This CD is an excellent gap-filler! Of course, the Peter Warlock
song ‘Take, O take those lips away’ is well known but a
study of the Arkiv CD database reveals that virtually none of
these songs is currently available. Whether they are first recordings
or not is not the point: this is a valuable addition to the discographies
of these three composers. Perhaps Geoffrey Stern is a relatively
unknown quantity but I understand that there are three CDs of
his music available – but not readily so. The webpage suggests
that you write to him for more information – but, alas, he died
last year (2005).
As a long-time enthusiast
of the music of E.J. Moeran I was delighted to be able to review
these two collections of songs. Of course, I have been aware
of them ever since I eagerly opened the pages of Geoffrey Self’s
excellent biography of the composer. But I have never had the
opportunity of hearing them - at least until today.
Ernest John Moeran
is credited with some fifty-ish original songs and more than
twenty-five arrangements of folksongs for soloist and piano.
However, his work in this genre was split up into a number of
quite distinct phases. This is important in gaining an understanding
of the composer’s mind as he developed his style and technique
and came to terms with his wartime injuries and dependence on
Just after the Great
War he chose, as a preference, the words of contemporary poets.
This was perhaps due to the strong influence of John Ireland
who was well known for his settings of early 20th
Century English verse. From Moeran, we have fine songs by A.E
Houseman, Robert Bridges and John Masefield, for example. Of
course, the Shropshire Lad settings are of the best known
poems – with When smoke stood up from Ludlow and
The lads in their hundreds being the best of the
After 1924 Moeran
came under the influence – for better or worse - of Peter Warlock
(Philip Heseltine). He began to turn his hand to the great deposit
of Elizabethan and Jacobean lyrics. But there was to be change
again a few years later: from 1929 until his death in 1950 he
concentrated on setting the great Irish poets such as James
Joyce and Seamus O’Sullivan. However there was a common thread
thought this period - his interest in folk-song and of course
The first group
of songs on this CD are the Six Folksongs from Norfolk.
Apparently, these were composed over quite a long period – from
the dark days of 1915 until 1923. The original works and melodies
were taken down and transcribed and arranged, by the composer,
from folksingers in Norfolk. Six of these were published by
Augener in 1924.
They are all simple
in their construction and allow the words to predominate: the
piano accompaniment is in no way intrusive but totally supportive.
One of the beauties of these settings is the way that the soloist’s
musical line points up the sense of the words.
One of the song
titles, ‘Lonely Waters,’ (1924) was used by the composer
as a title for and the basis of, a rather desolate and bleak
The Seven Poems
of James Joyce (1929) is a minor masterpiece. It is once
again an ideal combination of words and music. The texts of
these songs are simpler than the poet’s excursions into prose,
yet their content is extremely poignant. They are typically
about ageing and the transience of life. Living and the passage
of the seasons are juxtaposed; love is never far away. The music
may owe something to Delius but these songs are never derivative.
Further, there is much reminiscence of the folk-song material
that always inspired the composer. All lovers of Moeran’s music
will see plenty here that is characteristic of his craftsmanship,
genius and inspiration.
Candlelight: a Cycle of Nursery Jingles is absolutely
exquisite. Words are superfluous in describing them. They consist
of twelve very short songs – the shortest is twenty nine seconds
and the longest a mere one minute twelve seconds. Apparently
they were composed for the composer’s six year old son, Nigel.
The majority of
the texts are believed to have come from Nurse Lovechild’s
Legacy, an innocent little book that was published during
the carnage of the First World War. We hear settings of Little
Tommy Tucker, I had a little pony, There was an
old Woman and last but not least How many miles to Babylon?
– plus six more! These miniatures appeal to children of all
ages – from nine to ninety-nine!
The Three Songs
were written in 1916-17 and are perhaps amongst the best of
Peter Warlock’s works. The programme notes point out that their
spare texture, the lack of bar lines in the score and the intense
chromaticism owes much to Bernard van Dieren.
were published with the title of ‘Saudades’ which is
a Portuguese word implying, as Warlock wrote ‘a haunting sense
of sadness and regret for days gone by ... a word which has
no equivalent in the English language.’
The first is a translation
by L Cranmer-Byng of a text by Li Po – Along the Stream.
The second is Warlock’s first attempt at setting words by Shakespeare
and finally the lovely Heracleitus is a poem by the Greek
poet Callimachus and translated by William Johnson Cory. All
three poems have a bleakness that could have made these songs
un-listenable – yet strangely there is a haunting beauty about
them that makes them compulsive listening. The edition recorded
here goes back to the original manuscript and is not the published
version of 1923.
The last Warlock
offering is a rather strange creation. It was cobbled up between
the poet Bruce Blunt and the composer in precisely eighteen
hours. The story goes that the poet wrote the words after spending
an evening with the poet in the Fox Inn, Bramdean. Warlock
wrote the music the next morning and gave the work a preliminary
‘run through’ on a piano in a Salisbury music shop. Bearing
in mind the ephemeral nature of the words and music this is
a mature and deep reflection on the transience of life and is
a most welcome addition to this CD.
It is not my intention
to give a biography of the little known composer Geoffrey Stern
– save to say that his compositions are eminently suitable to
this present CD. The composer himself once described his music
as ‘English, modern but approachable.’ And this is certainly
my experience with these songs. Unfortunately the composer died
in 2005 in Canada of a heart attack: he was aged seventy. Two
of the songs recorded here, Lean out of your Window and
the eponymous Strings in the Earth and Air were especially
composed for the present recording.
The first offering
is Three Wordsworth Songs which were composed in 1953.
They have not been published. Yet all three of these songs have
a perfect balance of music and words. Perhaps some critics may
argue that they are somewhat backward-looking to pre-war English
songs - but this is beside the point. They are moving songs
that engage both the listener and quite manifestly, the performers.
It is good that
Dunelm Record have chosen to record Stern’s unpublished Four
Songs of James Joyce back to back with Moeran’s Seven
Poems. Stern’s settings are much more astringent that that
of Moeran. In fact Strings in the Earth amd Air could
be regarded as almost tortuous in its progress. Even here there
is much that reminds the listeners of the more spartan songs
by Peter Warlock. Yet any difficulties with this particular
song are swept aside by the lovely Gentle Lady. The ‘sleeve-notes’
say that the accompaniment achieves a balance between the keyboard
styles of the Fitzwilliam Virginal Book and jazz! Sounds odd
– but it certainly works. A lovely song.
The last work, Legend,
is odd – perhaps even true to say that it is totally off-the-wall.
The words are by Henry Treece. If you do not understand the
words you are in good company. Apparently the composer did not
have a clue what it all meant either. But somehow the music
captures the spirit of these words:-
The lads of the
town drank down to the dregs
Then took a sharp
axe to the top of the tree
But the thieves
had been there first gathering logs
And the blackthorn
cock sang steadily.
Make of it what
The sound quality
of the vocal line on the CD is crystal clear – although sometimes
sounds a little bit distant. Paul Martyn-West has a lovely voice
apt to interpreting these songs. He is well able to imbue each
song with its own character. I worry a little about the piano
sound – occasionally it just does not seem quite right –as if
in a hole! Although, technically, Niger Foster is a sympathetic
This is a really
interesting CD. Even considering the minor niggles about the
piano, I feel that it is an essential addition to the library
of anyone who loves the ‘English School of Lieder.’
I hope to hear some
more music by Geoffrey Stern over the coming years.