There'll Always Be an England

The works of English composers from Purcell through Britten and beyond have never wanted for champions. HILARY FINCH offers an overview of the English song landscape and reflects on the genre's enduring popularity.

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A Shropshire landscape
© Graham Uney/Alamy 2012
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Kathleen Ferrier
© Lebrecht Music & Arts 2012
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Simon Keenlyside
© Chris Christodoulou/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2012

English song has had periods of sinking and great golden years of rising — most obviously and significantly in times when the self-image of our island nation has been most exuberant or, on the other hand, most in need of affirmation, protest or repair. What has made English song achieve greatness has been, arguably, the reigns of two great Elizabeths (it will be interesting to see what this year's Diamond Jubilee will yield) and the experience of two devastating World Wars.

Today, the appetite for English song from two golden ages — the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the period roughly between the last decades of the nineteenth century and the 1960s — seems as keen as ever. Wigmore Hall is awash with it. Despite the dominance of lieder in London's sanctuary of song, few artists can refrain from including in their programs songs by the likes of Gerald Finzi, Roger Quilter, Peter Warlock, Benjamin Britten — to name just the obvious few. The very English tenor Ian Bostridge loves English song, and so do baritones Simon Keenlyside and Roderick Williams. There are the non-native champions, too — Gerald Finley, Andreas Scholl, Bejun Mehta. As for the female voice, it seems significant that the legacy of Janet Baker's lifelong championship of English song (her voice is inextricably linked with the music of Purcell, Britten and Elgar) has been the particular focus of the mezzo-soprano voice in recital repertoire, from Anne Sofie von Otter to Sarah Connolly and Alice Coote. Coote's latest CD on Hyperion, The Power of Love, has been highly acclaimed for its performances of both eternally loved classics, such as Quilter's "Love's Philosophy" and "Now Sleeps the Crimson Petal," and lesser-known wonders, such as Elgar's "Pleading," Ivor Gurney's "The Boat is Chafing" and Armstrong Gibbs's patter song "Hypochondriacus."

In my experience, both the audience for English song and those drawn to performing it come from all backgrounds and all age groups. There will always be a core of the middle-class and the middle-aged — those whose social backgrounds were similar to those of most of the composers of these songs, and who have reached an age where nostalgia for those blue remembered hills and that green and pleasant land becomes an almost irresistible force. But when I interviewed the young Russian soprano Marina Poplavskaya, who was at that time preparing for Donna Anna, Tatiana and Elisabetta at Covent Garden, she told me that, as a teenager, her desire and drive to do nothing but sing was entirely because she'd heard recordings of Kathleen Ferrier singing English folk songs — something that had moved her more than any other music she'd heard.

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Gerald Finzi
© Lebrecht Music & Arts 2012

So what is it about the English soul, as expressed in English song, that has such a powerful pull worldwide, and generation after generation? Here, briefly, are just one or two suggestions. 

There's a highly developed sense of place in English song — one that's associated with a view of Nature entirely different from that of German lieder or French mélodie. The English poet (and this is, of necessity, generalized shorthand) views Nature and Nature's places with a sense of how they figure forth intimately human feelings. There seems to be an instinctive need to connect Nature with Man — an aspiration not to be redeemed by die Natur, not to achieve divine ecstasy beyond le monde réel; but for the human being and his responses themselves to redeem the natural world.

Hence the minutely accurate observation of Nature in English verse. Think of Thomas Hardy's converse and empathy with a bird, a yew tree, a dead dog. Is this need to empathize, to redeem, perhaps something to do with the fact that England was the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, the cradle of a materialism that destroyed Arcadia once and for all? And, of course, that feeling is alive today, as a tiny island becomes bricked and concreted over, its population quadrupling in half a century. Think of Gerald Finzi's ardent responses to Hardy's obsession with being alive to the wonders of the present moment, in order to redeem the time, redeem the place. There is what the Irish poet Seamus Heaney would call a "cultural depth charge" latent in certain words and rhythms — and many English poets show a desire to find "a continuity with another England, there and then."

Redemption, too, from war and the pity of war. With a welter of information about worldwide strife clamoring for our daily attention, the responses are both soothed and stimulated by those fiery encounters of poets and musicians from the two World Wars. The creative meetings of Herbert Howells and Walter de la Mare in "The Old Soldier"; of Ivor Gurney and John Masefield in "By a Bierside"; of Benjamin Britten and the socialist and pacifist William Soutar in "Who are these Children?" — all of these responses to the killing fields of body and soul act as resonant images and emblems that give a voice to the human response to conflicts of all times, all places. For it was ever so.

Another facet of English song that has an enduring appeal for both performers and audiences is our national penchant for nonsense. Limericks, parodies and puns subvert normality and celebrate, particularly in their musical settings, the absurdity of pomp and circumstance. Nonsense writers such as Lewis Carroll, Hilaire Belloc — even A. E. Housman — were freedom-fighters for the child, in a country that has always (now perhaps more than ever) had an ambivalent and uneasy relationship with childhood. (No wonder the Owl and the Pussycat sailed away for a year and a day.)

There's also something unique about the English language and English prosody that has made it, and continues to make it, irresistible to the ears of composers. Wordsworth wrote of Milton:

   Thou hadst a voice, whose sound was like the sea,
    Pure as the naked heavens, majestic, free….

Is it because we're an island, surrounded by the eternal wash and whisperings of the sea — and with so many tidal rivers? Metrical rhythm is not of primary importance, and relationships expressed grammatically in other languages become articulated in English through tones of voice — through delicate, elusive patterns of inflection and stress. Hardy exuberantly and audaciously celebrates the fact that the English language has very few rules governing the sequence of words in a clause. And how Finzi loved the challenge of the prosodic perversity within, for instance, the couplet:

    Why should I have to grow to man's estate
    And this afar-noised world perambulate?

In contrast to Latinisms, there are so many monosyllables in English verse. Coupled with the nature of our vowels, riddled with diphthongs, they give writer and composer an almost infinite range of phrase rhythms with which to play.

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Baker, legend of art song
© Nigel Luckhurst/Lebrecht Music & Arts 2012

Quite the most exciting thing about the rise and rise of English song is the bright green shoots that are springing up today. New CDs exploring the once dormant areas of English song are suddenly tumbling headlong into the catalogue — new anthologies of composers such as Delius's protégé, Charles Wilfred Orr (1893–1976), containing many little-known settings of A. E. Housman's perenially irresistible A Shropshire Lad; and the songs of Michael Head (1900–76), a pupil of a pupil of Clara Schumann, and an elegant, fluent setter of Georgian poets such as Walter de la Mare and John Masefield. His songs, recently championed by Roderick Williams, mezzo Catherine Wyn-Rogers and Irish soprano Ailish Tynan (see "Recordings," p. 49), were also much admired by the likes of Baker and, before her, Ferrier.

At home, festivals of English song are burgeoning. There is Ludlow's triennial English Song Weekend, with four days packed with recitals, lectures and master classes, all in the land of Shropshire lads and Shropshire suppers, and ringed by those "blue remembered hills." There's its little sister, Tardebigge's three-concert series "Celebrating English Song," which this summer includes new settings of Housman and Hardy by composer and broadcaster Michael Berkeley. There's Dorchester-on-Thames, which last month hosted the sixth English Music Festival, awash with Finzi, Charles Villiers Stanford, Quilter, John Ireland, Rutland Boughton and Britten. And there's Leeds Lieder+, where, every two years, the "plus" sign accounts for celebrations of composers such as Gurney and Vaughan Williams and commissions from living English composers. At Aldeburgh last month, Finzi's A Young Man's Exhortation and Britten's Winter Words (both cycles offering particularly potent settings of Hardy) were given dramatized performances by tenor James Gilchrist, pianist Anna Tilbrook and filmmaker Netia Jones.

From composer/pianists such as Stephen Hough and Huw Watkins to symphonists and opera composers such as Colin Matthews and Judith Weir, through to the youngest new generation of composers, English poetry is having a steady, even increasing appeal as inspiration for the creation of new song. And organizations from the BBC to record companies to festivals are putting their money where they know singers' open mouths are.

When, in 2009, Colin Matthews was looking for a way to celebrate the twentieth birthday of the record company NMC (originally New Music Cassettes), he commissioned ninety-six brand-new songs and had them performed in no fewer than eight concerts at London's newest music venue, Kings Place. The project also produced The NMC Songbook, a rich compendium of four CDs, featuring both established and embryonic composers, setting everything from Blake and Byron to a Leyton Orient football chant, a recipe for whisky and an off-the-wall news-cutting from India. The quirkiness of many of the settings probably arises from the fact that young composers can be very conscious of, and daunted by, the very lyrical and late-Romantic literary traditions that created the golden ages of English song. Nobody really wants to sound like another Elgar, Finzi or Britten.

Tansy Davies, for example, sees song as a stimulus to experimental composition. "You have to change tools when writing song," she told me. "It's a magical agent for transforming words through melody." She conjures a sense of the rich and the strange from the oblique, unpunctuated lines of the poet John Clare. Several young composers opt for prose: Morgan Hayes set chunks of Dickens's A Dictionary of London for soprano and piano; Edward Rushton focused on the diary of Samuel Pepys in "With my Whip"; and Simon Holt created an irresistible vignette for unaccompanied baritone in a report torn from an Indian English-language newspaper in "Raju Raghuvanshi is a Ghost."

Many of the composers, too, find themselves drawn to the tradition of English nature poetry: Anthony Powers dared to set Housman's "Into my heart an air that kills" yet again; Helen Grime succumbed to the allure of Hardy in "Nobody Comes"; and Robert Saxton wrote his own spare and nostalgic text for "The Beach in Winter," again capturing the wonder of a single moment.

The NMC Songbook has stimulated and inspired continuing song cycles. (Emily Howard has maintained her artistic relationship with the poet Geoffrey Hill.) Many of its pieces incarnate the ideals of the musicians of that first Elizabethan age, such as Thomas Campion, who sought to couple his "words and notes lovingly together." Others give words a rougher ride. Some barely use words at all, preferring to explore the spaces in between — those areas of vocal expression where words strain, crack and break under the burden.

More recently, Stephen Hough responded to Brahms's Liebeslieder Walzer and Neue Liebeslieder with a set of eight Other Love Songs — settings that range from the mysticism of Julian of Norwich, through the celebration of lesbian love in a time of colonial taboos, in a poem by Laurence Hope (the pen name for Adela Nicolson), and on to more brave and fresh responses to the eternally seductive muse of Housman. And these songs are avidly taken up by new generations of singers. As Siegfried Sassoon wrote so memorably after the Great War, "The singing will never be done." spacer 

HILARY FINCH is a music critic for The Times of London and a writer and broadcaster with a special interest in English and Nordic song. 

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