Intro: Blackbird song
Hullo, this is Classical Break, on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s programme goes in Pursuit of Spring.
Let’s hear Song of Spring from Troubadour Suite, an orchestral work by the Worcestershire composer, Julius Harrison, (1885-1963), who studied at the Birmingham and Midland Musical Institute and became an influential critic as well as composer. Spring has none of the opulence of Summer, but freshness; it has chill like Winter to remind us that Summer is coming, and raw beauty gathered in with much of the security of Autumn Harvest-home - this harvest is too green and sour to eat, but sustains the spirit on sensing. Troubadour Suite was written during the Second World War and dedicated to the composer’s friend, the poet Gordon Bottomley - a friend in turn of a greater poet, Edward Thomas, one of whose books furnished us with the title of our programme. The movements are based on courtly songs by King Thibault the Fourth of Navarre, Song of Spring on a song about the re-greening of the wood: the opening, with its dusky, austere coloration - of violas, blossoms into a beautifully tended song drawn-out in graceful nods - and passing notes - from section of string orchestra to section, and warmth enters sparingly on French horns: the harp is intended to portray the playing of the troubadour himself; his voice is full of heart, his heart full of song.
Track One: Song of Spring, Julius Harrison
Now, a song from a cycle for voices and orchestra, Fantasticks, by the American composer, Bernard Herrmann - famous for his scores for Hitchcock thrillers and other films such as The Day The Earth Stood Still. A song-cycle based on pithy prose-works descriptive of the seasons, by the Elizabethan poet, Nicholas Breton, The Fantasticks is one of Hermann’s anglophile works; he felt a real affinity with England and its literature.
In March, his style is between the Mahler ofDas Lied Von Der Erde and Holst: brusque woodwind opening, rasping brass - it is blustery, damp - celesta or glockenspiel providing cold brightness - the phrases short and nervous - intermittently giving fanfaring brass its head, the climax more aggressive yet. This is like the mood of the Housman poem OnWenlock Edge: The tree of Man is never quiet. The baritone voice rings out declaiming operatically the challenge to Winter’s spirit, the coming of Spring.
Track Two: March from The Fantasticks, Hermann
This is Classical Break on Somer Valley FM, and I’m Rupert Kirkham. Today’s subject is a journey in pursuit of Spring.
Track Three: Song of Nightingale
A setting of a poem, Fruhlingsnacht, Spring Night, by Eichendorff, next - a tiny nocturne so slight that it seems the picture of an instant in time in a young man’s mind. Robert Schumann was an inspired song-writer whose songs were mainly written in two creative bursts in his thirty-first year and his forties. Both a poet and composer, he himself had had no high opinion of songs right up until he read Schubert’s unpublished manuscripts on a visit to Vienna.
Spring Night sings of birds returning, spring scents returning soon, blossoms returning; with both joy and tears the lover thinks absurdly that it could be a dream, but the old miracles come back in the moonlight; the stars and moon say, the woods whisper and the nightingale sings to the listener that his beloved is his.
It is certainly startling to hear Schumann’s casual yet urgent mastery of the song-form, given the fewness of the songs that he had written before, but this was to be the pattern in his every new venture in composition in years to come. The song resounds long after its duration of just over a minute - just as might Spring birdsong. Winter is over!
Track Four: Fruhlingsnacht, Liederkreis, Op 39, Schumann.
Another take on Spring and Love, It Was A Lover. Cleo Laine sings a swung version of Shakespeare’s song from As You Like It, music by Arthur Young, accompaniment by Johnny Dankworth Quartet.
Track Five: It Was A Lover And His Lass,Young
Track Six: Song of Cuckoo
The Norwegian, Edvard Grieg, 1843-1907, wrote perhaps his greatest piano pieces towards the end of his life, in two sets of arrangements of folk-tunes, 19 Norske Folkviser, Opus 66 and Slaater, Opus 72. Just four foot ten inches tall, a keen hill-walker, with only one lung, he loved the mountains and valleys of the Hardanger region and poor health did not prevent this last-gasp burst of creativity in homage to Norway’s music and people, though it had certainly prevented composition on a large scale throughout most of his life. Taking the raw material from folk-collections or from folk-musicians, he sought to capture the harmonic compexity implied in even simple melodies. His friend, the violinist and composer, Johan Halvorsen assisted with notation in the case of the Slaater or dances. From the folksongs, I have chosen Ola Dal, as it was used by Delius in his orchestral piece, On Hearing The First Cuckoo in Spring; the Delius is beautiful, but, here,the vernal-sounding folksong is treated increasingly to some of Grieg’s richest and most poignant chromatic harmonies over three verses. The cuckoo is there to be heard in the stillness of a personal moment to be looked back on and recaptured only in memory. He said himself that he was endlessly fascinated by the magic of harmony and that he wanted to build a house in which man could be happy and at home, and frequently he succeeds. Certainly, here, the transitoriness of Spring comes to be banished, the life and freshness retained. Spring was a time of release for Grieg, whose Winters were frequently spent like a migrant bird, anywhere but in the cold, foggy North: Spring and Summer in Norway truly revived him..
Track Seven: Ola Dal, from 19 Folksongs, Op 66, Grieg
Now, a Chinese folksong arranged by the guitarist, Gerald Garcia and performed by him and the Japanese violinist, Takako Nishizaki. About three-quarters of the way through, the violin is given a short cadenza akin to sudden birdsong before this longing piece ends as quietly and, at heart, peaceably as it began.
Track Eight: Spring Breeze - Chinese Folksong arranged by Gerald Garcia
“Praise to the eternal spring of life,
That has created everything!
The tiniest things have a beginning...”
The Norweigian, Arne Eggen (1881-1955) sets these words in our next piece, the song, Aere Det Evige Foraar I Livet by the romantic poet and secularist, Bjoernsjerne Bjoernson, and is a glorious response to the new season, seeing life in constant evolution and rebirth.
“The tiniest insect
can build a mountain.
A speck of dust
Or a grain of sand
May have founded a kingdom!”
The stirring tune expresses this feeling perfectly, and comes clothed in rich, Griegian harmony and even richer orchestration. Here, it is sung, chin-up, by the great Norwegian soprano Kirsten Flagstad: the recording was made when she was in her sixties.
Track Nine: Praise To The Eternal Spring of Life, Eggen
To The Ring of Kerry Suite by Peter Hope born in 1930. This is a vividly colourful orchestral portrayal of a famous road in County Kerry, South West Eire. The first movement describes travel by a jaunting-car, a horse-and-trap; the middle, slow movement views a placid lake and the finale portrays a lively country fair,Killorglin Fair. Spring is a time for fairs: all seasons of the year have them, but this one is so cheerful that it would have to be celebrating Spring.
One thing is certain, it stays with one some way along the road.
A busy jig displays the sections of the orchestra in turn and together; a lyrical tune shows sentiment, oboe, warbling clarinet and flute evocative of fresh air and bright, dark countryside as woodwind lead; the jig returns the stronger for having been subdued for a space and above it, the brass and strings crown the song-theme - it sounds like love - for the fair’s boistrous dealing and side-shows to take over and bring the movement to a drily brusque close. The Ring Of Kerry Suite won the Ivor Novello Award in 1969.
Track Ten: Killorglin Fair from Ring Of Kerry Suite, Hope
To ancient Russia. Rimsky-Korsakov was the star-operatic, symphonic and orchestral technician of the famous St Petersburg group, Mogyucha Kuchka, The Mighty Handful or The Five. He was fascinated by fairy-tale, Russian paganism and folk-music and found a congenial subject in Snegorochka, Snow Maiden, the tragedy of the daughter of Frost and Spring, a cold being who longs to feel the warmth of love. This opera culminates in the death of herself and her suitor and yet contains the essence of Rimsky’s superb orchestral and choral technique, creating another world of myth and legend and the cruel beauty of nature and its seasons, and ends in Russia’s continuance: the Tsar leading his people in a hymn to the sun-god, Yarilo. Here is that hymn.
Track Eleven: Snegorochka, Hymn To The Sun-god Yarilo, Rimsky Korsakov The Spring, for many religions, is a time of rebirth: pilgrimages are taken in a spirit of purgation and renewal in life and soul, worked by rituals of fasting, cleansing, praise and self-abnegation. One seeks yet again harmony between oneself and the infinite that supports one: in whose goodness one wishes to confirm one’s faith. For Christians, the sacrifice and continuing love of Christ bring hope of forgiveness and the means to face the future in grace and gratitude, with God. Here are two pieces that represent Easter for me: the first is Angelus Ad Virginem, a hymn popular with the Canterbury Pilgrims. The refrain is one of our nation-memories. The beauty of Chaucer’s floweres brightens it, the freshness of Aprile showeres is on it.
Track Twelve: Angelus Ad Virginem
Edmund Rubbra (1901-86) was probably Britain’s greatest symphonist of the generation that followed Vaughan Williams, but he was also a fine setter of poetry in both Latin and English. His influences were mainly of the Mediaeval, Renaissance and Tudor periods in music, and Bach, with something of the organic control of material of Sibelius. His magnum opus is his Ninth Symphony, Sinfonia Sacra, The Resurrection’ This sombrely beautiful work calls for solo voices, choir and orchestra: Bach’s Passions were a model for the form of the work, a wonderfully concentrated form in Rubbra’s hands, of purely orchestral passages and sung chorales - Catholic as well as Lutheran.
The Prelude to the Symphony is a via dolorosa to the foot of the cross, and from there, all flows. But let’s hear the last, choral and orchestral section, where, after the ascension, the Catholic text Viri Galilaei is followed without pause by Hasler’s Lutheran chorale Thy blessing be upon us. Throughout the section, bell-like peals and alleluyas are hinted at or sounded in the voices and matched by orchestral accompaniment as sustained, and including tuned bells at one point - a valedictory sweetness in the violins and woodwind in particular. Amens turn us to the stronger melodic outline of the Hasler - it is a wonderful, oddly dreamlike jump-cut from one style to another: the second of two tunes sounding, like the first, as if in a dream-vision, a vision that many Catholics and Protestants still find it hard to share, and ending in sublime affirmation, unity and renewal, an Easter vision, in God.
Track Thirteen: Symphony No 9, The Resurrection, Rubbra
As an undergraduate in the post-war period, the composer Kenneth Leighton, who was born in 1929 and died recently, wrote an orchestral suite for oboe, cello and orchestra, Veris Gratia, His inspiration came from mediaeval poems on Spring and love. Let’s hear the last movement, Epilogue, Sostenuto ma con moto, sustainedly but moving along. Here, oboe and cello muse on the previous sections, the cello more passionately, the oboe with a more feminine, questioning air. From the opening, the melodic and harmonic influence of Vaughan Williams (his Suite for Viola and Orchestra, Flos Campi) is clear, the strings divided later in overlapping phrases, amens, perhaps... The oboe has the last floated word. The epigraph for this music is: “praise together this earth... And God have pity on the sadder folk...” words with real resonance at this time.
Track Fourteen: Veris Gratia, Epilogue, Leighton
Our last piece is a song by Ivor Gurney, setting a lyric by Thomas Nashe, and one of the five songs for baritone or contralto voice and piano that make up his cycle, The Elizas, so-called from the provenance of the poetry. The cycle was completed in 1912, when its composer was still a student. Its jauntiness and imitations of birdsong, particularly a droll cuckoo, appear both traditional and entirely characteristic of this composer, who suffered greatly in his life but was remembered affectionately for his high spirits and sense of humour as well as genius by those who knew him, and daily makes new friends through his music, poetry and published letters.
This was Classical Break on Somer Valley FM. I hope you have enjoyed our pursuit of Spring, and will join me for another journey.
Track Fifteen: Spring From The Elizas, Gurney