Friday 13 June 2014

Commemorating the Great War: the London English Song Festival memorial of song

William Vann, David de Winter, and Gareth John
William Vann, David de Winter, and Gareth John
In the centenary of the start of World War 1, the fourth event in this year's London English Song Festival celebrated composers of the Great War at St George's, Hanover Square. Baritone Gareth John, (winner of the 2013 Kathleen Ferrier prize) was joined by William Vann(accompanist and artistic director of the festival). Tenor Alexander Sprague was unfortunately too ill to perform but was replaced at the last minute by David de Winter, who had half a day to learn all the songs.

Ahead of the concert there was a very entertaining and informative preconcert talk by Professor Jeremy Dibble, a specialist in British and Irish music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries at Durham University. Included are some of my notes from the talk.

Prof Dibble has written a biography of Hubert Parry (1848 -1918), who was a composer and head of the Royal College of Music, during the time many of the composers featured in this concert were learning their craft, and died a few days before the armistice that ended the war. Dibble explained Parry was a revivalist of English song and put together 12 volumes of English songs – a project that was completed after his death by Emily Daymond and his student Charles Wood.

Prof Dibble also talked about the Georgian poets of the early 20th Century, many of whose work is in this concert. Edward Marsh and later Sir John Collings Squire published a series of anthologies of work by contemporary poets, all of which is somewhat romantic or erotic in style and very much rooted in English countryside imagery.

Gareth John
Gareth John
The recital started with Parry's 'English Lyrics' from the Twelfth set of English songs, with words by poets Julia Chatterton, Robert Herrick, and Harry Warner. Sung by de Winter and accompanied by Vann, three of the songs were typical of a bygone era, with a tinkly, filled in piano part. In contrast 'When the sun's great orb' portrayed more drama, the piano introducing the tenor tune at half speed, and then continuing in symphonic style.

'Bredon Hill' (A. E. Houseman) was set by George Butterworth (1885-1916), who died at the Battle of the Somme, and 'Silent noon' (Dante Gabriel Rossetti) by Ernest Farrar (1885-1918), who died only two days after reaching the Western Front at the Battle of Epehy Ronssoy in 1918. Butterworth considered himself foremost as a dancer a not a composer, but 'Bredon Hill' sung by John was full of changing emotion. Dibble commented that with Butterworth you could "hear his plangency in his rhapsody".

There were two sets of Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872- 1958) who was a pupil of Parry: 'Four poems' by Fredegond Shove sung by John and 'Merciless beauty – Three rondels' (Geoffrey Chaucer) sung by de Winter. Dibble explained how at that time Vaughan Williams was very much obsessed with Tudor England – but that this Tudor revival (which also influenced Ivor Gurney) was to do with reconnecting with English language rather than a direct copying.

In that respect the 'Four poems' were similar in style to 'Variation on a theme by Thomas Tallis', with the exception of 'The new ghost' which was very ethereal, with lovely shimmery piano. Vann clearly enjoyed playing the picturesque turns in 'Watermill', and together his and John's performance was very moving. In contrast 'Merciless beauty' was madrigal-like, and provided the humour of the evening. 'Since I from Love escapëd am so fat' was especially well performed by de Winter to chuckles all round.

'The folly of being comforted' (W. B. Yeats) and 'In Flanders' (Frederick William Harvey) were included from Ivor Gurney (1890-1937). Gurney was in the Gloucestershire Regiment where he was a machine gunner, and Dibble said that the army probably provided Gurney with stability – three meals a day, clean clothes, and friends around him. While at the front, and without access to a piano, he continued to compose.
'The folly of being comforted' was written later, in Edinburgh, while he was recovering from being gassed and after a failed love affair with a nurse. Dibble told us a story about how in later years Gurney would escape from the asylum, where he had been placed for his own safety, and turn up on Vaughan Williams doorstep in London. Gurney was also a poet in his own right 'Severn meadows' is his own words. Also included were settings of 'By a bierside' (John Masefield), Black stitchel (Wilfred Gibson), and 'Even such is time' (Walter Raleigh).

John and Vann performed 'Two songs to poems by Rupert Brooke' and Spring sorrow (also from the pen of Brooke) by John Ireland (1879-1962), who wanted to do his bit but was unable to fight because of his health - despite trying for several months to pass physical examinations. This was followed by 'By the bivouac's fitful flame' (Walt Whitman) by Hamilton Harty (1897-1941) who was a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and a well known accompanist himself.

The last two composers to mention were William Denis Browne (1888-1915) who was in the Royal Navy and died in the Gallipoli Campaign and Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) who was twice wounded and, like Gurney, was gassed. Browne was interested in early music, but was also progressive giving the first performance of Alban Berg's Piano Sonata in London. 'Arabia' (Walter de la Mare) had a simple but effective piano part with moonbeams twinkling over the sand dunes. 'A child's prayer' (Siegfried Sassoon) by Bliss was also simple but quite different in style to the rest of the programme (possible because of his deep interest in Parisian modernist composers like Stravinsky and Ravel) – resulting in a lullaby for any age.

The final duet (surely that should be trio) was by Vaughan Williams, 'The song from the leaves of life and the water of life' adapted from the Book of Revelations was composed much later (1952) and finished off the concert in conciliatory mood.

The English Song Festival cannot be praised enough – not only for championing the neglect of English song but by providing us with performers who clearly love the style and are able to commune their passion, and the emotion of the poet and composer's intent, to the audience.
Reviewed by Hilary Glover

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