From Lute Song to the Beatles

Written by Steven Blier

Artistic Director, NYFOS

In category: Program Notes

Published March 10, 2018

Today’s program combines a narrow focus on a single culture — the British Isles — with the wide-angle lens on four centuries of song, thereby ranging across practically the entire span of Western classical music. The purity of the Renaissance gradually gives way to the warmth of the Romantic era; doughty Victorianism yields first to the intimacy of Edwardian times and then to the possibilities of the jazz age and modernism. Through it all, something of Britain’s essential musical DNA remains intact: transparent textures, the harmonies of church music, the modes of folk songs, and an enduring respect for English verse, one of the glories of Western culture.

British Musical Tradition

In truth, for many centuries Britain’s literary tradition ran far deeper than its musical one. Her iconic playwrights (Shakespeare, Congreve, Sheridan), poets (Donne, Milton, Marvell), and novelists (Fielding, Richardson, Sterne) remain in our curriculums and on our nightstands to this day. But England’s musical tradition was slower to launch itself. For one thing, the British public (like the rest of Europe and Russia) was mad for Italian opera, nearly to the point of addiction. Other countries — notably Spain — were able to replicate some of those musical thrills in their own language, but that kind of vocal narcissism was more foreign to English composers. Britain’s musical culture was constantly overshadowed by that of Germany, where many of her composers went to study. And eighteenth-century London was also colonized by two visiting musical giants from overseas, George Frederick Handel and Joseph Haydn. Mid-nineteenth century England seemed relegated to the formulas of the parlor ballad, which would never attain the heights of Schubert or Schumann.

The tradition of the piano-and-voice art song may have taken its time to arrive. But England did have a Renaissance song tradition with some notable exponents. The strophic lute song flourished in Britain under the hands of John Dowland, Wiliam Byrd, and Thomas Campion (1567-1620). They created a repertoire of delicate “ayres” which are capable of bearing surprising emotional weight, given their slender means. Campion was as gifted a lyricist as he was a composer — and a great wit, as you’ll hear in his sly, R-rated “Beauty, since you so much desire.”

The theater was the other venue for much of England’s early, non-religious song. That is where the lion’s share of Henry Purcell’s solo songs was first heard. Considered to be the father of English classical music, Purcell (1659-1695) was an innovator, a composer of depth and invention, as eloquent as he is daring. The psychological complexities of his music have inspired composers from Elgar to Adès.

British Musical Theater

But after Purcell’s death British music seemed to falter. Of course, there were promising composers in the realm of ballad-opera, the eighteenth-century version of music theater. William Shield was a wonderful tunesmith, as was Thomas Linley the Elder (1733-1795), whose lovely “Think not my love” retains its fresh purity 225 years after it was written. Then, tragedy ensued. Towards the end of the eighteenth century, three young composers emerged who seemed as if they might carry the torch into the nineteenth century:  George Frederick Pinto, Thomas Linley the Younger, and Stephen Storace. All of them died very young, through illness or fatal accident. It was as if their passing cast a shroud over England’s musical development. Stephen Storace (1762-1796) was perhaps the most promising of all. He was a student of Mozart, and his sister Nancy created the role of Susanna in The Marriage of Figaro. You can hear the “Mozart Effect” in Storace’s grand aria “Be Mine, Tender Passion,” clearly modeled on Fiordiligi’s second-act aria from Cosí fan tutte, “Per pietà.” Storace began his career in Vienna and continued it in London, rising up the ranks of its theater composers through his skill with music, lyrics, dialogue, and backstage politics. His death at 33, after a brief illness, is one of the unsung tragedies in music.

Musical theater remained alive and well in London, and the team of William Schwenk Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan quickly rose to the top of a crowded field. Books have been written about the peculiar alchemy of the dour, sexually repressed Gilbert and the exuberant, hedonistic Sullivan. But no one has captured the character of these men and their working methods more vividly than Mike Leigh in Topsy-Turvy, one of the greatest movies about music. That film centers around the creation of The Mikado. But for me, the most anti-gravitational of all their operettas is Iolanthe, which I first saw when I was seven years old, and which seems to have formed (some might say “warped”) my worldview ever since. Today we offer you my single favorite scene in the entire G&S canon: the Act II confrontation between the hero, Strephon, and his lady-love Phyllis, in which a veneer of elegance and innocence covers a tissue of desire, jealousy, and enthusiastic self-deception.

The English Renaissance

English song — and, some would say, English classical music — was brought out of its doldrums by two composers in the late nineteenth century: Hubert Parry (1848-1918) and Charles Villiers Stanford. Both were responsible for what used to be called “The English Renaissance.” It is a title that now seems somewhat ironic. Neither wrote music that survived the test of time, neither had the compositional inspiration of the masters that were to follow. Yet their operas, oratorios, and symphonies had their day. And they successfully began the tradition of English art song that was to rise to even greater heights in the decades that followed. I took a shine to Parry’s “No longer mourn for me” when I heard it playing on Sirius Radio after a live Met broadcast. The opera was over and somehow Sirius’ algorithm picked Parry’s song out of their pile of ten zillion CD cuts. As it wafted into the room on my telephone (of all things), I was transfixed by the passion of the music, with its echoes of “Ruckblick” from Schubert’s Winterreise.

The Golden Age of British Song 

Parry is our gateway to the Golden Age of British song, written by composers more familiar to concert-goers. Edward Elgar (1857-1934) and Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) are iconic English voices, famous for the Enigma Variations and Pomp and Circumstance (Elgar), and The Lark Ascending and Variations on a Theme by Thomas Tallis (Vaughan Williams). We’ll hear one of Elgar’s most famous songs, “Where Corals Lie,” the fourth movement of his Sea Pictures. This simple ballad never fails to move me. To represent Vaughan Williams, I bypassed his more famous cycles (The House of Life and Songs of Travel) in favor of one of the folk songs he collected in the English countryside, “Rolling in the Dew.” The British folk song tradition is a vital component of her musical vocabulary, and this tune is a charmer.

In his short troubled life, Peter Warlock (1894-1930) wrote a prodigious number of songs whose wide variety of moods and styles make it difficult to classify him in any traditional way. He had no formal schooling in music, but he did have two great mentors: Frederick Delius and the Belgian composer Bernard Van Dieren. Delius’s pastoral radiance and Van Dieren’s austere complexity forged the young man’s musical identity. Warlock’s real name was Philip Heseltine. He adopted his wizardly pseudonym at age 25. In truth, his dual personality needed two names. Heseltine represented the introspective, scholarly part of his nature, passionately devoted to the study and transcription of Elizabethan music. Warlock was the sardonic iconoclast composing in a highly personal, unpredictable mix of styles, often quite dark. His songs range from the expressionistic to the playful. Warlock/Heseltine was an unstable personality, drawn to the occult and prone to violent quarrels. Some have mistakenly characterized him as schizophrenic, though the true diagnosis might be closer to bi-polar. He was a composer of genius, with little genius for a successful life. In his thirties, he became increasingly prone to deep depression, and his early death was probably a suicide. To represent Warlock, we offer “My Own Country,” an arrestingly beautiful hymn to England.

It seems everyone has at least one good song in him. William Sterndale Bennett (1816-1857), a mid-nineteenth century journeyman composer, may not have possessed anything like the darkly chaotic talent of Peter Warlock. But he was gifted enough to impress both Mendelssohn and Schumann when he went to study in Germany. His early promise did not lead to a life of creative innovation, but the man had craftsmanship and grace. His charming madrigal “Come live with me” is an irresistible tribute to the part-singing traditions of the past. It always lifts my heart.

Today’s tribute to Scotland comes, ironically, from a British composer, Sir Granville Bantock (1868-1946). He became an influential figure in London’s music scene by vigorously promoting the contemporary composers of his own day — including Delius and the pioneering duo of Parry and Stanford. Bantock’s own compositions showed his penchant for the exotic — works like the Pagan Symphony and the choral epic Omar Khayyám. He was especially drawn to the sounds of the Hebrides, that rugged archipelago off the northwest coast of Scotland. This is the world he evokes so eloquently in “Song to the Seals,” an instant classic originally written for the tenor John McCormack.

Finzi, Bridge, and Britten

The great explosion of British song — indeed, of British classical music — arrived in the middle years of twentieth century. We have time to hear from three iconic composers: Gerald Finzi, Frank Bridge, and Benjamin Britten.

Finzi (1901-1956) isn’t exactly a marquee name, but if you teach at a music school, you are going to get to know him pretty well. Bass-baritones gravitate to his graceful Shakespeare cycle Let Us Garlands Bring, and tenors will ply you with his less graceful A Young Man’s Exhortation. The introspective Finzi created a haven for himself in the countryside with his wife, the artist Joyce Black. Although non-observant, he was of Jewish heritage. His ancestors had immigrated to England from Italy in the mid-1700s. But no one sounds more quintessentially English than Finzi, with his modal harmonies, his gently un-climactic structures, and his emotional reserve. He took his inspiration from eighteenth-century English music, which he collected and helped to publish in scholarly editions.  His voice is unostentatious, but at his best he had a gift for linking even the most famous texts to melodies that seem inevitably right. Exhibit A: “It was a lover and his lass,” as buoyant and open as a puppy.

Frank Bridge (1879-1941) is probably best remembered for two reasons: he was the teacher of Benjamin Britten, and the composer of the rousingly effective song “Love Went A-Riding,” written in 1914. These two facts have tended to obscure his originality and importance as a composer (Britten was, in fact, his sole composition student), as well as his command of the violin and his skill as a conductor. Though his early works were crafted for the prevailing tastes of his audience, he broke away from his Brahms-drenched Victorian training after the First World War to discover a more radical voice, making free use of dissonance, chromaticism, and a shifting sense of tonality. Most of his songs were written in those early years, and there are treasures to be found — among them the delicate “Goldenhair,” set to a poem by James Joyce. After the war, Finzi became fascinated with the newest European musical developments, especially the ideas of Alban Berg. He wrote only one song in his later style, “Dweller in my deathless dreams” (1926), a fascinating blend of Ravel’s sensuality and the Second Viennese School’s morbidity. Alas, the more he developed his new voice, the less enthusiastic the public was. He was marginalized for many years, until his centennial brought him triumphantly back into the public eye.

American concertgoers need no detailed introduction to Benjamin Britten (1913-1976), whose stage works such as Peter Grimes, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Death in Venice, and Billy Budd have finally found a home in the Metropolitan Opera House. A man of great talent and great resourcefulness, he not only created a vast repertoire of music for the stage and the concert hall but also worked to bring music to a wide audience in England. He successfully fended off the prevailing tide towards academic obscurity that raged through classical composition in the second half of the twentieth century. Instead, he relied on his own unique, complex musical personality, at once intensely intellectual and immediately communicative. Britten made an enormous contribution to the literature for piano and voice, much of it written for his companion, tenor Peter Pears.

Britten had all the necessary ingredients to become a great songwriter: deep literary culture, peerless compositional craft, and a gift for piano writing that very few have possessed. He was one of the greatest collaborative pianists I’ve ever heard, and not just in his own music. Hearing him accompany songs by Schubert or Tchaikovsky or Rossini, I am torn between inspiration (“I want to play like that!”) and despair (“I never will!”). If there is one piece that encapsulates the musical world of this artist, I’d nominate “Midnight on the Great Western” from the 1953 cycle Winter Words with its eerie Doppler effect in the piano writing, its sense of foreboding, and its typical theme of innocence journeying through a dangerously corrupt world.

Contemporary English Song

English song is alive and well, and we have a couple of pieces to prove it. The first is by Jonathan Dove (b. 1959), a prolific composer whose operas and songs are increasingly making their way into American theaters. He is a composer with a wide range: he’s got a wicked sense of humor, as evidenced by his opera The Enchanted Pig, a palette that includes minimalism (his opera Flight) and romanticism (Flight again), rhythmic drive (his Tennyson Songs), and stark stasis (Tennyson Songs again). Dove’s music is often quite complex to master. When Juilliard put on Flight, I would routinely see groups of students in the hallways working together in impromptu study sessions. Waving their arms and nodding their heads in rhythm, they could be heard to curse as they tried to master the very tricky ensembles. I find myself very attracted to his music and am happy to offer the first of his Five Am’rous Sighs. The shimmering piano ostinato provides a sensuous background to an ardent love-song from one woman to another woman.

Welshman Huw Watkins (b. 1976) is a consummate craftsman. His hallmark seems to be a kind of elegiac lyricism, but his music also gathers a healthy, passionate surge when he needs it. Watkins emerges from the romantic tradition, a language he peppers with a shifting sense of tonality, spiced with dissonance. At first glance, he is less confrontational than Dove, who has a bad-boy’s impudence. But the song we chose tonight, Watkins’ setting of Auden’s “At last the secret is out,” is spiky, off-balance, and theatrical (rather Dove-like) — while the Dove song, “Between your sheets you soundly sleep,” is seductive and sexy (a touch Watkins-esque).

The Post-Modern Era

We end the concert with song by three of England’s great popular song composers: the Beatles, John Dankworth, and Noël Coward. Choosing a single Lennon-McCartney song was one of the tougher tasks I faced when programming this concert, but I narrowed it down to four or five that I thought were conducive to the forces at hand. I let the boys vote, and “Ticket to Ride” won unanimously (it was my front-runner too).

The career of Noël Coward needs no introduction to people born before 1980, but he’s no longer well known to the current generation. A kid once brought in a Coward song to a master class I was teaching, and I asked the students if they knew who Noël Coward was. Dead silence. Then someone raised his hand and said, “I think he’s a composer of crossover material, right?” It was my turn to stare blankly, until I realized that he only knew these songs because of a CD by art-song icon Ian Bostridge. Coward, of course, sustained a brilliant career as an actor on the West End, on Broadway, and in Hollywood; as a Las Vegas cabaret star; as a playwright; and as a songwriter. He raised the art of brittle wit to Olympian heights in songs like “Don’t Put Your Daughter on the Stage, Mrs. Worthington” and plays like Private Lives and Present Laughter (which enjoyed a successful run on Broadway last season). His acid sense of humor and his occasionally non-PC humor occasionally rankle, especially nowadays. But I have a tremendous appreciation for “The Master,” as he is known in England. At his best, he certainly earns that title.

John Dankworth (1927-2010) had a distinguished career in British jazz as arranger, saxophonist, bandleader, and composer. But he’s best known as the music director for his wife, the jazz diva Cleo Laine. In my college years, I became smitten with Cleo and heard her often in concert, always with Dankworth at her side. They were a classy team — she could scat-sing up to Bb above high C, which would make me faint with pleasure, but she also could spin out a ballad to perfection in her husky, deep-alto range. Dankworth set a number of famous British writers to music for his wife, and their Shakespeare album is a treasure. The jewel in the crown is the Shakespeare sonnet we’re offering tonight, “Shall I compare thee to a summer’s day.”

After hearing so many brilliant individual voices, it seems presumptuous to draw blanket conclusions about the national character of English music. Yet there is a special elegance, a sense of restraint covering deep passions, that runs through so many of these songs. Spanish and Italian music explode with emotion; French music melds the logic of a math class with the sensuality of a boudoir. And England? A feeling of the countryside, a distilled, measured eloquence, and sentiment tempered by self-discipline. I used to say of Janet Baker, the iconic British mezzo, that she was like dry ice: so cold that she burned your soul. My bon mot could just as easily be applied to the beautiful music of England — like a Baked Alaska, a delicious blend of cold and hot — and sweet. From the lute song to the post-modern era, an unbeatable combination.

author: Steven Blier

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Called “the coolest dude in town” by Opera News, master collaborative pianist and coach Steven Blier is the co-founder and artistic director of New York Festival of Song. Here on No Song is Safe From Us, Steven blogs about the NYFOS Emerging Artist residencies, writes the engaging and erudite program notes for our Mainstage concerts, and contributes frequently to Song of the Day.


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    Ivor novello?

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    Your interesting analysis is rather skimpy on 18thC British music. Handel and Haydn were not as dominant as you think; there are plenty of writings and recordings that cover this period. Incidentally, Mozart thought that Linley the younger was a “true genius”: try his incidental music for The Tempest, particularly the opening chorus (ahead of Mozart and Haydn).


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