Montague F. Phillips: ‘Crab-Apple’ from Flowering Trees
I first came across Montague Phillips (1885-1969) in Llandudno about a third of a century ago. I had recently discovered the delights of English music and was beginning to assemble a collection of records and piano sheet music. In Madoc Street there was a wonderful second-hand bookshop: it is still there. I found some songs by Montague Phillips that appealed to the romantic streak in my boyish nature. These were the song-cycles From a Lattice Window, and Sea Echoes. I had to wait until I returned to school before I could run through them with one of the sixth-form girls who sang a bit. Something, though, went wrong. We never performed them together. I think she felt that Bach or Schumann was more in her style than an unknown Londoner.
It is only quite recently that Montague Phillips’s music has begun to appear in the record catalogues with three stunning releases from Dutton Epoch of his orchestral music, including his two romantically and wonderfully overblown piano concertos. Yet his songs and his piano pieces remain a closed book. Phillip Sear, on YouTube has performed In the Willow Shade and there is a recording of Peter Dawson singing the one-time ubiquitous The Fishermen of England from the composer’s opera The Rebel Maid. With the exception of Lesley-Jane Rogers’s fine recording of ‘Crab-Apple’ on The Soprano Sings – English Song Penchant PCHN-2402, there are no songs currently available on CD.
‘Crab-Apple’ is one of four songs taken from the song-cycle Flowering Trees. The first three are called ‘Lilac’, ‘Laburnum’ and ‘Hawthorn’. Nancie B. Marsland wrote the lyrics for all of them. The music was published c.1919 by Chappell & Co. of London, although it was possibly composed the previous year. By and large, the song is a piece of escapism: there is relatively little here to suggest that either the composer or author were affected by the dying months of the Great War. However the ‘envoi’ may well suggest that life is transient: therefore live it to the full! It is a truism that poetry and music at that time either reflected the horrors of that war (Owen, Sassoon) or tried to present an idealised picture of the world (many of the so-called Georgian poets, such as Walter de la Mare) In ‘Crab-Apple’ the poet is looking at a small incident in her garden – a brown bird is feasting on crab-apple blossom. She wonders why the bird is attracted to this, rather than that of the softer and perhaps sweeter fruits such as ‘pear or plum’. Maybe the blossom is less bitter than crab-apples become when they ripen? This fruit is not usually ripe until early winter, the close of the year.
Interestingly a poet friend of mine pointed out that it is possible to apply a kind of ‘Freudian’ analysis to this poem. However, bearing in mind the texts of the other three songs and the largely ‘genteel’ target audience, it is probably better not to delve too deeply into phrases such as “Who is the wanton with ling’ring lips” and “Taking his lusty fill”. Someone once said that it is possible to make a Freudian study of the telephone directory!
There is virtually nothing on the Internet or in the standard reference books about Nancie B. Marsland. Rather, she is usually mentioned as being the wife of the British-born actor Halliwell Hobbes!
She was born in Ashton-under-Lyne in Lancashire around 1894 (she was cagey about her age) and was educated privately. Marsland worked for a newspaper and also indulged her passion for writing poetry and lyrics. Later she began an acting career and appeared in several Broadway plays under her own and her married name. She died in Santa Monica, California on 10 April 1968.
Nancie B. Marsland’s most famous collaboration was with Eric Coates in his relatively well-known ‘The Mill O’ Dreams’ which was a cycle of four miniature songs. However, it is with Montague Phillips that she seemed to show most sympathy: there are many examples of their collaboration. Virtually all of these songs were composed between 1912 and 1924, although I understand that Phillips may have set one of her verses as late as 1956. Other composers who set her lyrics include Mary Hannah Brahe, Landon Ronald, Samuel Liddle and Claude Arundale.
Soft white petals a-blush at the tips,
Tiny green leaves of the tenderest hue
Who is the wanton with ling’ring lips
Stealing your dew?
Taking his lusty fill
Rather than dip his bill
In pear or plum
Fluttering wings of a little brown bird,
Snowing of petals and branches that sway,
You are the robber whose laughter I heard!
Sip while you may!
For when the blossoms die
Setting the mouth awry,
Crab-apples come, [Last line repeated in the song]
Nancie B. Marsland
Listen to Lesley-Jane Rogers singing ‘Crab Apple’
‘Crab-Apple’ is a well-contrived lyric. The formal structure of the poem consists of fourteen lines divided into two septets, although it is possible to subdivide each stanza into two - a four line verse followed by a three line. The metre of this poem is typically made up from dactylic measures, although there is a considerable degree of rhythmic flexibility. Certain words are elided such as “ling’ring” which the composer spreads over a whole bar with three different notes.
The stanzas are set in a basically binary form, although Phillips adds a few subtle changes to accommodate the rhyming scheme and varying metre. The actual structure of the piece could be written as:-
[Introduction] A-B-C [Bridge] A-B-C [Coda]
The song is written in G major with an important modulation to E minor. There is a strong bias to the tonic in spite of a few excursions to F# major. The harmonic basis of this piece is largely triadic, with considerable use of inversions in the accompaniment, although the composer does stretch to a few 7ths and 9ths. The most exotic harmony is a short phrase in the coda where the harmonic progression is based on E minor to F major and finishing on F# major. It is an effective little phrase.
The time signature is interesting: Phillips chooses 12/8 for most of the song with the third section of each strophe given in ‘common time’. The coda is the most rhythmically complex part of the work with successive bars leading from the tune in 4/4 through 12/8, 6/8 and closing in 12/8.
The melodic range of this song is quite limited – from E to A – although the singer is required to sustain the high A and G for a few bars. The emphasis of the melodic line is towards the higher end of the range. Most of the melodic activity is confined to steps, thirds and fourths, but there is at least one rising 7th. The final reiteration of the phrase ‘Crab-apples come’ is the most dramatic part of the setting. The song ends with the soprano singing a high G.
The accompaniment is largely repetitive between stanzas. One interesting feature is the use of ‘twos against threes’ between the singer and the piano. Typically, the accompaniment is chordal and has a strong sense of movement, perhaps suggesting the “Fluttering wings of a little brown bird?”
It is always intriguing to look at a song and see if the composer has exploited any word painting – subtle or obvious. There is little use made of this device in ‘Crab-Apple’, although I believe that Phillips has indulged a little in two places. On ‘fluttering’ he uses three quavers with repeated Bs which emphasises this alliterative three-syllable word. Also there is a descending phrase used at “Snowing of petals …” and “For when blossoms dies …” This is a felicitous touch.
It is not a difficult song to sing, but there are some issues for the singer to beware with balancing the more and the less dynamic parts of the melodic line.
Philip Scowcroft writes pertinently on MusicWeb International that the problem with Montague Phillips’s songs is that they are generally perceived as being “too good as ballads yet not quite good enough to take their place alongside the art songs of Vaughan Williams, Warlock, Gurney and the rest”.
‘Crab-Apple’ is a good illustration of a song that lies somewhere between these two genres, however, if anything it tends towards being a splendid example of English lieder. It is well-composed, with a fine melodic line, a competent accompaniment and an attractive lyric. Like other songs by Montague Phillips it is way too good to be consigned to oblivion simply because of its perceived Georgian overtones. It certainly deserves to be in the repertoire of all singers of English song.
Lesley-Jane Rogers has recorded ‘Crab-Apple’ along with twenty-six other English songs on The Soprano Sings – English Song: Penchant PCHN-2402
With thanks to Miss Rogers for her help with this article and for giving permission to use the track from her CD album.