One way and another I have been listening to a great
deal of English song, or more accurately settings of poetry in English,
over the last six months. There has been John Williamson's A.E. Housman
settings, Margaret Wegener's songs, both on small British labels, Butterworth,
Warlock and Finzi (Decca's British Music Collection) and Benjamin Burrows
in a very recent British Music Society collection on the Ensemble label.
Now along comes a fascinating addition from an unexpected source.
Horace Keats was born in London and having left home
at the age of 16 earned a living as pianist aboard the great transatlantic
liners. There he met the diseuse Nella Webb. On a tour to Australia
with Miss Webb he met and was persuaded to stay by two of the great
singers of the day, Peter Dawson and Ella Caspers. He worked extensively
in the Australian theatre and cinema world and soon moved into broadcasting.
He died just a year before Granville Bantock (his elder by twenty-seven
years) a composer whose songs many of Keats's resemble.
The present collection of songs are from the 1930s
and 1940s written in the last decade of Keats' life. They are not drawing
room ballads. They also stand clear of the type churned out by Stanford
- with two exceptions. The first is Drake's Call - clearly written
with Songs of the Sea and Songs of the Fleet in the sights.
It was perhaps a song written with Dawson in the memory. White Heather
is an exercise in Celtic shamrockery written to suit John McCormack
though sung by a woman. This is more Bax than Stanford.
On the other hand the songs are not impressionistic
- or not very impressionistic. The Point of Noon and Moonlit
Apples which is as dewily luxuriant as the buzzing unDelian summer
evoked by Havergal Brian in his Fifth Symphony The Wine of Summer.
They stand well away from the alienation of the Second Viennese clique.
Had Keats gone down that avenue he might have experienced less of an
occlusion during the period from 1950 to 1990. Lauris Elms recorded
an LP of Keats's songs in 1972 but apart from that and the Keats chapter
of various Australian singing competitions this music has slept deeply.
What we have is a composer who is in his element in
the late romantic field. He can embrace sentimentality without embarrassment
as in The Roads Beside the Sea (recorded in the 1940s by Harold
Williams) which reeks agreeably of Montague Phillips and Haydn Wood.
Keats is far more straightforward than Othmar Schoeck. Less oblique
than Bernard van Dieren but more populist than most Warlock. Imagine
a cross between the sultry warmth of Bantock, the Humbert Wolfe songs
of Gustav Holst, the songs of Hahn and of Finzi and Ireland in their
occasional balladeer style.
Yellow Bracken, taken from the massive novel,
Wolf Solent, vigorously sets John Cowper Powys, that Celt-mystic
and Wessex aspirant-successor to Hardy. Love's Secret is turbulently
romantic - operatically so - recalling the terrible outcome of Tess's
admission to Angel in Tess of the d'Urbervilles. In Sea-Wraith
the words "and he who looks must look again" vibrates with the Housman
spirit of that master lyric musician C.W. Orr. The Trespass is
gestural and strongly shaped by knowledge of Rachmaninov's piano style.
It glories in love as much as Vaughan Williams and Gurney glory in the
ploughing teams and the turning furrow. Bantock (Sappho) and
Holst (Rig Veda songs) are reflected in Over the Quiet Waters,
the song Keats dedicated to his son Russell killed in action in 1942
while serving on board HMAS Canberra. The Mackenzie songs Goldfish,
Plucking the Rushes and Fishing pick up on Mackenzie's
and Keats' joint interest in the Chinese style also reflected in the
songs of Peggy Glanville-Hicks and more familiarly in the Li Tai Po
settings of Arthur Bliss and Constant Lambert. In several songs Keats
is uncannily predictive of Alan Hovhaness in the stratospheric altissimo
of the songs he wrote and adapted for his wife Hinako Fujihara. This
is not the only pre-echo. The Drinkwater song Moonlit Apples
seems like a style-sketch for Barber's Knoxville (lovingly recorded
many years ago on a Unicorn LP by Australian soprano Molly McGurk).
Neither soloist is ideal. Both can be tremulous of
voice especially in Keats' many high long held notes (try the joyous
Spring Breezes) though in intelligence both more than pass muster.
Each sings with response to the meaning of the words. A good example
is Dixon's intonational delineation of the parenthetic aside 'how long
I know not' in We Sat Entwined - which reaches out towards the
title song in Finzi's Till Earth Outwears. Speaking of Finzi,
Sun after rain recalls his At a Lunar Eclipse and Channel
There are some treasurable songs here including the
Hopkins setting of the famous words "I have decided to go where springs
not fail" in Heaven Haven.
A lovely rather old-fashioned collection topped off
by a highly detailed and consummately well designed English-only booklet
running to 32 pages.