Its good to note that the prolific song output of John Jeffreys (b.
1927) is receiving some attention. Only last year I reviewed for the English
Poetry and Song Society a collection of 24 performed by Ian Partridge, a
well-nigh perfect singer of English song and his excellent sister-accompanist,
Jennifer. Here the songs are for baritone. Jonathan Veira, possessed of a
rich, and warmly-appealing voice, reflects the mood of each song with keen
insight. His absolute clarity of diction renders the booklet of words (with
its numerous typographical errors) almost unnecessary. Shelley Katz, the
pianist, accompanies expertly, exploring the varied piano styles with technical
assurance and emo-tional insight.
Jeffreys is skilful at synthesising voice and piano into a happy union. The
piano writing sounds, despite its technical difficulties, thoroughly suited
to the instrument. And as for the vocal parts none would deny the
composers complete assurance with the musically effective transmutation
Basically, Jeffreys seems to use three main styles, naturally sub-suming
many other features. Firstly there is a late-romantic warmth which imbues
many of the textures as in Northumberland (W W Gibson), The farewell (Burns)
and I will make you brooches (Stevenson); secondly there is frequent use
of ballad type-treatment, reflected in melodies of folk-like character, though
underpinned by subtly-changing harmonic textures. Thirdly Jeffreys often
creates intense drama of - at times - quite horrifying impact. This last
quality is apparent in Sweeney the mad (anon.12th/13th century) with its
long, harrowing prelude, A Lyke-wake Dirge (anon. Scots 15th century) and
Barry Duane Hills sombre poem The Reaper, again treated to a long piano
prelude. In his Housman settings too (3 on this disc: When last I came to
Ludlow; If it chance you eye offend you; Thirteen pence a day), the poets
bitterness and death-haunted lines are reflected with similar angular dissonance.
As is the tragedy in Hugh Robertons In Marley Wood, a poem with a similar
quality to Housman.
Jeffreys includes many pictorial effects in his settings. In Ambulance Train
(W W Gibson), there is a remarkable reflection of locomotion, comparable
to that of the journeying boy in Brittens setting of Hardys,
Winter Words. Philip Scowcroft might note it for his collection of
train references in British Music. The march of soldiers in Thirteen
pence a day (Housman) provides an aptly ominous background to the words.
In many of his songs, Jeffreys draws on a post-Quilterish harmony whose
sentimentality does not always sit easily with the early poems
he sets. Notably in In Youth is Pleasure, he is not to my mind, as successful
as either Moeran or Warlock in reflecting Robert Wevers 16th-century
text. (A similar comparison, unflattering to Quilter, can be observed between
Quilters and Gurneys settings of Fletchers Weep you no
more, sad fountains). That said, I found Jeffreyss set-ting of Now
Wolde (anon. early 16th century) tugged mightily at my heart-strings - indeed
I enjoyed it almost more than any song on the disc.
Many of the songs invite comparison with settings by other eminent British
song-writers. Amongst these are I will go with my father a-ploughing (Joseph
Campbell), This is the weather the cuckoo likes (Hardy), and The Salley Gardens
(Yeats). In almost every case Jeffreys achieves a personal and equally effective
Considering his vast output of 200 or so songs (four volumes of 120 are in
print from Roberton), song enthusiasts should seek time to explore this
significant and bountifully-gifted songwriter.
Brian Blyth Daubney
Brian Blyth Daubney