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William Busch (1901-1945)
Diana Moore (mezzo-soprano); Roderick Williams (baritone); Robin Tritschler (tenor)
John Reid (piano)
rec. 2021, Wyastone Leys, Monmouthshire, UK
Texts included

I had previously encountered the music of William Busch through the fine Lyrita CD of his concertos for piano and for cello (review). However, until this disc was announced I was ignorant of his songs; so, I was keen to hear the new CD.

The project has been devised by Busch’s second daughter, Julia, who contributes an essay about her father’s life and music, going significantly beyond the songs here recorded. It was moving to read that she never knew her father. She was born in January 1945, in the depths of a snowy winter. In order to visit his wife and new-born daughter, William was obliged to make a long trek on foot, in weather that was sufficiently bad that the roads were impassable to transport. Having seen his wife and Julia, William made it home, on foot, in the treacherous weather but the arduous journey sapped his strength. He fell ill and, because the weather meant no medical care could be summoned in time, he died; he was just forty-four.

I learned much from Julia Busch’s essay. My only regret is that she is completely silent on the songs by the three other composers which have been selected to complete the programme. Were there, for example, any personal connections between William Busch and Elizabeth Poston or Michael Head? In the track list at the end of this review I’ve replicated the order in which the songs appear on the disc. As you can see, Busch’s songs have been interspersed with songs by the other three composers.

This means that the five Finzi songs, though they all come from the same collection, aren’t sung as a sequence. That’s fair enough because the collection of seven songs from which they are taken, Oh Fair to See, was not devised by Finzi himself; rather, it is a collection of previously unpublished songs assembled and published after his death. The inclusion of some Finzi songs is highly appropriate because, as Diana McVeagh details in her 2005 book on Finzi’s life and music, Busch and Finzi became acquainted in the early 1930s and maintained a quite regular correspondence thereafter. All the Finzi offerings come from Roderick Williams, who is predictably excellent. Finzi has a very special way of syllabically marrying words and music in his settings; Williams puts the songs over with great empathy. The title of ‘To Joy’ might mislead you into expecting something extrovert whereas Finzi’s response to Edmund Blunden’s word is suffused with dark melancholy; the present performance catches that admirably. Williams, and pianist John Reid, are no less successful in ‘Harvest’, one of Finzi’s last songs, which dates from the year he died. Invariably in my experience, Williams always finds the right level of expressiveness, caressing the text but never in a way that is excessive or which disrupts the musical line. A prime example here is his account of ‘Oh fair to see’. It’s really good to encounter these Finzi songs perceptively scattered throughout the programme.

Elizabeth Poston is represented by three songs. Two are settings of the same poem, Sweet Suffolk Owl. The 1925 setting is charming and almost folk-like. When Poston returned to the text nearly sixty years later, she set it in a very different fashion. This later song is much less innocent and straightforward. Instead, the music seems to depict the mysterious, nocturnal aspects of this bird. Diana Moore sings both songs very well. She also performs The Snowdrop in the Wind. It’s not known when Poston wrote this song. I admired it, but I think that William Busch’s response to the same text was even better.

There are also three songs by Michael Head, all allocated to Robin Tritschler, who does them very well. Why Have You Stolen My Delight? is a typical example of Head’s tuneful, attractive art. So too is the delightful, fluent Dear Delight. Tritschler is highly persuasive in the unaccompanied The Singer. He seems to me to bring a touch of faery magic to this most atmospheric song.

William Busch had two composition teachers: John Ireland and Bernard van Dieren. I wonder if it was the former who helped to fire Busch’s interest in the art song form. I’m not sure if this disc contains Busch’s complete output of songs but I suspect that most, if not all, are to be found here. Julia Busch recalls in her essay that her mother Sheila (who William married in 1935) was a great encourager of his compositional work and helped him select texts to set to music. The late John Amis was a great admirer of Busch’s music. Looking back at his booklet notes for the Lyrita release of the two concertos, I came across this comment about the songs. Amis wrote of “songs that were gentle and tender although the music was still sinewy and avoiding rich harmonies, settings with the voice and words predominant, with easy intervals for the listener to grasp the sense of the music. Some songs gobble up the words: Busch’s never do”. I only came across these comments after I had completed my listening to the disc but, broadly, Amis’s comments support what I heard.

Most of the songs are presented in roughly chronological order; or perhaps it would be truer to say that we hear first most of the songs composed in the 1930s and then those written in the 1940s. That’s intelligent programming because, as we shall see, I think Busch’s songs from the 1940s saw him move to a deeper level.

The 1930s songs are all very good. Slumber Song is a plaintive, melancholy setting which is well suited to Robin Tritschler’s voice. Harvest Moon is short but rather lovely, especially in this rendition by Roderick Williams. Sweet Content is given by Diana Moore. Here the music is chromatic; the tonality is uncertain. Busch is in a more exploratory vein, I think, than was the case in the previous two songs. It may not be without significance that, according to Julia Busch, van Dieren seems to have found this song very interesting.

Diana Moore also sings Fairies. This is a setting of lines by Robert Herrick. It seems to me to be an acute and charming musical response to the poem. Rest is sung by Tritschler. There’s a most attractive flow to the music, which carries the words forward most engagingly. The Centaurs (1942) is cut from a rather different musical cloth to what we’ve so far heard. In this song the music is, rightly, strong and dramatic. Ode to Autumn takes us back to the 1930s. This Keats setting is described by Julia Busch as “fine and original”: how right she is. There are three stanzas of poetry. The music to which the first is set put me very much in mind of Finzi. Thereafter, the music leaves behind the Finzian model (if such it is) and becomes even more original. This is a very eloquent song indeed, which I admired greatly. It’s a gift for Roderick Williams’ talents and I hope he’ll take it into his recital repertoire. Weep You no More is allotted to Diana Moore. Apparently, the composition of this song was spread over a number of months because Busch was distracted by other commitments. Listening to it, one would not know; the setting has a seamless, natural flow to it.

The remaining songs were composed between 1942 and 1944 and, as I said earlier, it seems to me that with these compositions Busch’s song writing moved to a deeper level – in saying which I mean no disparagement to the earlier songs. Let me pick out a few. The Shepherd is a reflective, plangent song to which Robin Tritschler seems perfectly attuned. The Bellman is a strange, dark setting in which the singer (Roderick Williams) is occasionally required almost to adopt sprechgesang. L'Oiseau bleu, also sung by Williams, is the same text which Stanford used for his wonderful part song The Bluebird. Busch’s way with the text is rapt and conjures a mood of stillness. Great control is required of the singer. The Lowest Trees have Tops is a lovely song, which has a vocal line suffused with English melancholy. Earlier, I mentioned Elizabeth Poston’s The Snowdrop in the Wind. She wrote a very good song to this poem but I think the Busch version is even better. It’s a tense, sorrowful setting. Though the song is short, Busch packs a lot of feeling into this limited timespan.

There Have Been Happy Days is a cycle of five songs, all to poems by the Great War poet, Wilfred Gibson (1878-1962). I suspect that it’s not without significance that Busch, a Conscientious Objector, turned to these poems while the Second World War was still raging. The song which gives the cycle its title looks back, wistfully, to better times but the wistfulness builds in intensity as the song unfolds. ‘The Soldier’ is set to music that rather put me in mind of some of the dark marching songs in Mahler’s Knaben Wunderhorn settings. ‘The Goldfinches’ poignantly and with dramatic intensity compares nesting birds with a couple separated because the man is serving on the front line. In ‘The Kitbag’ the inevitable has happened; the man has been slain and the woman receives his few possessions, sent back by the army in his kitbag. This tragic development is set to music of genuine feeling. Finally, ‘The Promise’ is movingly poignant; the cycle of life goes on. There Have Been Happy Days is a marvellous song cycle; I’m thrilled that I’ve discovered it. The performance by Diana Moore and John Reid is ideal.

This disc is something of a revelation. On the evidence of the 21 songs here recorded, William Busch was a songwriter of genuine accomplishment and sensitivity. Had he lived longer and composed more, I fancy we would have come to regard him as a significant figure in the genre of English Song. As it is, his relatively slender output deserves to be far better known. I hope that the three singers involved here will continue to perform Busch’s songs. Furthermore, it is to be hoped that this release, by drawing attention to these songs, will encourage others to perform them.

These three singers have done a signal service to William Busch. Their performances are consistently excellent and persuasive – as is the case in the songs by the other composers. I’m conscious that I’ve failed to say much about John Reid. That’s unfortunate. Let me now make amends by saying that his playing throughout this programme is first-rate, sensitive and completely supportive of the singers.

The recording was produced and engineered by Adrian Farmer. He must know the acoustic of the concert hall at Wyastone Leys intimately. Consequently, it’s no surprise that the recorded sound is excellent, clearly and expertly balancing the singers and the piano.

Lyrita’s documentation is very good though I do have some small quibbles. As I mentioned earlier, I regret that nothing is said about the songs by the other three composers, though Julia Busch’s essay is excellent. A typographical error has caused the omission of the last few lines of Sweet Content. It’s great that the texts have been provided – though the diction of all three singers is excellent; however, I think it’s a pity that the authors of the poems have not been given. One or two are mentioned in the notes and some others are well-known but others are less familiar.

This is an important release which anyone interested in English Song should hasten to hear because William Busch is a composer who certainly justifies his place in that tradition.

John Quinn


I understand that Lyrita has now revised the booklet; the lines omitted from Sweet Content have now been included, as have the names of all the poets.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
As I lay in the early sun (Oh Fair to See, op.13b No 3) (1921)
Elizabeth Poston (1905-1987)
Sweet Suffolk Owl (1925)
Gerald Finzi
Only the wanderer (Oh Fair to See, op.13b No 4) (1925)
William Busch (1901-1945)
Slumber Song (1931?)
Harvest Moon
Sweet Content (1933)
Michael Head (1900-1976)
Why Have You Stolen My Delight? (1933)
Gerald Finzi
Oh fair to see (Oh Fair to See, op.13b No 2) (1929)
William Busch
Fairies (1934)
Rest (1933)
Gerald Finzi
To Joy (Oh Fair to See, op.13b No 5) (1931)
Michael Head
The Singer (1939)
William Busch
The Centaurs (1942)
Ode to Autumn (1937)
Weep You no More (1935)
The Echoing Green (1943)
The Shepherd (1943)
The Bellman (1944)
L'Oiseau bleu (1944)
There Have Been Happy Days (1944)
The Lowest Trees have Tops (1944)
If Thou Wilt Ease Thine Heart (1943)
The Snowdrop in the Wind (1943)
Gerald Finzi
Harvest (Oh Fair to See, op.13b No 6) (1956)
Elizabeth Poston
The Snowdrop in the Wind
William Busch
Come, O Come My Life's Delight (1943)
Michael Head
Dear Delight (c.1965)
Elizabeth Poston
Sweet Suffolk Owl (1983)

Published: October 7, 2022

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