The Accents of National Music

As we listen to music, even if we don’t know the piece or composer, we can sometimes identify the national origin of a work.  ‘That’s French!’, we might declare, or Russian, or English, Nordic, Bohemian, Eastern European, American, or whatever else.  As a scholar, a musicologist, a recurring theme that is of interest to some, in talks or notes, is how that sense of nationalism is created.  What is it that allows us to identify that national origin?  What is it that defines a national voice?  How can we identify what it is that make those nationalist differences in music, and what they are?  More fundamentally, do these boundaries truly exist?

After the question of national identity in music arose in a discussion panel at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song in 2017, composer Martin Bussey remarked that he doesn’t set out to write ‘English music’.  Nor do I.  It is the last thing on our minds.  I don’t believe any composer sets out upon their career, or indeed a work, thinking, ‘I must write music as befits my nationality!’  In writing an idea, we don’t think, ‘I can’t write that: it just isn’t representative of the national voice and music to which I am contributing and belong!’  In the case of several composers I have spoken to, we write the music that we want to hear.  Even when a composer is part of a movement that consciously seeks to create, or rationalise, a national cultural voice, they cannot ‘create’ that identity.  Such movements (think Finland, and their 19th century movement towards independence) draw upon traditional cultures: folklore, folk-songs, the reclamation of native language where it has been suppressed — elements of their national, non-occupationist, culture that have survived on the fringes.  Beyond that, a composer or writer cannot truly create a national voice.  It comes from somewhere deeper.

While personal musical style can be a conscious, or half-conscious thing that a composer refines and hones with practice and writing, any sense of a national cultural identity that might be perceived in that music is a subconscious, if not indeed wholly unconscious, act.  So what is it that underpins that unconscious, or half-subconscious, yet tangible sense of ‘national music’?

Much has been written of landscape and music, particularly in Britain with the perceived pastoralism of composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams and the late-19th–early-20th century school.  Is it the landscape that shapes it?  Is there something of the elemental rock of Iceland, unsoftened by green, in Jon Liefs, as one might say of the green pastures of England’s pastoralism?  Can we differentiate between the urban and rural?  Perhaps we can, but Vaughan Williams, as an adoptive Londoner, wrote many of his apparently pastoral works in that metropole (although I think landscapes reside within us more than without — but that is an essay for another day).  A more fundamental and constant part of our environment I think does have some bearing on national style: the climate; the heat of Spain, the more temperate variance of Britain, and the cool Nordic climes, such as the quality of light in those places is evident in visual art.  Also of bearing, is our national cultural distinction, the nature of our characters.  Of this, I believe one aspect is crucial and fundamental: our language; our voices.  Language is, I believe, the true key to that sense of national identity in music; something ingrained in us from even before we leave our mother’s body, hearing the shape and sound of that which is spoken around us.  In Iain Crichton Smith’s poem, ‘Shall Gaelic Die?’ (the Gaelic question is a subject for yet another essay, perhaps), a line stands out in this respect: ‘It wasn’t a factory that made your language — it made you.’  It is likely a factory of men of which he writes (‘Keep / out of the factory, O man, you are not a robot.’), but it is true also of the language: it, the language, made you.

Our language is at the root of our cultural identity and of our music making.  The most basic and innate instrument we have is our voice.  Composing is a singing (a truth I have only discovered this last few years, as the balance between my singing and composing has shifted), and the origin of the sounds that we sing come from the well practised art of speech: from the shape and sound of the vowels in our language and accent, the lie of the consonants and their placing and prominence, the construction of the language, the character of the line, the cadences, and the wider tonal level, range and natural lyrical shape of that speech.  All of this impacts upon how we shape sound in music as we compose.  While it would likely benefit from some scientific surety — a deeper, metalinguistic study, for which I am not qualified — from my standpoint as a writer, a composer, a singer, and a musicologist, there seem to be some extraordinarily strong links between language, accent, and national musics.

At a very crude level, think of Mussorgsky’s extraordinary Boris Godunov.  The Russian language, from my experience of attempting to sing the language, with its verbal placing of sounds towards the rear of the tongue rather than at its tip.  This deep production, and unique sound, seems to resound in the aural quality of Boris (think of the motto theme of that work).  The impressionistic qualities of French music seem to me to echo something of spoken French; the openness of American speech gives something of that quality to their music.  Linguistically, do the formal aspects  of Teutonic music that have came to dominate Western Music for so long have their foundation in the formal, compound-construction of the German language?  Perhaps I imposing these ideas on these national musics, seeing something that isn’t really there; but I don’t think I am. It requires, however, a linguistic analysis — however that might work — with defined parameters that don’t risk resortion to, or definition by, malperceived stereotypes.

But these are hugely cosmopolitan times.  With the ease of international travel (for better or for worse), and the cross-fertilisation and enriching of cultures that arises with the movement of peoples and forming of immigrant communities, with the changes and collaborations that might be possible in that movement (something which has been present in our various nations’ societies and cultures for thousands of years); and with the dilution of parochialism in the centralisation of businesses and services in international centres, are we at risk of losing our national identities?  Are we losing that aural sense of origin, of place, morphing into a homogenous individualism (if that isn’t a too great an apparently-irreconcilable contradiction) devoid of national locus?  No, I don’t think we are, nor will we ever do so.  We will always be true to that native language of our upbringing, be it bilingual or otherwise, in whatever place that upbringing takes place.  It is part of our uniqueness in belonging to a nation (or more than one), and our individual voices.

Thinking further on the national identity of music makes me wonder further whether there is any way of identifying ultra-localism in the music, from the dialects and accents within a nation.  Even though the language is the same, can we identify something of the midland drawl, the harsher tones of English-speaking Glaswegians, or the more song-like tone of the English-speaking Welsh, in music written by composers of these places?  I should love to know.

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Exclusive opportunity to hear a Gurney String Quartet!

Next weekend, on Sunday February 11th, there is an exclusive opportunity to hear the first performance of Ivor Gurney’s late D minor String Quartet, composed in December 1924-January 1925. The Bridge String Quartet are to perform the work at the University Women’s Club, 2 Audley Square, London, in an event which is seeking to raise funds for a forthcoming recording on EM Records.

The Gurney Quartet survived by chance, where all of his other late chamber works are missing—presumed destroyed, and has been reconstructed from surviving, heavily revised, parts by Michael Schofield — the Bridge Quartet’s violist. The Adagio from the quartet, reconstructed by myself, was recorded a few years ago, so it is tremendously exciting to be able to hear the whole of the piece. I shall be talking about the history of Gurney’s Quartet, and will also be introducing and singing the baritone solo in Gurney’s 1920 song cycle The Western Playland, which will be performed in an edition I made a few years ago. As I have said elsewhere on this blog (See Here), The Western Playland has had a difficult history, post-publication, and is nowhere near as well known as it should be. It is a remarkable piece, and I hope that its forthcoming recording with Roderick Williams, the Bridge Quartet and pianist Michael Dussek, will revive its fortunes. For Sunday, it is slightly nerve-wracking being Roddy’s ‘stunt-double’ for an afternoon, but it is amazing how much physically performing a work increases the amount one gets inside it and come to know more about it, even having spent many hours editing and writing about the piece.

If you would like to attend the performance/talk next Sunday (11th February) please email info@bridgequartet.com to let them know you are coming. Tickets will be £15 on the door, but the Quartet would like to know numbers in advance for the purposes of wine and cake!

Fugue on the Salley Gardens

Continuing my quest to add fuller detail to our knowledge of Ivor Gurney’s works, I am today poring once more over his musical sketchbooks, clarifying some of their contents and dating these notebooks with a little more precision, as well as confirming for our (viz. Tim Kendall and me) edition of Gurney’s complete poetry for OUP that we haven’t missed any last fragments. 

As well as finding an incomplete draft of a poem titled ‘Legs’, written in January or February 1921, which has now been inserted into the now complete span of the edition, and identifying the opening of an otherwise unknown setting of Edward Shanks, I have found in the midst of his several sketches and drafts for his song ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ (a Yeats setting of September-October 1920) the opening exposition of a fugue which takes its theme from that song. It was perhaps undertaken as an exercise for his post-war studies at the Royal College of Music; and since that melody was in his mind at the time, why not just use it? It is a rather unexpected use for this, one of Gurney’s more popular songs. Who knows: the working out at least in part of this fugue to part of that tune may have helped him on his way with the song itself. 

Arthur Benjamin in the Trenches

In early 1917 the composer Arthur Benjamin was serving with the Royal Fusiliers in the trenches of France.  In the Gurney archive, at Gloucestershire Archives, is held a letter, dated 26 January 1917, that I cannot help but transcribe for his description of his situation.  Benjamin writes to Marion Scott:

These are lines of intense frost, clear skies & dainty sunsets.  It is so cold that in one of our worst trenches where there is, as a rule, 2ft of water, one can walk dry-shod on 3 inches of ice.  Of nights myriads of stars and the narrowest of sickle moons give us that feeling that Heaven is closer to use; and if Turner could have lent Corot his palette we should have had a reproduction of last week’s sunsets.  No splashes of vivid orange or red, no purples, no silhouetted clouds[;] in short, none of the fantasy of the east or south.  Simply the blue merging peacefully into rose-grey and a ball of orange infusing an aura of its own colour into the rose-grey and dipping behind lace-like trees and shrubs of that green-tinged grey only Corot could mix.  If only Turner could enliven Corot and Corot subdue Turner!

It is all very lovely.

Benjamin’s letter begins whimsically, responding to a letter from Marion Scott in which she evidently reported the illness of her cats, Fluff, Tumble, and Lady Audrey — this latter immortalised in their mutual friend, Herbert Howells’s, four movement work for string quartet, Lady Audrey’s Suite (1917), in the manuscript of which Howells refers to himself as ‘the Composer–person’ (see here).  They (the cats & Marion Scott) evidently sent Benjamin a card featuring a golliwog (with the first movement of Howells’s suite being titled the ‘Four Sleepy Golliwogs’ Dance’, I presume that Scott had a menagerie of black cats), in response to which  Benjamin writes,

I think it delightful of them [the cats] to have thought of me while feeling so unfit.  Please thank them & give them my love.  The Gollywog will fraternize I’m sure with my other mascot[,] a ‘Touchwood’.  They have a piece of uncut amethyst (my lucky stone) to amuse them and the wishbone of a pigeon to dine from.  Also they have very warm quarters in my pocket-book. So they can’t grumble.

At the end of the letter Benjamin adds as a postscript, ‘The Gollywog’s patriotic pantaloons are vastly diverting!’.  We can only but wonder!

[Letter at Gloucestershire Archives D10500/8/2/1/1.]

W. Denis Browne: A Forgotten Centenary?

W. Denis Browne (1888-1915)

W. Denis Browne (1888-1915)

Today marks the centenary of the death of one of British music’s too-long-overshadowed figures: the composer, critic and pianist, William Denis Browne.  Born in Leamington Spa in November 1888, Denis attended Rugby School, where he met Rupert Brooke, whom he followed to Cambridge — Brooke to King’s College; Denis to Clare, where he served as organ scholar.  They knew each other well, and together became part of Edward Marsh’s circle, Marsh arranging ultimately for Brooke and Browne to serve together in the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, in which they were together dispatched for Gallipoli in 1915, neither of them to return home again.

At Cambridge, Denis Browne became one of Edward Dent’s most important protégés.  Dent, who knew both Brooke and Browne,  believed Denis to be every bit the worth of the now much lauded Rupert Brooke, but that he was too honest an artist to have wanted the sometimes blind attention that Brooke attracted even from the first announcement of his death.  Dent therefore refrained from pushing him into an uncritical limelight, and waited a few years before seeking to make his work more widely known.  Today, he is still little know, his reputation standing on just a few songs — a few of the eleven he completed.  One of these is one of the masterpieces of English song, and has gone on to become one of the most influential songs of the century: To Gratiana Dancing and Singing.

There is no doubt that, had he survived, he would have been one of the key players in 20th Century British music.  As a performer and critic, he was embracing the work of the modernists — Scriabin, Berg and Schoenberg — and was starting to introduce some of those ideas into his own music.  He worked with Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and some of the most notable singers of his day.  His was a truly remarkable genius, and was unquestionably the greatest loss to British music of the First World War.

In his pocket book he left a modest note to be passed on to Edward Dent in the event of his death:

It’s odd being dead. Rupert’s gone too, so there’s no reason why I should mind; and at any rate I’ve had a run for my money, and he was stolen unfairly before a shot was fired.  There will be no-one to give me such a jolly funeral as I gave him, which is a pity.

Think of me sometimes.

WDB

In honour of this centenary, I have put up on my website an article I wrote on WDB some years ago, which I hope might be of some interest, and I will be posting some scores and a selection of his other writings.  That page is here: http://www.philiplancaster.com/r/wdbrowne.htm

If you do nothing else today, try to seek out either To Gratiana Dancing and Singing or his truly remarkable and unique last song, Arabia.  Both are available for download for a matter of pence from Hyperion, from their wonderful War’s Embers disc (what I think to be the best performance of Gratiana on disc), or you can hear at least Gratiana on YouTube.  Arabia is certainly worth the 70 pence download cost (and more!), being not, as far as I can see, available for free from anywhere.  If such artistry as is shown by singers and pianists should ever be given for free — but that is a question for another day, perhaps.  Today is Denis’s day.  Remember him.

Ivor Gurney on Crickley Hill

I am these days often ensconced in the Gloucestershire Archives, beavering away at the cliff-face of the Ivor Gurney archive.   Often this is spent in the transcription of Gurney’s many poems from manuscript, in preparation for the edition I am preparing with Tim Kendall of the Complete Literary Works of Ivor Gurney for Oxford University Press.  This week I have been mopping up a few odds and ends relating to the collation of the 1973 published selection of Gurney’s poems edited by Leonard Clark; a knotty process that began in 1962 and took 11 years to finally come to fruition.

In the midst of Clark’s papers are a number of press cuttings, which include some recollections of Gurney, the writing of which was prompted by Clark’s edition.  One was published on Wednesday 29 August in The Citizen – Gloucester’s local paper — and was from Mrs Helen Herring: the then 9-year-old daughter of the farmer of Dryhill Farm, where Gurney worked and stayed in the spring of 1919.  She recalls:

I remember so well the first cup of tea in the kitchen and my mother trying to get him to talk.  But all he would do was to look out on to the wash house roof and go into raptures over the moss and broken tiles.

My father swept out, remarking, ‘A rum chap to help farming’.

The first job he was given was to groom a yearling cart colt which had wintered badly.  He curry-combed away and was knee deep in hair and lice.  But Ivor could see beauty in everything and his notebook was on the wall.  He wrote a poem about Lousy Joe — but forgot to turn poor Joe loose.

Evenings he would compose music on our old iron framed piano which had not been tuned for years.  No one would come so far into the country to do things like that in those days.  To me it was the most terrible noise.  The whole room seemed to rock as he thumped away.  Father would get his gun and disappear.  Mother would sit and worry about Ivor’s health as he would not eat while he was composing and drank, literally, gallons of milk.

When he had finished whatever it was on his mind he would have an enormous appetite.  Which was rather awkward, as one never knew when that would be.

When put to dig a potato patch, very little was done, but Ivor came in with a poem about how he met a German in the war — ‘I shot him, it had to be one of us, him or me’.

[The quoted poem is the opening line of ‘The Target’, which in fact dates from October 1917]

Mrs Herring also went and found out the old autograph book from the farm house, in which Gurney, as a guest in the household, had written a short squib:

How wonderful,

To be able

To sit one down

At the table

and write tout-suite

Straight off

A wonderful, original

Autograph.

Following the publication of this recollection, another former resident of Crickley Hill, Mrs Beatrice Blandford, came forward with her own recollections of Gurney, on his visits to the ‘Green homestead on Crickley’.

Ivor Gurney and my father, George Compton, were great friends.  Ivor was organist at Hempsted Church [an undoubtedly peripatetic post] and after service he would come to our home and entertain us by playing all sorts of funny pieces on our piano.

One of the songs of which I had the manuscript was ‘Bright is the ring of words when the right man sings them.’ He gave it to me and my father used to sing it.  […]

Although Mrs. Blandford says in the article that she has searched for the manuscript but has been unable to find it, this song is held in the archive, titled ‘Song and Singer’; a pre-war manuscript dated 18 January 1911.

Gurney and Mr Compton were ‘comrades in arms’, both serving with the 2/5 Gloucesters, and the article goes on to recall an occasion which reflects ‘Gurney’s sensitivity’, on ‘an occasion when they were relaxing behind the lines on the Somme’:

Gurney said, ‘George, let’s found an organ’, so they did — in a ruined church with the organ still in working condition.

Ivor […] played and played as her father pumped the instrument until he could pump no more.  Then Ivor broke down and sobbed like a child because his hardened hands were in such bad condition.

For any who wish to visit Dryhill Farm, and perhaps look at what is now known as ‘the poet’s room’ in the farmhouse attic, the Gurney Society is organising a walk on Crickley Hill on Sunday 10 May, 2015, as part of their annual Spring Weekend.  See www.ivorgurney.org.uk.

A Benjamin Britten Festival, Lichfield, 22-24 November 2013

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

Benjamin Britten (1913-76)

It can have escaped the attention of few – if any – that 2013 has marked the centenary of the birth of a figure regarded as the foremost British composer of the twentieth century, Benjamin Britten (1913-76).  The centenary year has been a triumph most notably for the Britten Estate.  The marketing and outreach that has either been instigated or passed through the office of the Britten Estate is second to none.  I doubt even the centenaries of Mozart and Beethoven were as well represented.  But the joy of Britten – who is noted particularly for his vocal works, and the vitalisation of British opera – is that he wrote numerous works specifically for young people, so schools the length and breadth of the Britain, and beyond our shores, have been able to become involved in performance of such works as Friday Afternoons and Noyes Fludde.  Indeed, on Britten’s birthday itself – this coming Friday, 22 November – hundreds of simultaneous performances of Friday Afternoons will commemorate that date, with the involvement of over 100,000 children around the world, in places as far flung as America, China and Australia, not to mention 118 in Britten – sorry Britain! – alone (see here).    That date also marks the beginning of Lichfield’s Britten Festival, organised by Cathedral Director of Music, Cathy Lamb: a weekend of events which begins with the coming together of pupils from several schools in Lichfield in two performances of Noyes Fludde.

The full calendar of events is follows:

Friday 22 November

  • 3.0pm: Noyes Fludde.  Cathy Lamb conducts the performance, which is being directed by the Canon Precentor, Wealands Bell, with Fran Ambrose as Noye and Ailsa Cochrane as Mrs Noye.
  • 5.30pm: Choral Evensong, featuring Britten’s A Hymn to the Virgin.
  • 7.30pm: Noyes Fludde (second performance).

Saturday 23 November‘s events are as follows:

  • 5.30pm: Choral Evensong, including the Hymn to St. Columba and canticles by Henry Purcell, who was a great influence on Britten.
  • 7.30pm: Evening Concert: Lichfield Cathedral Chamber Choir will be joined by DECO (the Darwin Ensemble Chamber Orchestra) in performances of both St. Nicholas and The Company of Heaven, conducted by Martyn Rawles.

and there follows a busy Sunday:

  • 9.30am: Choral Matins, including Britten’s Te Deum and Jubilate as well as Purcell’s Hear my prayer;
  • 11.0am: Choral Eucharist, including Britten’s Missa Brevis and ‘This Little Babe’ from A Ceremony of Carols;
  • 1.0pm: Lecture by Paul Spicer: ‘Benjamin Britten: Too Original for his own good?’
  • 3.30pm: Choral Evensong, with Britten A Hymn to St. Cecilia and another set of canticles by Purcell.
  • 5.0pm: Recital by Yours Truly, with Ben Lamb at the piano, including Britten’s marvellous Songs and Proverbs of William Blake.

Philip Lancaster song recital flyer.docSpeaking personally, it is a manically busy weekend, but is one to which I am looking forward with great excitement.  I am involved in every event except for the Eucharist and Lecture on the Sunday (the Eucharist being sung by the boys’ and girls’ choirs, so the gents of the choir are not required).  I am The Voice of God in Noye and one of the three readers in The Company of Heaven.  However, it is the recital which is the most exciting fare of the weekend (and the one for which I am most likely to be rather weary, after all preceding services and events of the weekend!)  It is not perhaps the joyful finale, but a dark, introspective look at the human condition.  The recital begins with the three songs written for Ronald Duncan’s play This Way to the Tomb, which ends with the Purcellian Ground Bass of ‘Night’.  There follows Britten’s realisation of Purcell’s powerful song, ‘Job’s Curse’, which sets the scene for The Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, written for Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau in 1965.  This is one of the most extraordinary works I have ever performed – one of the most difficult to learn, but by far one of the most satisfying.  The programme concludes with four folksong arrangements by Britten.  These are not the light froth that one might associate with the idea of folksong, but darker tales of loves lost.

I hope to see you sometime over the weekend!  For more details you can download the flyer here.