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Upbeat Recordings

Carey BLYTON (1932-2002)
The Choral Music: The Christ Church Carol (1978); God’s Gifts Op 71a; A Lullaby Op 24a; A Litany Op. 24b; Polyphonic A-mens Op. 43; The Christmas Spirit Op. 55a; War Song of the Saracens Op. 106; Three Food Songs Op. 35; Three Insect Songs Op. 40; Three Bird Song Op. 38; What then is Love? - version for unaccompanied chorus Op 26a; The Mistletoe Bough with piano woodwork Op. 61; A Woman’s World Op. 46; In Lighter Mood Op. 63c; Ladies Only Op. 58; The Silly Flea - version for male voices Op. 33b; A Nursery Song Suite Op 92.
Canzonetta/Jennifer Partridge (piano and director)
Recorded at The Maltings, Snape. November 2001.
UPBEAT URCD 190 [63.51]

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There was a time when a composer was ostracised because he/she was too modern or difficult ... avant-garde in fact. Beethoven was shunned by many, Debussy similarly for a number of years, Stravinsky the same and the list could go on. Nowadays a composer is marginalised because he is not difficult or abstruse. It is the worst musical crime of all to be easily assimilated, populist or, heaven forefend, tuneful. Carey Blyton who died, it seems extraordinary to think it, almost three years ago aged 70, falls into that category. However his day is coming, nay has almost arrived, and this CD will help focus the cause.

A few months before his death, he sent me a tape and so I had a chance of an early hearing. It was soon apparent to me that of all of the eight CDs of his music that have come out in the last twelve years or so, this one probably meant most to him. Why was that? Well, although orthodox religion was not at all Carey’s ‘bag’ he could, despite his sometime frivolous exterior, be a spiritual and philosophical man. This comes out in the first four works here especially in ‘Litany’, ‘Drop, Drop Slow tears’ with words by Phineas Fletcher (1582-1650) also set by Walton and ‘God’s Gifts’ for which Carey had written the beautiful and yet simple words. He also wrote the words for the ‘Christchurch Carol’.

So the CD starts with more ‘serious’ pieces and then launches into typical Blyton, never to look back. I'll just discuss a few that particularly strike me.

Blyton is brilliant at writing canons; a real skill this. Of course, for the choral director, especially if his ensemble is a little short of rehearsal time or talent, canons are a wonderful short-cut.

I have used the ‘Insect songs’, ‘Food songs’ and ‘Bird songs’ with my own very young choirs on many occasions in the version with piano. Until this experience I had not realized that they almost all work as Rounds. Mind you, sung unaccompanied as they are here, tuning might be a problem, but not of course for the ladies of Canzonetta. Other canons here are composed as part of the texture as in the ingenious three-part songs which make up the little cycle ‘A Woman’s world’. With the canon only in the top two parts it does mean that the pieces could be sung in just two parts if necessary,- very practical, very resourceful. Incidentally we should not forget the sadly, unpublished ‘Three Fishy Tales Op. 50.

One of my favourite Blyton works, and one which continues to grow on me, is the little cycle of four settings of 16th Century verse which make up ‘What then is Love’. These were written in 1956. To hear the work in chamber music form, in its arrangement for soprano, clarinet and piano, you should purchase ‘The Early Songs’ on (Upbeat URCD160). Here we can hear it in the version the composer originally conceived that is for a cappella choir; quite different it is too. These are real madrigals and well worth any choir investigating. Incidentally the second one ‘Tell me where is fancy bred’ starts as a delightful canon first between soprano and tenor and is then taken up by alto and bass. The next song, which begins in three parts, is again a canon between the sopranos 1 and 2.

In an interview published by Fand between the composer and Peter Thompson, Blyton is asked "Where do your ideas come from?". The composer remarks "when I’m sitting, or lying in bed or waiting to get up, or waiting to go to sleep". Well, I wonder where the idea came from for the ‘Nine Nursery Songs’ of 1991. It is a bizarre potpourri of rhyme after rhyme, passed between the voices and then mixed about a bit. It is utterly original and great fun but is it performable? I don’t mean technically, it’s certainly not difficult, but where and when, might it be performed? This may seem a silly question but Carey Blyton's music sometimes needs the correct exposure and a sympathetic choir.

There is also another problem too: the words. One of Carey’s many charms was that he was incredibly politically-incorrect. This is often reflected in the texts that he chooses. For instance, I have found that in rehearsing and performing ‘Ladies Only’ the teenage girl’s choir I had could not quite cope with lines like ‘So he sighed and pined and ogled, / And his passion boiled and bubbled, /Till he blew his silly brains out/ And no more by it was troubled’. On the whole my choir liked the music but not the words. ‘In Lighter Mood’ is a setting of songs proclaiming the joys of smoking. My Headmistress may not be too happy about the choir’s teenage boys singing this and the boys themselves can’t really relate to the words anyway. In ‘The Mistletoe Bough’ Blyton had the witty idea of asking for the piano woodwork to be tapped in rhythm between verses. It is only at the end that we learn that the tapping is because the skeleton of granny was found in an old chest ‘mouldering there in the bridal wreath’; not really carol service stuff, although suitable for adults in a light-hearted Christmas concert. That’s the problem. Adults find these things amusing, teenagers and children who put on many more concerts than adults I think, take them at face value and cannot see the humour in the same way. That’s what I mean by a sympathetic choir being required.

Needless to say, ‘Canzonetta’ is completely sympathetic and Jennifer Partridge a delightful accompanist as you might expect. In fact she and her brother Ian have both been involved with Blyton’s music well before this disc. They were the artists on the aforementioned ‘Early Songs’ disc and even earlier appeared on the roster of the ‘Lyrics from the Chinese’ disc of 1999 (URCD 179).

There is no doubt in my mind that anyone can and will enjoy this disc. Unlike other Blyton CDs however no texts are given in the eight-page booklet. However there are some useful notes by John Webber. There are 56 tracks in all; quite something. Other companies could learn from it. There is much here to entertain, fun for the whole family indeed. I strongly suggest that you search it out and the other Blyton discs. This music, simply delightful as it is, could well change your life!

Gary Higginson

see MusicWeb pages on Carey Blyton

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