I agree with Rob Barnett
when he says ‘that unadulterated folksongs do not in general
hold my attention.’ That said, whichever way one looks at British
music of the first half of the twentieth century this genre
can be seen to be pervasive … or possibly corrosive, depending
on one’s musical aesthetic. It manifested itself in a number
of ‘rhapsodies’ often qualified by Constant Lambert’s dictum
that ‘the whole trouble with a folk-song is that once you have
played it through there is nothing much you can do except play
it over again and play it rather louder.’ Or it could be the
case that from Stanford to Britten composers have been keen
to produce editions of indigenous tunes – be they Irish, Scottish,
English or Welsh. Vaughan Williams is known to have edited over
800 examples; E.J. Moeran considerably fewer.
The present CD complements the recent release on Chandos
of the ‘Complete Solo Songs of E.J. Moeran’, which consists
of his ‘art’ songs, including his Housman and Joyce settings.
The first volume of folksongs arranged for voice and piano
was the Six Folk Songs from Norfolk. This was published
by Augener in 1924. The songs were collected in three villages
in the County from performances by four local men. Two of the
tunes collected, ‘Lonely Waters’ and ‘The Shooting of his Dear’
were to be used in orchestral compositions by Moeran.
Two things can be said about these folksong arrangements. Firstly
the style of John Ireland is pervasive in the piano accompaniment.
This is not a criticism, for it certainly adds value to the
total effect of these songs. Secondly he approaches these songs
with a lightness of touch often denied to similar compositions
by Percy Grainger and Arnold Bax. For example ‘The Shooting
of his Dear’ has an accompaniment that at times seems to be
Six Suffolk Folksongs appeared eight years after the
Norfolk set and were conceived as a companion volume. They were
collected from two small villages, Earl Stonham and Coddenham.
Geoffrey Self notes that they were ‘realised’ at Ipswich where
Moeran was convalescing. These songs do not quite match the
‘out of doors’ feel of the Norfolk series. However, it is clear
that they are an accomplished contribution to the genre: perhaps
what is lost in spontaneity is made up in the subtlety of the
combination of voice and piano?
The Songs from County Kerry set is a late addition to
Moeran’s catalogue. These seven songs were composed in 1948
and turned out to be the composer’s last foray into the genre.
The composer’s preface to this collection notes that: “These
arrangements are taken from a much larger collection I noted
in Co. Kerry at odd times during a period roughly between 1934
and 1948. They were sung by Kerrymen in Cahirciveen, Sneem and
Kenmare. The verse by verse variants in some of the tunes are
exactly as I heard them from the singers themselves on a number
of occasions.” Certainly it is possible to agree with Geoffrey
Self that these seven songs represent ‘a mature approach and
[a] masterly touch rarely reached in the earlier sets.
This CD also includes a number of standalone folksong settings.
These include the well-known ‘The Sailor and Young Nancy’ with
its chorus sung by a male voice choir. The recording also presents
the ‘pseudo-folksong’ ‘The North-Sea Ground’ which may have
been composed for the Oxford and Cambridge Musical Club. Yet
it is a fun piece that deserves its place in this collection.
Performers should note that the group of ‘miscellaneous’ numbers
would make a good sequence of songs at any recital.
The liner-notes for this BMS CD release are superb – in fact
they set a standard that many other writers should aspire to.
The essay by Roy Palmer of the English Folk Dance and Song Society
is divided into two complementary sections – Moeran as ‘collector’
and Moeran as ‘composer/arranger’. There is a separate essay
by Ian Maxwell on the recently re-discovered song ‘The North
Sea Ground’. Alas, space has not permitted the reproduction
of the texts for these 26 songs. However, the BMS have thoughtfully
provided a .pdf file on their website.
These texts make fascinating and enjoyable reading in their
own right. My one concern is the epithet ‘complete’. There is
always one ‘trainspotter’ that finds the exception that proves
the rule. In this case it would appear to be ‘O Sweet Fa’s the
Eve’- which is listed in Geoffrey Self’s catalogue listings
for Moeran’s ‘folksong arrangements’. Now, I guess the reason
is that the words are not ‘anon’ but are by Robert Burns and
the tune would appear to be an Old Norwegian one. Fortunately,
it is available on Moeran:
The Collected 78rpm Recordings with John Goss as the soloist.
Yet this is an insignificant complaint against this excellent
collection. I enjoyed the singing by the two soloists, the Weybridge
Male Voice Choir and the piano accompaniment by John Talbot.
I have a preference for Marcus Farnsworth’s vocal style but
Adrian Thompson gives a good account of the nine numbers he
is billed to sing. Every word is clearly enunciated and the
sense of each song is easily understood.
There is, I believe an excellent strategy for listening to this CD. It has to be recalled that much of Jack Moeran’s (and other composers’) folksong collecting was done in public houses. The first thing is to find an appropriate bottle of beer – Adnams' Oyster Stout for the Suffolk Songs, Woodforde’s Wherry for the Norfolk examples and Clanconnel Brewery's McGrath's Irish Red for those from County Kerry. Like the beer, these songs need to be approached slowly and with considerable respect. Listen to them in the order given in the track-listing. However, I would suggest keeping the ‘miscellaneous’ song group till last. Even without the ale, these songs will reveal their charm only if sampled slowly. Any attempt to ‘binge’ may put the listener off them for good.
These are typically well-wrought realisations of a part of the British Heritage that was dying out rapidly in the first few decades of the Twentieth Century. We should be grateful to the many enthusiasts for their assiduity in saving these songs before they disappeared forever. In spite of Jack Moeran’s often haphazard methods of noting, documenting and filing the material he collected, these 26 songs are a testament to his skill as a composer and as a musical antiquarian. It is the tension between these two occupations that makes these songs interesting, perfectly satisfactory and ultimately moving.
review by Rob Barnett
Interesting, perfectly satisfactory and ultimately moving.
I have recently seen John France’s review of this disc,
in which he points out the non-inclusion of Sweet Fa’s
the Eve in the collection. The reason is quite simple: Moeran
did not set that tune for solo voice and piano, nor was it published
in that form. Geoffrey Self’s listing in this respect
is inaccurate; indeed his List of Works, published as it was
in 1986, is now quite out of date and needs a thorough revision.
Full contents list
Six Folksongs from Norfolk
1 Down by the Riverside
2 The Bold Richard
3 Lonely Waters
4 The Pressgang
5 The Shooting of His Dear
6 The Oxford Sporting Blade
7 The North Sea Ground
8 High Germany
9 The Sailor and Young Nancy
10 The Little Milkmaid
11 The Jolly Carter
12 Parson and Clerk
13 Gaol Song
Six Suffolk Folksongs
14 Nutting Time
15 Blackberry Fold
16 Cupid’s Garden
17 Father and Daughter
18 The Isle of Cloy
19 A Seaman’s Life
Songs from County Kerry
20 The Dawning of the Day
21 My Love Passed Me By
22 The Murder of Father Hanratty
23 The Roving Dingle Boy
24 The Lost Lover
25 The Tinker’s Daughter
26 Kitty, I am in Love with You