I know nothing of the method by which Ronald Corp composes but,
as I implied in my review
of his symphony and piano concerto, the music always sounds
as if it flows naturally from him and he simply has to write
it down. Perhaps this derives from the fact that, as a small
child - as he reveals in his liner notes - he composed before
he could really read or write music. So many composers seem
hidebound by the writing of notes on the page and working out
sequentially where to go next almost solely on what they see
rather than hear.
Songs are conceived in a rather different way because an existing
text is the starting point; but words can suggest music too
if read with imagination, and Corp’s remarkable achievement
here is that his settings, often of all-too-familiar poems,
seem absolutely ‘right’ – and genuinely singable yet uninfluenced
by existing settings of the same words by other composers. He
understands the voice very well.
And yet Corp is not a revolutionary composer – evolutionary
might be a more apt description. Although his concept of an
individual poem may differ from other composers’ interpretations,
Corp’s style acknowledges his debt particularly to those composers
of the so-called English Musical Renaissance. I hear Parry,
Quilter and Vaughan Williams in particular, but as accents of
a distinctive voice of his own.
Corp has composed prolifically, so although this is the first
time any of his songs has been commercially recorded, this disc
contains by no means all of them. For instance, the series called
‘The Music of …’, represented here by his Housman and Whitman
cycles, also includes settings of Michael Drayton, Keats, Byron,
Yeats and ‘most of the famous poets’. Perhaps we may anticipate
further recordings, covering more of these songs, some of which
have an obbligato instrument in addition to the piano.
Corp destroyed most of his teenage compositions, with one exception,
which is heard here: a setting of Tennyson’s ‘Break, break,
break’, written in 1966. ‘I could not throw this song away’,
The range of songs on this disc is wide, ranging in style ‘from
art song to the more overtly humorous’. This includes songs
he has written for children’s voices, but one would not guess
this, listening to the performances here, for they sit quite
comfortably side by side with the ‘grown-up’ pieces.
Much of the credit for this goes to the two performers, the
baritone Mark Stone and the pianist Simon Lepper, both absolutely
impeccable from beginning to end. My only criticism - and it’s
a very mild one - is that Stone is sometimes rather too gentlemanly,
and I feel could roughen his voice or be a bit more uninhibited
when the words and music call for it. Something of what might
have been is heard at the end of Corp’s setting of Harry Graham’s
wonderful poem ‘The Bath’, which would make a very suitable
encore, particularly in a programme of ‘songs on a watery theme’,
which was the context for which it was originally written, at
the request of the mezzo-soprano Catherine Hopper.
Here too are pieces by writers less commonly set to music, Byron
and Mervyn Peake, but those that are more familiar, such as
Housman, are represented by less familiar verse – ‘It nods and
curtseys and recovers’, ‘Now hollow fires burn out to black’
and ‘Stone, steel, dominions pass’, for example. ‘I also wanted
the music to be a little abrasive because I felt that some past
settings of Housman had veered, to their detriment, towards
the genteel’, says the composer. ‘Housman’s irony and gritty
pessimism’ (as Geoffrey Bush once described it) can be difficult
to capture but Corp does, I think, succeed in doing so.
The only song I would not care to hear again, despite the advocacy
of composer and performers, is Colin Coppen’s ‘Give to my eyes,
Lord’: long lines and six seemingly endless verses of it. And
yet, it is apparently popular enough for the Oxford University
Press to publish it in versions for children’s choirs, adult
choirs, and as a solo song – as on this disc. A purely personal
view, but I feel Corp becomes a trifle sentimental, here and
elsewhere, when faced with religious texts of a certain sort.
The choral versions, with their greater scope for varied vocal
colour and texture, are perhaps more palatable.
But the strength of this disc lies in the three song cycles,
by Whitman and Housman and Flower of Cities, an anthology
of London poems by Dunbar, Byron, Wordsworth, Blake and Henry
Carey, which opens the programme. This and The Music of Housman
include a Corp characteristic: a ‘reprise’ – a modified repeat
of the opening, giving a sense of unity to the cycle.
The most substantial item, the Whitman cycle, is very fine,
and although written in 1973 this is not only its first recording
but in fact its first performance, which rather shocks me, for
I am certain that the composer gave me a copy of this work sometime
in the 1970s which for some reason I never sang and subsequently
appear to have lost. I feel very foolish and very, very ashamed.
There are thirty-nine songs on this disc and it is a tribute
to all involved that interest very seldom wanes. More please.