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John SYKES (1909-1962)
Fearful Symmetry - Songs and piano music
Rowan Pierce (soprano), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone), Iain Farrington & William Vann (piano)
rec. 2019, West Road Concert hall, Cambridge, UK
Texts included
All first recordings

The Albion Records label devotes itself to issuing recordings of music, often little-known, by Vaughan Williams. On a couple of occasions exceptions have been made to include music by VW’s great friend, Gustav Holst. So, this release devoted to music by John Sykes is unusual but Sykes earns his place in the Albion catalogue by virtue of the fact that he was at one time a pupil of VW.

As this composer will be unknown to most readers, a brief bit of background may be useful and for this I draw on the very full Albion documentation authored by PJ Clulow. Sykes was born in India where his father was working in the Indian Civil Service. He went to school at Clifton College, Bristol and he studied the organ while he was a pupil there, gaining his FRCO qualification. In 1928 he went up to Balliol College, Oxford, with an organ scholarship, to read Modern History – music was not, at that time, offered as a first degree subject. He then gained the degree of B.Mus. in 1933 and after graduating, he spent a year studying composition (with piano as a second study) at the Royal College of Music, where he was a pupil of Vaughan Williams and Gordon Jacob. He joined the teaching staff of Kingswood School, Bath, becoming the school’s Director of Music in 1952. Sykes spent his whole working life at Kingswood, apart from war service – he was a conscientious objector – and he died of cancer in the school sanatorium in June 1962.

During his years of study at Oxford, he served as president of the Oxford University Opera Club and was widely respected as a pianist. As we shall see, the piano works recorded here indicate that he must have been quite a player. Among his Oxford contemporaries was the poet, Randall Swingler (1909-1967), who remained a friend for the rest of Sykes’ life. They shared an enthusiasm for left-wing politics. I was interested to learn that among Sykes’ pupils when he taught at Kingswood was the great left-wing historian, E P Thompson, later the author of one of the most magnificent and provocative books on English history, The Making of the English Working Class (1963). It may well have been Sykes’ left-wing sympathies which drew him to the poetry of William Blake and in all he set 36 of Blake’s Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience – 22 of these settings are included here. The Songs of Innocence were composed in 1935-36; it’s not known when the Songs of Experience were composed but probably a little later. Songs of Innocence were written in the treble clef and their companions are in the bass clef. Logically, therefore, the former have all been allocated to Rowan Pierce while Gareth Brynmor John tackles the Songs of Experience. In all cases William Vann is the pianist.

I’m not going to describe every song but, instead, will select a few examples. ‘Piping Down the Valleys Wild’ provides a good introduction to the Songs of Innocence. The music is carefree, light and bubbling – as is the performance. Rowan Pierce hasn’t got the largest of voices but her production is clear and true and her light, bright tone suits all these songs. Her diction is excellent, as is that of Gareth Brynmor John. Quite a few of the Songs of Innocence settings tend to be in this vein and so we find that ‘The Echoing Green’ is chirpy and attractive. There’s a charming innocence to Sykes’ treatment of ‘The Lamb’ and Miss Pierce does it very nicely. ‘The Blossom’ is a bit unusual thanks to its 5-beats-to-a-bar timing. It’s a pleasing setting, if rather slight. P J Clulow provides succinct notes on each song and he asserts that ‘On Another’s Sorrow’ is “possibly the best of all Sykes’s song settings.” On the evidence of what’s contained on this disc, I’d agree; it’s certainly the most satisfying of the Songs of Innocence because it’s more serious in tone than the other songs which make their effect through charm. It has an interesting piano part and a nice melodic line. The last of Rowan Pierce’s contributions is ‘The Shepherd’, a beguiling, gentle quasi-lullaby.

The first of the Songs of Experience on the programme is ‘Hear the Voice of the Bard’. The song begins as an imposing declaration and then becomes rhapsodic. Gareth Brynmor John sings it well but I couldn’t escape the feeling that the music tries too hard. At the other end of the programme ‘The Voice of the Ancient Bard’, with its lofty vocal line and tolling-bell piano part, seems to be more successful. ‘Earth’s Answer,’ though eloquent, is more relaxed than ‘Hear the Voice of the Bard’ and the song is the better for it. ‘The Tyger’ is impelled along by driving piano rhythms. My one concern about this performance is that Gareth Brynmor John seems to hit his top notes a little too forcefully. ‘A Poison Tree’ is described in the notes as “an angry song”. To a certain extent that’s true but I don’t feel that Sykes’ music really suggests true anger until near the end of the song. The setting of ‘The Schoolboy’ is perhaps rather jollier than the text might suggest and, in the notes, it’s plausibly argued that this is because the poem in question was originally intended by Blake to be one of the Songs of Innocence and Sykes would have known this.

In addition to the Blake settings Gareth Brynmor John give us the chance to hear two settings of poems by Randall Swingler. At some stage between 1949 and 1957 Swingler wrote four poems which he collected together as ‘Homage to John Dowland’. Sykes set them to music in 1957 but in 1958 he rewrote two of the settings. It’s the two that remained unaltered that are presented here. Neither words nor music are a pastiche of sixteenth-century art but they seem to me to be well informed by the first Elizabethan age. Both songs are attractive and Brynmor John does them well.

The remainder of the programme is devoted to piano music by Sykes. These pieces are played by Iain Farrington, with William Vann joining him for the Polonaise, which is for piano duo. This piece was composed as incidental music for a school play production in 1952, though it appears a solo piano version pre-dates the duo. The music is highly reminiscent of a Chopin Polonaise and it’s a most attractive and enjoyable piece to hear – though I imagine it’s pretty difficult to play. Sykes exploits the sonority of a pair of pianos expertly and one feature that I liked was the denouement of the work where, in the coda, he introduces a brand-new and jubilant theme. The two pianists give it a terrific performance and I enjoyed the Polonise very much indeed.

Equally impressive is the solo piano piece, Toccata. This, the longest piece of music on the disc at 8:18, was written in late 1932, just as Sykes was commencing his studies with VW – though you’ll listen in vain for any influences of his new teacher. It’s a big, virtuoso piece in which two allegro con moto sections encase a central pił andante. It’s a very strong piece in every sense and one that displays no little maturity. The writing offers proof of Sykes’ own prowess as a pianist. Paean is another piece composed for a school play, this time in 1951. It makes persistent use of an ostinato motif that appears as the main melodic idea right at the start. To be truthful, I felt that the ostinato rather outstays its welcome, especially in the central section. Finally, we hear The Keel Row, a Diversion, which dates from 1938. This is rather fun, taking the traditional tune and presenting it in a kind of ‘swing’ idiom. As the notes say, it would make a good encore piece.

As you may have inferred from my comments, I think the piano pieces are the strongest compositions on this disc. John Sykes’ songs are very well crafted and display empathy for the words he sets. The vocal lines are pleasing – and sometimes more than that – while the piano parts are interesting, bearing further witness, I’m sure, to the composer’s skills as a pianist. For all that, though, Sykes was no Finzi or Gurney. His songs seem to me to lack that edge, whether melodic or harmonic, that the best song composers display and I didn’t really feel that the music was exploring great depths. I wonder if we might have got a different picture of Sykes if it had been possible to record settings of a wider variety of poets rather than so much Blake, though I acknowledge the intelligent programming that has gone into the selection of the Blake settings and their ordering on the disc.

I should add that there is a ‘bonus track’ in the form of another setting from Songs of Experience. This is a setting of ‘London’ which, like the rest of the album, is available as a digital download from the Albion Records website. Purchasers of the CD can download it free of charge.

John Sykes’ music could scarcely have received better advocacy than this. Rowan Pierce and Gareth Brynmor John make a very good job of their respective allocations of songs and they receive super support from William Vann. Iain Farrington is a fine advocate of the solo piano music. The recorded sound is very good throughout and the documentation is up to Albion’s usual excellent standards.

Only a tiny number of compositions by Sykes have been published – just two songs, a hymn and a Christmas anthem. All the rest remains in manuscript and is housed in the archives of Kingswood School. There is a website devoted to the composer. I took a look there and was astonished at the number of works listed there – one doesn’t get a sense of that from the booklet notes - and at the number of genres in which Sykes had composed. As to the quality of the music, of course, I cannot speak.

I think I’m right in saying that this recording has come about through the generosity of a number of John Sykes’ former pupils. That’s a handsome tribute to his memory and who knows what further interest in his music will be sparked by this enterprising release. On the evidence of this disc I can’t honestly say that a major, undiscovered talent has been revealed but John Sykes’ music deserves its moment in the sun and Albion Records have done him proud.

John Quinn


Songs of Innocence and Experience (William Blake)
1 Piping Down the Valleys Wild
2 Hear the Voice of the Bard
3 Earth’s Answer
4 The Echoing Green
5 The Garden of Love
6 Holy Thursday (Innocence)
7 Holy Thursday (Experience)
8 The Divine Image
9 The Human Abstract
10 The Lamb
11 The Tyger
12 Infant Joy
13 Infant Sorrow
14 The Clod and the Pebble
15 The Blossom
16 A Poison Tree
17 The Sick Rose
18 The Fly
19 On Another’s Sorrow
20 The Schoolboy
21 The Shepherd
22 The Voice of the Ancient Bard
Piano Duo
23 Polonaise
Songs from ‘Homage to John Dowland’ (Randall Swingler)
24 Jean and her Golden Grace
25 My Mistress Played
Piano Solos
26 Toccata
27 Paean
28 The Keel Row, a Diversion

Bonus Track
29 London (Songs of Experience)

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