�Englishness is difficult to define in musical terms�. Word-setting is certainly one way in which a composer may publish his birth certificate: his response to a specific turn of speech, to the rhythm of his own language, may result in an idiosyncratic musical equivalent that could not have derived from another tongue.�
So wrote the critic Donald Mitchell, and the collection of songs on this disc supports his assertion: any �Englishness� exhibited by these songs does not derive so much from a musical style unique to this country, as from each composer�s response to the text Graham Johnson has, in this recital with Dame Felicity Lott, divided the songs into seven categories.
Hubert Parry, as Director of the Royal College of Music from 1893, taught both Vaughan Williams and Holst, who said of him, �At last I had met a man who did not terrify me; he gave us, so it seemed to me, a vision rather than a lecture.� �O Mistress Mine�, from English Lyrics, Set 2 (1886-7) is a skittish, quicksilver setting of a text from Twelfth Night, both this and �My Heart is Like a Singing Bird� (Set 10, 1918), demand some agility from the performers. In �My Heart� in particular, the soprano traverses a wide range, reaching a sustained top A during �my love is come to me�. In contrast, John Ireland�s �The Trellis� is soporific and seductive, scented with Debussian harmony: whole tones and chromatic shifts abound.
Edward Elgar is frequently viewed as a paradigm of Englishness, yet this may owe more to the gruff, Kiplingesque personality he cultivated, and to his association with imperial �pomp and circumstance�, than to musical factors. He was more interested in Wagner than in English music. The lilting �Speak, Music� is in the unusual metre of 15/8, with echo effects establishing the relationship between soprano and piano. �In Moonlight� is more concerned with melody than with word-painting, though the climax of the piece, at �Sing again�, is marked cantabile, the song then fades to its close with a throwaway staccato gesture in the piano.
In �Music, When Soft Voice Die� Roger Quilter�s harmony is pervaded by ninths, building, as with Parry�s �My Heart�, towards a high-point at �love�. Also a setting of Shelley, �Music and Moonlight� is a jovial, good-humoured song, conjuring up the �tinkling� of the guitar and the �twinkling� of the stars. Shelley wrote this poem for Jane Williams, for whom he bought a guitar. In 1822, three weeks before his death, the poet wrote: �I like Jane more and more�. She has a taste for music�. I listen the whole evening on our terrace to the simple melodies with excessive delight.�
The yearning quality of Elgar�s �Pleading� is gently punctured by the piano�s final gestures, the humour of which suggests that the plea of �turn my night to day� is not hopeless. �Twilight� is more chilling, with a recurrent chromatic line low in the piano part darkening the mood. But again, Elgar subverts the atmosphere he has created with an ambiguous ending: the piece, hitherto in B minor, finishes on a brief D major chord, as though to hint at some resolution not apparent in the text.
Parry�s �Under The Greenwood Tree� has a sturdy merriment that aptly communicates the text, from As You Like It. Frank Bridge entered the RCM in 1896, three years after Parry�s appointment, and later taught Benjamin Britten, who championed his music. The haunting chromaticism of �Strew No More Red Roses� might foreshadow a similar musical language in, for instance, Britten�s Winter Words. Bridge exploits the ominous lower range of the piano and, in contrast with Elgar, the shadows do not lift even at the end.
The filigree piano texture of �Love�s Philosophy� reflects the watery imagery of the text. Shelley wrote it for his uncle�s ward Sophia Stacey, who, according to Mary Shelley, �sings well for an English dilettante�. This rather sour appraisal is in contrast with Quilter�s impassioned setting, the soprano part soaring through the last lines: �What are all these kissings worth / If thou kiss not me?�
Peter Warlock was advised by Delius only to write music he felt. �Ha�nacker Mill� and �My Own Country� convey two very different moods, as befits Belloc�s contrasting texts: the former is dark-hued, full of harmonic ambiguity and false-relations; the latter reassuring, shapely and idyllic. They were written not long after Warlock began his turbulent �open house� life in Eynsford, Kent. Ireland�s jolly I Have Twelve Oxen employs a range of piano textures. The final bars seem to incorporate gestures reminiscent both of Petrushka and Mother Goose, suggesting that Ireland was not fixed in an English tradition.
Quilter�s �Go, Lovely Rose�, No.3 of his Five Songs, Op.24, is a fluid journey through subtle harmonic shifts, while Bridge�s �Go Not, Happy Day� is direct and melodic, with a quick-moving and syncopated right-hand piano part. This jollity belies the tumult of the year in which it was published, 1916: World War One left Bridge, a pacifist, with psychological scars that spawned music of a much more sombre tone, not even hinted at by this sunny work.
Night and Dawn
The second of Quilter�s Three Songs, Op.3, is the tender �Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal�, taken from Tennyson�s The Princess. Warlock�s �Sleep� is suffused with melancholy, the contrapuntal writing creating a restless quality that conveys a desire for escape in slumber; the final G major chord seems to hint that this desire is granted. A similar sense of hope creeps into the end of each phrase of �The Night�, which begins with the soprano intoning and the piano part slowly unfolding. The work�s final notes flow into the ether, ending the piece as mysteriously as it began. Arnold Bax began at the Royal Academy of Music in 1900, where he became a great lover of poetry, especially that of Yeats, which he later said �meant more to me than all the music of the centuries�. �The White Peace� sets a poem by �Fiona MacLeod�, the pseudonym of William Sharp.
Gustav Holst is another composer whose music does not always sit comfortably with the notion of �Englishness�. Years before figures such as Olivier Messiaen brought elements of Indian culture into Western music, Holst had become fascinated by it, though this interest is communicated textually rather than musically in �Ushas� (Dawn).
Marked tempo di valse, Elgar�s �The Blue-Eyes Fairy� is from the Starlight Express, Op.78, written for a play by Violet Pearn based on Algernon Blackwood�s A Prisoner in Fairyland, first performed in 1915. Both Harold Fraser-Simpson and Liza Lehmann wrote extensively for the British theatre. Fraser-Simpson�s many theatre scores include Kenneth Grahame�s Toad of Toad Hall as dramatised by A.A. Milne; this project inspired another collaboration with the song-cycle The Hums of Pooh, premiered in 1970. Lehmann made her name as a soprano and later became a composer of musical comedies. �Henry King� and �Matilda�, the latter a duet (both parts recorded by Felicity Lott for this disc), have a marvellous sense of mock-melodrama.
�When I Am Dead, My Dearest� is a pared-down Ireland song, its simplicity of line allowing the nuances of Christina Rossetti�s text to breathe. The song is marked �at speaking pace�, which also emphasises the role of the words. We return to Donald Mitchell�s assertion that the composer�s response to words, in particular those of his or her own language, may determine the manner in which they write the music even more than purely musical considerations. Parry�s second of his �English Lyrics�, Set 1, however, is very pianistic, writing idiomatic music for both parts seems to have meant as much to him as communicating the text�s meaning. Nevertheless, the flowing and repetitive piano textures create an apt lullaby effect. And so, with the piano�s pitches gently enveloping the soprano line, the voice bids us, unwillingly, �Good-Night�.
Joanna Wyld, 2004