait of a once hedonistic home-county flapper in steep decline. The music is by the gifted Madeleine Dring (1923-1977), mistress of song and piano miniatures, whose work
deserves reappraisal. We move now to the United States, and a musical culture that has both drunk deeply from the wells of European inspiration while contributing to the renewal of the art-song medium particularly in the last thirty years. On the whole Samuel Barber (1910-1981) avoided setting poems by Englishmen; he was drawn instead to Irish poems (as well as French and American). His five settings of James Joyce are all remarkable; the enigmatic and haunting Solitary Hotel is the last of these, taken from the cycle Despite and Still. As a complete contrast to this highly wrought art-song, we have Irving Berlin (1888-1989) spinning a melody as only he knew how, the incarnation of American balladry at its best. What�ll I do (1924) is one of literally hundreds of his sure-fire-hit ballad classics, the tune as inevitable as it is instantly memorable. And it is humbling when we think about the average English-speaker�s disinclination to master a foreign
language that Berlin, son of Jewish Siberian immigrants, wrote every one of his own song texts. Cole Porter (1891-1964) was another giant of American popular song. His background was one of High Society and Gatsby-like privilege, something completely different from the rough and tumble Tin Pan Alley background of the Jewish Berlin and Gershwin. As a result there is something urbane and understated about Porter�s music, wickedly, even slyly, subversive and humorous, rather than uproariously so. The wistful Miss Otis regrets (1934) is a benchmark of the Porter style, a murder story told at one remove. The song Litany to the text of the famous black poet Langston Hughes is by the youngest composer on this disc, the hugely talented and productive John Musto (b.1954) who has already composed an opera on Jonson�s Volpone, and a more recent one entitled Hoppera, based on the famous urban paintings of Edward Hopper. The mixture of styles in this music is an amazing amalgam of ragtime and Randy Newman, via the seriousness and depth of utterance of a Wolf song like Gebet. In the last decades it has become an American classic on the recital platform. In the singing actor George Ware (1829-1895) we encounter the oldest composer on this disc. The Boy in the Gallery became a music-hall hit when it was taken up by Marie Lloyd and Nellie Power. A similar theme of star-struck infatuation is explored by No�l Coward in Mad about the Boy; reading between the lines a more modern audience may take a guess as to exactly why this good-looking young man is proving inaccessible to his female admirers � and Coward could seldom resist risqué autobiographical inferences of this kind. In The Return from Town we have a genuine collaboration between an English composer, Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) and the remarkable American poet Edna St-Vincent Millay. This is music as simple as a folksong, but its heartfelt alliance of melody and feeling makes it
rank as one of Bliss�s most successful achievements in the medium. The Physician is Cole Porter at his cleverest and most �chic� with words � there is little attempt here to connect with the music-consuming American masses � this is definitely a song for those who enjoy the privilege of private medicine in Connecticut, as well as the chance to flirt without regard to the ethical consequences. Come on Algernon, on the other hand, is of a straightforwardly vulgarity prized by the British upper classes who delighted in making incognito visits to working class entertainments. It is a spoof of a musical hall song by Gerald Hugh Tyrwhitt-Wilson (Lord Berners, 1883-1950) and Marie Lloyd herself would probably have toned its various double entrendres. A Word on my Ear is a parody of an encore for a recital diva assembled by that divinely gifted pair, the wordsmith Michael Flanders (1922-1975) and the composer Donald Swann (1923-1975). It makes fun of the very Lieder-singing grande dame, heart on sleeve, who is the stuff of popular ribbing and misconceptions; no-one who sings out of tune lasts long on the concert platform, whereas in the opera house it can be another matter altogether! The way in which Swann makes the pianist scramble through a series of unlikely modulations in order to catch up with his wayward soloist is extremely ingenious. It is said that Irving Berlin was a really bad pianist and could only play on the black notes, an observation he made that brings tears to the eyes of professional pianists in the light of the millions Berlin made during his long career. But at least he was wellinformed enough to write a song about the importance of pianos � I love a piano. He claims to �know a fine way/To treat a Steinway� but I fear that unfortunate instrument would come in for rather a hammering under his fingers. Call me Flo� by Jerome Kern is a little ragtime ditty for a cheerful bigamist or merry widow dating from 1912. We hope that we are forgiven for adapting it to the present circumstances, particularly as the text (�But I like a varied lot�) rhymes better with �Flott� than with the original �Flo�! The song
Bees are buzzin� is from Gay�s the Word (1951), the last musical composed by Ivor Novello (1893-1951) and something of a self-aware parody of his earlier musical style. The song was a great favourite of Dame Cicely Courtneidge and her husband, Jack Hulbert. Let�s put out out the lights is by an almost exact contemporary of Novello, the American composer Herman Hupfield (1804-1951). It first appeared in 1932 and was recorded by Rudy Vallee and Bing Crosby. In exactly this year Charles Cochran produced No�l Coward�s review Words and Music in the West End. Of the several hit songs in that evening (Mad Dogs and Englishmen among them) we have already heard Mad about the Boy. The party�s over now is tinged with the kind of gentle regret that good times cannot last forever. Coward himself used it as a closing song for his show at the Café de Paris, and he would hopefully excuse us for doing the same.
The reason why Flott and I have taken to this music throughout our professional careers is simply because we were raised with it. Many of these numbers, from musicals in particular, were known and loved by our parents who used to sing some of these songs by heart as they remembered their own years of youthful fun. For us children this provided us with a ready-made tradition of popular music; the glint of youthful vigour reappeared in our parents� eyes as they heard once more music to which they used to dance. How lucky we were to have this link with a time when lyrics were still ingenious (and often meticulously skilful in literary terms) and melodies were instantly memorable with an appeal that traversed the boundaries of amateur or professional musical life! This was at a time when sheer skill in words and music, no matter how popular the targeted market, was more important than the look and saleability of a pop icon, idolized at all costs no matter how poor his or her creative command of melody and harmony. There was a period when singers collaborated with experienced song writers, mostly separate lyricists and musicians, for their next hits; after the Beatles, who happened to be good composers, it became a matter of blind faith that performers should also flatter themselves as composers. Imagine the poverty of recitals if every famous concert singer were only to perform the music they themselves had composed! It is a sign of the times that younger professional singers of today who were raised in households where popular music held sway among their friends and relations, will be able to draw onfar less interesting and subtle treasury of family memories than we did (at least in purely musical terms) when it comes to them making records of lighter music. The party�s truly over now. Or perhaps we should prepare ourselves for recordings made by the singers of tomorrow which are made as a reaction to their own parents� dewy-eyed reactions to The Rolling Stones, The Who and Oasis?
Graham Johnson, 2009