Merry Eye [1:14]
Black Stitchel [3:16]
Stow on the Wold [2:35]
Candle Gate [3:19]
Jillian of Berry [1:12]
In Pride of May [1:13]
That Ever I Saw [2:22]
My Little Pretty One [0:56]
'Tis Time I Think [2:43]
The Poacher's Dog [6:38]
I am the Gilly of Christ [5:20]
The Falcon [3:37]
O my Dere Hert [2:38]
Who is at my Window [5:53]
What Evil Coil of Fate [2:06]
Severn Meadows [2:09]
It is Winter [4:45]
Yet will I love her [2:26]
The Little Pretty Nightingale [2:15]
Ha'nacker Mill [4:30]
The Little Milkmaid [1:03]
Little trotty Wagtail [1:48]
This collection of English songs by John Jeffreys is not new.
It first appeared on another label fully twelve years ago when
it was well
received by Colin Scott-Sutherland. Its reappearance on
the Divine Art label is greatly to be welcomed. Mr Scott-Sutherland
is the author of the booklet note that accompanies this disc.
I’m ashamed to say that, despite my enthusiasm for English music
in general and for English songs, I don’t believe I’d ever heard
any music by John Jeffreys before this disc arrived for review.
In case his name is unfamiliar to other readers some brief biographical
details, culled from the booklet, may be useful. Born in 1927,
he saw service in the armed forces towards the end of the Second
World War so his further education was somewhat delayed. It
was not until 1948 that he enrolled at Trinity College of Music,
London, to study piano and counterpoint. Starting in his childhood
he acquired a life-long interest in and love of English literature
and one thing that’s evident from this selection of songs is
that he has a discerning eye for a text.
During the 1950s and 1960s Jeffreys composed a significant amount
of music, including orchestral works, chamber music and many
solo songs. But, like several other British composers of his
generation, he found that his music was increasingly out of
step with what became the prevailing atonal orthodoxy of the
times and Jeffreys virtually ceased composing. In the early
1980s he took the drastic step of destroying much of his output
to date. Happily, with the encouragement of several musical
friends he recovered his muse and began to write again and his
published output now includes some 180 songs. Though the dates
of composition of the individual songs here recorded are not
given, it appears that many of them were written around 1966.
There is no doubt that John Jeffreys is a natural songwriter.
Without exception, these songs display a strong melodic impulse.
Furthermore they sound to be very well written for the voice,
lying well within Ian Partridge’s compass. Jeffreys is firmly
and unashamedly in the fine tradition of lyrical English song
composers of the twentieth century. Listening to the collection,
I think that the predecessors of whom I was most put in mind
were Gurney and, to a lesser extent, Warlock.
It will be noticed that Jeffreys has elected to set a number
of texts that have been memorably set by earlier composers.
But his settings need not fear comparison, not least because
his response to texts such as Black Stitchel, Jillian
of Berry, ’Tis time I think [by Wenlock Town] and
Ha’nacker Mill is distinctive and very much his own.
I didn’t find the original MusicWeb review until after I’d finished
my own evaluation but I was interested to find that Colin Scott-Sutherland
articulated a reservation that I’d felt while listening to the
disc. He wrote: “If one has a criticism of these songs it is
that the great majority of them are in a slow tempo - contemplative
- deeply influenced by Nature … It is not therefore easy to
accumulate a selection of songs yet retain a measure of contrast.”
I can only agree, though I don’t know how representative of
Jeffreys’ output is this collection.
So, for example, ’Tis time I think, a very beautiful
song, is slow and pensive with a melancholy air to it. So too
is the opening item, Northumberland, which is the first
of six consecutive settings of poems by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson.
On the other hand That Ever I Saw is a gentle,
affectionate song. Simple in design and with a memorable melodic
line, this appealing song is one of my favourites in the programme.
Yet will I love her is another song in a similar
vein and it’s just as attractive. The Little Pretty Nightingale,
which follows immediately in the programme, is another charming
offering, as is The Little Milkmaid.
At the heart of the programme lies a dark trio of songs, beginning
with the extended The Poacher's Dog. This is a deeply
serious elegy for a dog that has died. Ian Partridge creates
a really intense atmosphere as he sings the expressive and starkly
accompanied vocal line. Then comes the powerful I am the
Gilly of Christ, in which Jeffreys distils a somewhat bleak,
medieval ambience. The Falcon is a setting of a genuine
medieval text and the mournful tone of the vocal line finds
an ideal interpreter in Partridge. After these three emotionally
demanding songs we hear O my Dere Hert, which
readers may also know under the title ‘Balulalow’. The placing
of this gentle lullaby at this point in the programme is inspired,
for it provides much-needed tranquillity. Partridge is beautifully
sensitive in his delivery of the song. That said, we’re immediately
back into dark territory with the haunting, Who is at my
As I said earlier, Jeffreys is not afraid to set a text simply
because it has already produced a memorable song by another
composer. Perhaps the greatest such challenge here lies in Severn
Meadows. Who could equal Ivor Gurney’s wonderful setting
of his own verse? But that shouldn’t – mustn’t – inhibit composers
who feel called to set Gurney’s haunting words and Jeffreys’
setting is a fine and eloquent one. He also demonstrates a similarly
eloquent response to Ha'nacker Mill.
There’s great pleasure to be had in listening to these songs.
And what a delight it is to have another example of the artistry
of Ian Partridge! His timbre is utterly distinctive and I’ve
always appreciated his singing. Here the clarity of his diction,
the easy, unforced delivery, the vocal control and the evident
empathy with both words and music are all consistently evident.
His sister and regular recital accompanist, Jennifer Partridge,
is no less fine an advocate for these songs. It’s hard to imagine
that John Jeffreys’ songs could have been better served. Though
the recordings were made over fifteen years ago the sound is
I’ve greatly enjoyed making the acquaintance of these songs
and I know I’ll return to this disc with pleasure in the future.
I’ll go further: I’d like to get hold of the music of some of
these songs and try to sing them myself. I urge all lovers of
English songs to seek out this very fine disc.
Sadly John Jeffreys passed away on September 3rd 2010