Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924)
Kitty Whately (mezzo-soprano), Gareth Brynmor John (baritone), Susie Allan (piano)
rec. 2022, The Menuhin Hall, Stoke D’Abernon, Surrey, UK
SOMM RECORDINGS SOMMCD0655 
A Child’s Garland of Songs from 1892. I was brought up on Robert Louis Stevenson, not only the wonderful novels such as Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Catriona, but the corpus of poetry, especially The Child’s Garden of Verses. The latter, first published in 1885, contained 64 poems. The key to understanding the collection is to recall is that Stevenson wrote these verses from the perspective of a child, not as an adult.
The poems that Stanford chose from RLS’s volume explore several childhood themes. They are certainly not parochial, with the imagination exploring Foreign Lands and Foreign Children. Indeed, one of these poems even carries a trigger. Then there are tales of adventure with a cast of Pirates, Grenadiers, Highwaymen and Sailors. Sometimes these poems can be a little reflective. That may have been the mature poet recalling days when, as a youngster, he was incapacitated in bed. Each song has a memorable tune, simple, but effective accompaniment and immediate appeal. Three are sung as duets: Pirate Story, Marching Song and My Ship and Me. Overall, I am reminded of Stevenson’s introductory poem to Treasure Island. He wonders if this tale “Can please, as me they pleased of old / The wiser youngsters of today…!” It is a point to ponder in our “sophisticated” era. And do see Christopher Howell’s outstanding study of the songs cycle on these pages.
The Four Songs set to Tennyson’s poems have a different ethos. The world is no longer seen entirely from the child’s point of view. The liner notes explain that “childlike sentiments are here juxtaposed with more adult interrogation”. This is exemplified by the questioning theological reflections about the Raising of Lazarus in The Silence. The first song, Spring, deals with love in the springtime, for men, women and Jenny Wren and her partner. One guesses that the third song, The City Child, will be pathetic, but it is simply a charming reflection on the pleasures of an idyllic countryside somewhere near Canterbury. The last number in this set, The Vision, is more serious. Taken from In Memoriam, it reflects one of many emotions that Tennyson felt at the death of his friend Arthur Hallam. Musically, the collection offers no great challenge, but these are quite simply exquisite examples of the composer’s craft.
Six Songs set poems by five authors. The booklet suggests that they were “probably finished in 1920”. A Song of the Bow is by the Victorian poet and hymn author, Reginald Heber, onetime Bishop of Calcutta (Kolkata). This swaggering little number extolls the soldier’s way of life, emphasising jollity, friendship, hope and avoidance of melancholy – at least for a day. Another Tennyson setting, Drop Me a Flower, talks of the lover and his desire for a blossom from his best girl. It must be one of the few vocal scores to set the word “clematis”. Winifred Mary Letts is represented with two songs. The Winds of Bethlehem gathers up several legendary tropes concerning the Nativity of Christ. The Monkey Song echoes the thoughts of a street entertainer’s pet in the run-up to Christmas. It is a sad and thoughtful response.
The magical setting of George Levenson-Gower’s Lullaby is an impeccable miniature. Poet and composer create a perfect synthesis of imagery and melodic interest. It is hard to imagine that the author of the last song of the set died as late as 2005. Mary Kitson Clark was only fifteen when she penned The Unknown Sea. This little barcarolle considers the relationship between father and child, in travelling the oceans of their imagination. For children of all ages, this enchanting setting may bring a tear of remembrance to their eye.
I enjoyed the two sets of Songs from the Elfin Pedlar. The twelve numbers in this collection derive from Helen Douglas Adams’s The Elfin Pedlar and Tales told by Pixy Pool, published in 1923 when she was only 14 years old. The material contained included faerie poems she wrote from the age of four. The liner notes explain that Stanford “was charmed by Adams’s aphoristic, gem-like verses” which reflected “his fascination for children’s verse and the ‘other’ world of fairyland”. They all reflect a “childlike innocence and wonder”.
A reviewer of the Hyperion LP recording of these songs (A66058), which I have not heard, seemed to miss the point. Trevor Harvey, in the May 1983 edition of The Gramophone, suggests that the texts are “so appallingly coy”, and he wonders why Stanford bothered to set them. It is sad that Harvey has totally forgotten the childlike wonder which many of us still retain, and to which the composer responded to with creativity. Bottom line: If you still appreciate Winnie the Pooh, you will love these!
The disc concludes with seven individual songs. Ben Johnson’s gently Gothic poem Witches’ Charm is designed to give the young listener a frisson of fear. Richard Watson Gilder’s Summer Rain and Winter’s Snow is not in the least scary. It is a little pastoral idyll, with an imaginative vocal line. The spell-like Fairy Lures exploits the contemporary enthusiasm for “fairies at the bottom of the garden”. It is totally captivating with its well-wrought melody.
I enjoyed the imagery of The Hoof of the Horses, setting a text by Will H. Ogilvie. The accompaniment utilizes galloping sounds. Were these smugglers passing by in the night? The Japanese Lullaby to a text by American poet Eugene Field has an intimation of death at the close. John Greenleaf Whittier’s pantheistic hymn of Worship is a thoughtful presentation of Nature praising God in a “Chorus of Prayer”. Finally, the patriotic The Kings Away to words by Henry Newbolt, penned in 1914, comes from the same stable as Stanford’ Songs of the Sea and the Songs of the Fleet. It concludes with a ghostly reference to the sailors who may not return to land – a terrific finish to this disc.
The soloists, Kitty Whately and Gareth Brynmor, sing flawlessly. Susie Allan adds enchantment with her superb and always sympathetic accompaniments. The liner notes are exemplary. Written by Stanford specialist Jeremy Dibble, they give a good introduction to this repertoire, without a detailed technical analysis. It would have been helpful if the dates of each song/cycle had been included in the track listing. Sometimes it is not possible to divine when they written or published. The texts of all thirty-eight songs have been included, which makes a fascinating anthology of poems. There are biographical details of the three performers. Readers of the booklet are reminded that The Stanford Society supported this project. The cover features a charming, anonymous, Victorian painting The Morning Hymn.
This disc is a delightful addition to the growing discography of Charles Villiers Stanford. Listen to this repertoire carefully. Perhaps take each cycle or collection one at a time. There is much to relish in these lovely songs. What is clear is that – although all these pieces were devised with children in mind – the composer is never patronising or condescending. Each piece is a little gem. Often sentimental, always charming, they surely will appeal to the lingering child in us all. That said, there is not a single bar where Stanford has written “childish” music.
A Child’s Garland of Songs, Op. 30 (1892, 1922)
Four Songs, Op. 112 (1908)
Six Songs, Op. 175 (c.1920)
Songs from the Elfin Pedlar Book 1, Op. posth. (publ. 1925)
Songs from the Elfin Pedlar Book 2, Op. posth. (publ. 1925)
Witches’ Charms (publ. 1928)
Summer’s Rain and Winter’s Snow (1893)
Fairy Lures (publ. 1923)
The Hoofs of the Horses (publ. 1923)
A Japanese Lullaby (1918)
The King’s Highway (c.1914)