The English part-song reached its zenith during the first half
of the twentieth century. Elgar in his ‘choral songs’ not only
challenged the large amateur choirs of his day with settings
of some of the greatest English poets, but also used the medium
for some of his boldest experiments such as Owls. Holst
used the part-song as a vehicle for some of his most searching
late exercises in strict polytonal form, and many of the resulting
masterpieces are still too little known. Delius wrote comparatively
few part-songs, but some such as On Craig Ddu stand
comparison with the best of his miniatures of nature painting.
Vaughan Williams moved from folksong settings - often of considerable
complexity - out into the realm of pure impressionism in his
Three Shakespeare Songs. Moeran used the part-song
not only to pastiche Elizabethan madrigals but also to exorcise
some of the inner demons from his own soul. Even Britten got
in on the act, employing the medium of the narrative part-song
with piano accompaniment in his zestful and spicy setting of
The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard, although
his later works in the genre such as Sacred and
profane were written with professional performers in mind.
In the second half of the century the English part-song fell
on straitened times. The large amateur choirs began to shrink,
and at the same time composers began to feel that they needed
smaller professional choirs to deal with the technical problems
of their more advanced music. The choirs themselves, those that
still programmed contemporary music at all, sang smaller pieces
by lesser composers, often mere jeux d’esprit which
hardly began to face up to the challenge of the great body of
English poetry. Even the larger choirs stopped putting part-songs
on their concert schedules.
But rejoice! Jonathan Dove has rediscovered the form, and he
has done it proud. The main work on this disc is the only one
with piano accompaniment - well played with plenty of solidity
by Cromar - and it consists of seven well-contrasted settings
of which that of Adieu! Farewell, earth’s bliss - to
words by Thomas Nashe - is quite simply a masterpiece.
In beauty may I walk is a slightly over-complex setting
of a simple Navajo poem. As an interlude we are given a setting
for solo mezzo-soprano of My love is mine from The
Song of Songs. This is an absolute gem, a perfectly straight
setting of beautiful English words in the translation of Miles
Coverdale set to a two-limbed melody that has all the charm
of a traditional folksong. There is nothing pretentious at all
here, nothing trite and nothing unworthy. It is superlatively
well sung by Felicity Turner, who has no trouble at all with
reaching the higher notes required on occasion and never betrays
the slightest problems with pitch in her long unaccompanied
reading. If folk singers could be persuaded to look at this
piece, it would go down a bomb in folk clubs right across the
The earliest setting here, Who killed Cock Robin?,
is also one of the most complex and certainly sounds the most
difficult to sing. It is great fun, a resolutely jolly setting
of the traditional rhyme with plentiful opportunities for imitations
of the various creatures who volunteer for the various funereal
duties requested. The composer describes the piece as a “fable”
but surely that is a misnomer; a fable is a story with a moral,
while this is a delightfully amoral poem where even the murderer
gets away with it.
Most of the works on this disc date from a five year period
between 1996 and 2001; one hopes that Dove will continue to
explore the realms of possibility that the part-song opens up.
The latest pieces are three settings of Emily Dickinson; and
the second is a fabulously delicate piece of choral jewellery.
The last three items here are all set to religious texts, including
– one is delighted to see – one by the resolutely unfashionable
Dorothy L Sayers. All three should be part of the regular repertory
in churches; they would make an ideal change from the more pop-orientated
items so often inflicted on long-suffering congregations. The
Sayers setting, The Three Kings, is quite a challenge
for the voices but the poem is very moving and the conclusion
of the carol brings a sense of real resolution.
The choir here appears from the photograph on the back cover
on the booklet to consist of only fourteen singers, but the
interior of the booklet lists forty names and the volume that
the choir produces certainly reinforces the impression of the
larger number. Even so one could imagine the Tennyson setting
Ring out, wild bells with an even larger body of sound.
The acoustic of the Wimbledon church is ideal for these performances,
giving a fine ring to the sound without blurring the inner voices.
Paul Corfield Godfrey