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Graham Peel: Ettrick –a song for baritone
by John France
( also incorporating A LITTLE MORE ON GRAHAM PEEL by Christopher Howell)

I was rummaging in a second-hand music bookshop in London the other day and I found this song by the relatively unknown composer Graham Peel. This piece caught my eye largely because it is an evocation of the Scottish Border Country, an area that I have long known and loved. It is a corner of Scotland that is often by-passed when tourists are heading north to the Highlands. Yet, ignoring the wind-farms and the monoculture of coniferous forestation, this part of Scotland remains a wild and unspoilt area. Literary associations abound, including Sir Walter Scott, John Buchan, Robert Louis Stevenson and James Hogg. Culturally rugby and hunting are perhaps more important in this region that other parts of the Scottish Nation. From the latter, the ethos of this song surely derives.

Where he is known at all, Graham Peel, is seen as a respected writer of songs – especially his setting of four poems from Housman’s Shropshire Lad. However, he has written over a hundred other songs to texts by many diverse poets and versifiers. There are also a few piano pieces. Peel was born in Pendlebury, Salford in 1878 and was educated at Harrow and University College, Oxford where he was fortunate to study with Dr Ernest Walker. He moved to Bournemouth in 1914 and remained there until his death in 1937, aged 59. He spent much of his life as a public servant and was heavily involved in the Discharged Prisoner’s Aid Society. Naturally, music took up a considerable portion of his life – he was President of the local branch of the British Music Society and was chairman of the Bournemouth Municipal Choir. So composition was perhaps a relatively small part of his day to day work.

Of course, it is easy to compare Peel’s settings of Housman with those by Vaughan Williams, Gurney, Butterworth and Somervell – and to declare them inferior. Yet this is perhaps to miss the point. Philip Scowcroft wisely suggests that "Peel’s genuine lyrical gift which hovers between ballad and art-song but perhaps is more often nearer the former." It is in this context that we must judge his vocal music.

The words of this song were written by the Scottish poet and writer William Henry (W.H.) Ogilvie. Ogilvie was born at Holefield House which is situated in the Borders between Kelso and Coldstream. After a good education at Fettes College in Edinburgh, he worked on a sheep station in Australia. He began writing poetry at his time. After his return to Scotland he became a published author, writing both verse and agricultural journalism. He produced a number of ‘small volumes’ of poetry including one dealing with fox-hunting – a popular pastime in the Borders. Interestingly Ogilvie married the daughter of the Master of the Jedforest Hunt.

Graham Peel had recently set Ogilvie’s The Challenge (1920 and also Little Brown Bees (1925) Other settings included Ferry me across the water by Christiana Rossetti, The Lute Player by William Watson, Nick Spence by William Allingham and Kew in Lilac Time by Alfred Noyes. As an aside, the back cover advert is for a number of works by the largely forgotten composer Martin Shaw – his suite for String Quartet looks promising, as does his settings of Masefield’s Cargoes, and Bliss Carman’s At Columbine’s Grave. It is unfortunate that his catalogue is largely unknown and unheard.

Wild Ettrick, Wild Ettrick,
Your blue river gleams,
An azure cloak’d lover
That rides thro’ my dreams,
The heath’s at your stirrup,
The broom’s at your knee,
You sing in your saddle
A love song to me.

Thro’ green lands you led me
In lone ways apart
In long days you told me
Things dear to my heart,
In dream-time, in silence,
With haunting refrain
You murmur them over
And over again.

Wild Ettrick, Wild Ettrick
Love-raider in blue
Ah! Swing me to saddle
And take me with you
To glens of remembrance
And hills of desire,
The stars over Kirkhope
The Moon on the Swire

The basic sentiment of the song is of the love of native land that an exile may have and of course his dreams of that place. In fact the poet draws an analogy with a lover in the accepted sense of the word. For the curious, a ‘swire’ is a gentle depression between two hills and would appear to be an ‘old English’ word that has jumped across the border.

The song is actually quite simple – both from the singer’s and the accompanist’s point of view. The vocal range is from D to Fι and is hardly taxing for a good baritone. The work is in waltz-time and is written in G major: it is signed ‘allegretto grazioso’ which perhaps seems an odd tempo for a song of horsemanship. The piano accompaniment echoes the progress of the vocal melody and is primarily written in octaves and common chords. The fundamental melody is derived from a G major triad in second inversion and slips between the tonic and the dominant chord. The tune could certainly be described as being somewhat naïve – although this is, I think a deliberate attempt to mimic a ballad. There is also a feel of the hunting horn to this melody – which is highly appropriate, considering the poem’s protagonist is most likely a huntsman! Each stanza ends with a long held note lasting for more than three bars. The second and third stanzas are set to a similar, but not identical melody. It is as if the composer had regarded the initial phrase as a ‘set’ and then presented the notes in varying order. The second verse has a brief modulation to B minor. The final verse has an interesting variation for the penultimate line – Peel modulates to the dominant seventh of the subdominant. And finally the very last line of the poem is signed ‘ad lib’ and is unaccompanied. It is preceded by a short cadenza on the piano. The song ends on a long tenor D and is supported by a piano coda.

The song was published by J.B Cramer of New Bond Street, London in 1925. There is no record of any first performances- although I guess it would not be too off the mark to suggest that it was given in Bournemouth. The work appears to have fallen out of the repertoire.

As far as I am aware this song is not presently available on CD. However I have found a reference to a recording made in 1926 by Denis Noble. It was coupled with a song called Passing By alleged to be by a certain Mr Purcell – but apparently so dull as to make an ascription to Henry unlikely!


John France Ó 2008 The Land of Lost Content - British Music Blog

A LITTLE MORE ON GRAHAM PEEL by Christopher Howell

John France’s article on a little-known song by Graham Peel led me to check what I had on my own shelves.

I have three pieces. Two are from "A Country Lover", published by Chappell in 1910. It is not clear whether "A Country Lover" consists of just these two songs or whether they belong to a longer cycle. Since the single songs cost two shillings each in those far-off days (10p for those unfamiliar with pounds, shillings and pence) and the complete work just three shillings, I rather think it must have consisted of this pair only.

The first song is a setting of Hilaire Belloc’s "The Early Morning". It has just two pages, a smooth vocal line over pulsating chords. Though divided into two stanzas, the second is a subtle variation on the first with the vocal part rising nobly towards the end. There are some unexpected turns of phrase and I must say that, humming and playing it at the piano, I found it unexpectedly moving. It is too brief to stand alone but would be effective when the second song is to follow.

This latter has a text by Eva Gore-Booth and is entitled "The Little Waves of Breffny". It is a much more ambitious piece with a quite elaborate piano part and some opportunities for the singer to let fly, but each verse ends tenderly. The Irish tone set me thinking that Stanford had already passed this way, until I suddenly realized that the Stanford songs I was reminded of, the Letts settings op. 139 and op. 140, had not yet been written – they were composed in 1913. Peel no doubt knew "An Irish Idyll" op.77 (c.1900), but this is rather different in tone. I should think these two Peel songs would be welcomed by any singer looking for something off the beaten track that will make easy contact with the audience.

The other piece I have is a setting of William Allingham’s "Nick Spence" as a unison song. It was published in 1927 as no. 42 of "Cramer’s Library of Unison and Part Songs by Modern British Composers, edited by Martin Shaw". It comes as a reminder that the decline of musical education in British schools over the last fifty years has practically consigned to oblivion a vast repertoire of music so finely gauged to the schoolroom as to have limited chances of survival elsewhere.

The distinction between a solo song and a unison song can be a blurry one; Stanford’s "Satyr’s Song", for one, was published in both forms, the only difference being the size of the pages. Any solo song can theoretically be sung in unison if it is not too vocally demanding; I got my first taste of Schubert at school in this way. So, vice versa, the best of these unison pieces may yet return to life in solo performances. However, it has to be said that, the better the song was tailored to its original purpose, the less it is likely to be effective in the recital room. "Nick Spence" is a borderline case. The poem is brief indeed, almost meaningless:

Nick Spence, Nick Spence,

Sold the cow for sixpence!

When his master scolded him,

Nicky didn’t care.

Put him in the farmyard,

The stable-yard, the stack-yard,

Send him to the pig-stye

And Johnny to the fair.

It is sung three times over with a boisterous accompaniment that varies each time and must surely have pleased the children. The vocal line is altered at the end to make a rousing conclusion. The thought that an adult singer might feel embarrassed at singing such words at all is countered by the reflection that such a singer could have good fun characterizing each verse differently, in a way the third form at St. Dominic’s – or wherever – could not.

The Cramer series had begun in 1924 with some late pieces by Stanford and reached 120 numbers by 1935. If we bear in mind that major publishers like Novello, Boosey & Hawkes, Curwen, OUP and Chappell were all running similar series, as were smaller, now-forgotten operators like Edwin Arnold, Edward Arnold and the Year Book Press, we get an idea of the sheer quantity of music produced and, presumably, purchased. Novello’s, furthermore, had already been publishing music of this kind for about fifty years before the others got started. Virtually all this music faded from view in the post-war period. Browsers in second-hand bookshops may be surprised at how many miniatures by even major – and widely-recorded – composers such as Vaughan Williams, Holst, Ireland and Howells are lying around unused. Glancing down the Cramer list we find quite a few names that still have resonance for lovers of British music – and a few considerably more than that: Jacobson, Walthew, Bairstow, Howells, Mackenzie, Rowley, Darke, O’Neill, Bantock, Dunhill, Dorothy Howell, H. Farjeon, W.G. Whittaker and Ernest Austin. Graham Peel appeared only the once. Also on the list is Shaw’s brother Geoffrey as well, as, unsurprisingly, a goodly number of pieces by Martin Shaw himself.

So again I find myself trailing John France in drawing attention to the considerable influence once exerted on British musical life by this energetic figure. Shaw’s tenuous hold on posterity is at present limited to a few hymn tunes – he was co-editor of "Songs of Praise". The frequency with which his songs – solo as well as educational – appear in piles of second-hand music indicates how widely they were once used. Peter Dawson’s recording of his setting of Masefield’s "Cargoes" shows how effective his music can be, when the interpreter has a magical way with words. And even a cursory glance at his titles reveals that, in a period when the royalty ballad had not yet run its course, he had a discerning taste in poetry. So perhaps I shall be returning to him ere long.

Christopher Howell














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