This year’s Unsung Heroes included the songs of Graham Peel, C. W. Orr and Arthur Somervell. It took place at Robinson College, Cambridge on Sunday, September 24th.
Chairman, Sarah Leonard reviews the afternoon below.
AESS Unsung Heroes Concert 2017
On Sunday 24th September members of the AESS met at Robinson College Chapel, Cambridge and gave an excellent concert of songs by C.W. Orr, Graham Peel and Arthur Somervell. It was a fascinating afternoon full of beautiful songs, and every singer delighted the audience with their voices and enthusiasm for the songs. I was delighted that so many members came forward to sing and play.
All agreed that it was a very special afternoon and we heard many forgotten gems.
The singers taking part were Karen Harris, Iain Sneddon, Sarah Leonard, Wendy Lawson, Sue Anderson, Clive McCombie. Paticia Williams, Stephen Miles and Carolyn Richards.
Our two wonderful accompanists were Patricia Williams and Diana Bickley. Wendy Lawson accompanied herself.
Michael Pilkington gave an enlightening talk about each composer, and Nicola Harrison read very movingly from Houseman’s A Shropshire Lad, interspersed between the poems Somervell set.
The concert was superbly organised by Patricia Williams and we thank her very much for all the time and hard work this took.
A copy of Michael Pilkington’s talk is below, as is the full programme.
We have today three composers with very different reputations.
Graham Peel does not even appear in New Grove, but is still remembered for a few songs out of some hundred that he composed, a dozen of which are still in print. He was born in Salford in 1877, and educated at Harrow and Oxford. He read history, but studied music privately for a while with Ernest Walker. He then moved to Bournemouth where he stayed for the rest of his life, working as a public servant. While there he became President of the local branch of The British Music Society, and Chairman of the Bournemouth Municipal Choir. Clearly music was more than just a hobby, though never his profession.
I have found two comments on his songs. Caroline Denham wrote about music in Manchester and mentioned that Peel’s songs ‘were always direct, simple and melodious with a very clear structure.’ Philip Scowcroft has written ‘Peel’s genuine lyrical gift hovers between ballad and art-song, but is perhaps more often nearer the former.’ This seems to me a reasonable assessment.
Of the seven we are to hear today two – ‘Noon-hush’ and ‘Her Loveliness’ are out of print, the rest are among the 13 still available. Of the four that I have ‘In summertime on Bredon’ and ‘The Early Morning’ are quite unforgettable.
Charles Wilfred Orr was born in 1893. He was never in the best of health, but did have independent means, so did not need to earn money through his compositions. He wrote 35 songs, but almost nothing else. All his songs are still in print, but none are well known. Though Peter Warlock and Arnold Bax among others were impressed by some of his work, and Delius gave him much encouragement, his songs were little known during his lifetime. In 1974, two years before his death, he wrote to Stephen Banfield: ‘About two years ago the BBC gave a series of 12 recitals of British Song; about 21 composers were represented, but yours truly was not among them. Last summer there was a series of six recitals of songs by British composers (at the Wigmore Hall, I went!) with a special feature of settings of Houseman at each recital, but again poor C.W.O. was completely ignored.’ This second complaint is particularly relevant – 24 of his 35 songs are settings of Housman.
It is interesting to note that Orr’s ‘first acquaintance with Housman … was through Graham Peel’s ‘In summertime on Bredon.’ After this Orr was almost obsessed with trying to set Housman’s verse in a manner that Hugo Wolf would have approved of. He later wrote ‘No English songs have ever given me the thrill that German lieder have done.’ This despite admitting his German was inadequate and that he had to rely on English translations of the poems. His music is influenced by both Wolf and Delius. New Grove gives him half a column written by Christopher Palmer, who describes him as ‘one of the finest British song writers of the century.’ However, he ends the short article by saying ‘The most notable instrumental pieces are A Cotswold Hill-tune for string orchestra and the Midsummer Dance for cello and piano.’ They are in fact his only instrumental works
Orr also wrote a number of articles and reviews, in one of which he wrote: ‘So long as English vocalists prefer to sing, and English audiences to hear, songs in languages in which 90% of them could not so much as order their breakfast correctly, so long will translations be banned from our concert platforms.’ A sentiment with which I heartily concur.
I have the music to 13 of his songs, and two CD’s covering his complete work, performed by Mark Stone and Simon Lepper. However, only one of the songs I have is being performed today. In relation to the friendship between Orr and Warlock they dedicated songs to each other, and in two cases at least imitated the other. Warlock’s ‘Consider’ has an elaborate piano part, much more like Orr than Warlock, and Orr’s ‘Tryste Noel’ could have been composed by Warlock.
Somervell’s position is rather different. Born in 1863 he studied music here at Cambridge with Stanford, spent two years in Germany, and then a period with Hubert Parry at the RCM. In 1894 he joined the teaching staff at the College. In 1901 he started work as inspector of music for the Board of Education. He retired from this in 1928 and was knighted for his work the following year. He not only wrote a large number of songs, but many choral works, a symphony and a violin concerto, both of which are now available on CD. A thoroughly professional musician.
However, in his excellent book on English Song, ‘Parry to Finzi’ Trevor Hold wrote in 2002 ‘Arthur Somervell is an unaccountably neglected English song composer. Championed by Parry as a young man, acknowledged as one of the leading English songwriters by his thirties, assured of a place in the history of English music for his pioneering song-cycles, yet today he is rarely heard and rarely performed.’ Things have changed a little since then. The recording made by Graham Trew in 1980 was the first ever of ‘The Shropshire Lad’, and now there are no less than six CD’s to be found on the web.
Somervell composed five song-cycles. The first was ‘Maud’, (1898), a setting in 13 numbers of about a third of Tennyson’s dramatic poem. This is the first English true song-cycle, and a powerful and dramatic work. You will hear more about it when four songs from it are performed, later.
The second was ‘Love in Springtime’ (1901), not a real cycle, just a collection of songs relating in some way to Spring. A mixed bunch, but it does contain the wonderful ‘Young Love lies sleeping’. (This is now sung.)
The third cycle was ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (1904) which appears in the second half, and I shall talk about it then. The other two cycles, ‘James Lee’s Wife (1806) and ‘A Broken Arc’, (1923) are settings of Browning. They both contain much fine music, but lack convincing stories.
We shall now hear all the songs which are NOT settings of Housman. Sit back and enjoy.
Somervell’s ‘A Shropshire Lad.’
I first discovered this cycle in the late nineteen forties. The music was out of print, and I was so taken I copied the whole thing out by hand. Some ten years later B&H reissued the music, naturally retaining two or three misprints. C.W.Orr, in spite of his mania for Housman, admitted he did not know Somervell’s work.
Somervell has selected 10 poems from Housman’s first collection of 63 to create a convincing storyline: young man falls in love in spring – his beloved dies before they can marry – in despair he joins the army, and dies abroad. Both Banfield and Hold find the music attractive, but too comfortable at times. This is in the hands of the performers, for there is plenty of anger in the music waiting to be used.
Another criticism expressed by both these writers is that Somervell pays no attention to the underlying homosexual feelings in these poems. I feel strongly that this is unfair. Only after Housman’s death in 1936 was the volume of ‘More Poems’ published, which made clear his sexual orientation. In 1904 when Somervell created his work no one knew of this, and Somervell was surely justified in setting the poems at their surface meaning of a young man who lost his girl. It seems to me unreasonable to accuse him of ignoring something that was only understood in hindsight many years later.
Finally, I have never understood why, when singers wish to perform settings of Housman they almost invariable go first to Butterworth. Apart from being settings of individual poems, not cycles, both ‘Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad’ and ‘Bredon Hill and other songs’ are of very variable quality, some really good – ‘Loveliest of Trees’ and ‘On the idle hill of summer’ for example, but I am inclined to agree with C.W.Orr, who in a letter to Stephen Banfield wrote this: ‘But, as you know, I do not share the general admiration for Butterworth’s songs; some of his so-called simplicity I am blasphemous enough to describe as infantilism. (Particularly that atrociously feeble folk song he has used for ‘When I was one-and-twenty.’)’
This may be going a bit far, but I hope you will agree that it is high time Somervell’s fine work resumed its proper place in our concert halls, not merely on CDs.
© Michael Pilkington 2017
Robinson College Chapel, Cambridge
Sunday September 24th, 2017
The Association of English Singers and Speakers presents
Introductory talk –
The Early Morning Peel
Tryste Noel Orr
Young love lies sleeping Somervell
In the Highlands Peel
Her loveliness Peel
Sorrow and Spring Peel
Noon Hush Peel
Silent noon Orr
Hymn before Sleep Orr
Plucking the Rushes Orr
The Bargain Somervell
Maud has a garden Somervell
Come into the garden Somervell
Oh, that twere possible Somervell
My life has crept Somervell
Singers, in order of appearance:
Karen Harries, Sarah Leonard, Iain Sneddon,
Wendy Lawson, Sue Anderson, Clive McCombie.
Patricia Williams, Diana Bickley
When I was one and twenty Orr
When the lad for longing sighs Peel
Oh When I was in love with you Orr
Into my heart an air that kills Orr
Westward on the high hilled plain Orr
See how thick the gold cup flowers Orr
In Summertime on Bredon Peel
When the Lad for Longing sighs Peel
A SHROPSHIRE LAD
Somervell – Housman
Loveliest of Trees
When I was one and twenty
There pass the careless people
There pass the careless people
Along the field
In Summertime on Bredon
The Street Sounds to the soldiers tread
The New mistress
On the idle hill of summer
White in the moon the long road lies
Terence, this is stupid stuff,
Think no more lad
Tis time I think
Into my heart an air that kills
With rue my heart is laden
The Lads in their hundreds
Poetry read by Nicola Harrison
Singers in order of appearance:
Carolyn Richards, Stephen Miles, Karen Harries, Patricia Williams Clive McCombie, Sue Anderson, Iain Sneddon, Sarah Leonard.
Accompanists: Patricia Williams, Diana Bickley
Our thanks to the Master and Staff of Ronsinson College for their hospitality.
FOOTNOTE – STOP PRESS!
Members will be delighted to know that we have seven songs from the complete A Century of English Song volumes in the ABRSM’s new singing syllabus starting in January 2018.
The Early Morning. Graham Peel. Volume 8
A Melancholy Song Anthony Hopkins Volume 1
How should I your true love know? Roger Quilter Volume 1
Pot and Kettle. Clive Pollard. Volume 10
Love is a Sickness. Patricia Williams. Volume 10
Mother I will have a husband. Gordon Jacob. Volume 4
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