It seems to me astonishing that John Jeffreys,
as if a man born out of time, succeeds in amalgamating the character
of the Elizabethan lutenists (on whom he is a recognised authority)
with the harmonic piquancy of the early twentieth century – the
Georgians in particular. He achieves, without conscious artifice
in setting earlier texts, an individual voice. The vocal line
with which his music sings is thoughtfully deployed within prismatic
harmony, assuming, chameleon-like, the evocative colour and texture
of the poetic image. The scoring too is characteristic – the melodic
inflexions and melisma influenced by the free rhythms of the Elizabethans;
the harmonic texture suggesting string quartet writing.
It is perhaps unnecessary to say that the poetic
image is one that from Elizabethan times and through to the early
twentieth century is completely English, enshrining the very character
– literary and geographical as well as musical – of a lyrical
national identity. This is not simply a rearrangement of folk-material
but something inherent in the psyche of our race. Its many allusions
are evident in the varied texts of these forty-one songs. It is
that rare thing that, from the days of Palgrave in countless anthologies,
is the essence of English lyrical expression.
His setting of Fletcher’s "Sleep" shows
this personality in essence. The melody could be by Rossetter
or Dowland, the harmony by Gurney. Yet together there emerges
a unique musical identity – an amalgam of Elizabethan and Georgian
sentiment. As this recital develops, its strength emerges as lying
in a kind of melancholy that is itself an eclectic mixture of
resignation and heart’s-ease. He is a reflective musician – his
reaction to the poetic text is not immediate, often setting the
same poem several times over, expressive of quite distinct moods.
Reflective? Yes, and programming a recital where there is such
a prevailing mood and when almost all the songs are in a slow
tempo, is apt to result in monotony, even boredom.
Scot Weir successfully overcomes this danger
here by dividing the recital into five sections, each prefaced
by a quotation which sets the mood. Perhaps it does more, and
seems to probe deeply into the very heart of the music’s impulse.
The first section is prefaced by Joseph Campbell’s
line "Fill me O stars as with an olden tune", the music
full of the open air and moorland cries, Nature at her barest,
bereft of all comfort. The second has Belloc’s words, "Bless
mine hands and fill mine eyes/And bring my soul to paradise".
The mood of the six songs in this group is one of supplication
tinged with dramatic mysticism, its strongest expression in the
setting of Barry Jones’ poem "I saw Love raised upon a tree".
The third group is in some way central to the
whole, taking its mood from the Northumbrian poet, W W Gibson
"Come from barren ways and blind/ Where men seek but never
find". This evocation of the desolation of the memory of
things past, of distant death, is beautifully poignant especially
in the three Gurney settings – From Omiecourt, with its
"orchards that hedges thick enfold": Severn Meadows,
an exquisite short song with an extended piano prelude that encapsulates
the intensity of the emotion which words alone could not express:
and Requiem for the poet’s dead friend.
But the culmination of the group is "Curlew
Calling". It is the essence of the whole recital – a song
whose Van Dieren-like texture is expressive of a dark yearning
for the security of homecoming, perhaps of death. This image that
is later repeated in Barry Duane Hill’s "A light wind".
I might venture to suggest that the placing of this Gibson song,
with the subdued intensity of its emotional climax, could seem
approximately at the ‘Golden Mean’. Certainly the music suggests,
‘a man born out of time’
With the first track of the second disc "Awake
thee, my Bessy", we are in another world. The opening quotation
"But change she earth or change she sky/Yet will I love her
till I die" also suggests the agonies of love. This song
of Thomas Ford, with its love at first sight is nearer to Parry
than to Warlock, ranking in beautiful simplicity with Lane Wilson’s
collection, as delicate as the lovely Celia. The setting in this
group of "It was a lover and his lass" has a delightful
freshness that amply justifies the composer’s daring to set such
a well used text!
And together with the frailty of human emotions,
there is in the following section the solace of Nature, here in
the Spirit of Place. An opening quote from Housman "Lie long
high snowdrifts in the hedge/That will not shower on me"
underlines the melancholic: it is that strange ache in the loins
that can affect one when a particular place or scene suddenly
seems, with its attendant memories and associations, to have an
especial emotional impact. This final group contains three of
Jeffreys’ finest songs: "I will go with my father a-ploughing"
(a song that, of all his songs, should earn the composer’s place
in the canon of English song); "All Night under the Moon"
(the first of three different settings - wasn’t it Lawrence who
said of the poet Gibson and his wife, "they should be happy
as birds in a quiet wood") – and the eloquent "Northumberland".
The collection on this double CD set is richly
representative of a composer of the most delicate sensitivity
to the meanings of words, and in this fine recital every nuance
of that expressiveness is given voice by the singer Scot Weir
and his partner Rainer Hoffmann. It should be in the library of
every lover of song – and indeed in the repertoire of every English
A sad Epilogue to the issue of this CD (Echoed
perhaps in the dark liner, with its ‘grey rains’ and curlew drawn
by Diane Pryke of Haverhill) took place when a live performance
was given at St Cyprian’s Church in London on 8th July
2003 by the soloists. This was as a memorial tribute to Kenneth
Roberton who died on 4th May 2003 at the age of 89,
and whose support and encouragement, both as friend and as publisher,
restored this music to us (much of which the composer had earlier
destroyed). We are in his debt.