VW songs RES10299

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958)
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)
Songs – Volume 1
James Geer (tenor)
Ronald Woodley (piano)
rec. 2021, Wyastone Concert Hall, Monmouth, UK
Resonus RES10299 [66]

My introduction to English song in the early 1970s was John Shirley Quirk’s account of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Songs of Travel (Saga XID5211). These settings of Robert Louis Stevenson’s “wayfarer poems” appealed to me, teenager brought up on his timeless romances Treasure Island, Kidnapped and Catriona. I have since heard various recordings of this great cycle, including those by Bryn Terfel, Roderick Williams and Will Liverman (review).

Songs of Travel have been published in several editions. It was not until after the composer’s death that Ursula Vaughan Williams released I have trod the upward and the downward slope. Also not included in the original score was the sad Whither must I wander.

I prefer baritone in Songs of Travel. My go-to version is still John Shirley Quirk’s, but this disc’s liner notes – which I gratefully acknowledge – gave me pause for thought. Typically the cycle exhibits “sturdiness”, but the other side of the coin is that “the delicacy and lightness of touch of many of the songs, and their eminent suitability for the tenor voice, have been comparatively neglected”. James Geer’s account is outstanding in every way. The highlights for me are Let Beauty Awake and Bright is the Ring of Words. My favourite number is Youth and Love. I never fail to be moved by these lines: “but waves a hand as he passes on / Cries but a wayside word to her at the garden gate / Sings, but a boyish stave and his face is gone”. Perhaps the most poignant moment is in the final number, I have Trod the Upward and Downward Slope, when RVW alludes to previous songs in the cycle, and brings it to a poignant conclusion.

Less-often performed are RVW’s Four Poems by Fredegond Shove. Fredegond Shove (pronounced as ‘grove’) was a relative: his first wife Adeline Fisher was Shove’s aunt. The volume Georgian Poetry (1918-1919) was published by Sir Edward Howard Marsh. For much of her life, Shove was an adherent of the Bloomsbury Group. Some have criticised Shove’s verse as “a little too idyllically cosy” or “clawingly religiose for comfort”, so RVW’s settings were “dreadful verse […] transcended by the music”. Trevor Hold wondered if “family ties had not influenced Vaughan Williams in his choice [of texts]”. Lacking taste (perchance), I appreciate both text and music.

The last piece, The Watermill, has become one of RVW’s most popular songs. There is a detailed correspondence between of the music with the mill and its inhabitants. As a work of art, it reaches towards Schubert. The subject of the mystical The New Ghost may not be to modern taste – the newly departed soul meets Christ – but there is no doubt that RVW has created some wonderfully numinous music on par with his Bunyan settings. Equally magical is the opening number, Motion and Stillness: “The sea-shells lie as cold as death / Under the sea / The clouds move in a wasted wreath Eternally.” The song is dead-slow-stop, as befits the title. Equally lovely is Four Nights. It muses on the passing of the Four Seasons (and its metaphor of life), a sentiment caught by RVW’s setting.

For details of Elizabeth Maconchy’s life and achievement, I recommend her daughter Nicola Le Fanu’s essay on MusicWeb International. Maconchy studied at the Royal College of Music with Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Wood. Her catalogue covers most genres: orchestral, concertante, operatic and chamber music. The latter includes an important cycle of thirteen string quartets. Her songs are the least-well-known. Stylistically, she has absorbed and synthesised many influences, including Bartók, Stravinsky, Janáček and her former teacher RVW. She was later to develop her own brand of serialism, but later “disowned these works”.

The earliest Maconchy song recorded here is Impetuous Heart, Be Still, setting a text by W.B. Yeats from his play The Countess Cathleen. It is remarkably confident for a seventeen-year-old student. Five years later, in The Cloths of Heaven, again with a text by Yeats, she creates an “unsettling” mood that emphasises desolation and a starkness, far removed from the romantic take by Thomas Dunhill. The following year she set Dante Gabriel Rossetti’s contemplative poem, The Woodspurge which deals with heartbreak and grief. The liner notes explain its genesis. Maconchy a letter to Grace Williams says that it was “composed first as a solo piano piece in 1929, while away in Prague, and then transmuted into song when she read the poem while on honeymoon the following year”. The Thrush, to words by John Keats, is dry and intense. The sonnet expounds what is going on in the bird’s mind, not the poet’s. True knowledge and joy will come to those who are “passive and receptive” and not “impatient”.

In 1938, Elizabeth Maconchy’s husband, William Le Fanu, translated some texts from the Anacreontea, a volume of about sixty short poems by post-Classical Greek authors. Written between the first century BCE and the sixth century CE, they talk of wine, beauty, erotic love and the worship of Dionysus. Maconchy set seven of them in her The Garland: Variations on a Theme, of which four were published in 1984. James Geer chose two of the remaining songs in the manuscript. Love Stood at My Door and The Bee-Sting complement each other in their subject matter: “the wayward and cruel antics of the boy-god Cupid (Eros) with his love arrows”. The former is almost operatic in concept; Britten may be an influence. The Bee-Sting, absorbed and intense, reflects on Cupid stung by a bee and his mother saying “If the bee-sting hurts / How do you think they suffer, Love / Whom you shoot?”

I found Maconchy’s Faustus quite challenging, not so much by avant-garde standards, but by the uniqueness of its sound world in English music. This is less a song than “a dramatic scena for tenor and piano”. The listener will find no echoes of her teacher’s modalism, neither has she imitated Benjamin Britten. The burden of the text is taken from Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus: the last hour before Faustus descends to hell. As the notes explain, the piece contrasts consonance and dissonance in “playing out metaphorically […] as symbols of heaven and hell”. This is extravagant music for an overblown text.

Pianist Ronald Woodley’s detailed liner notes explore the relationship between RVW and his pupil Elizabeth Maconchy. There is a lengthy discussion of the “newly recovered Maconchy songs”. All the texts are included. It would have helped if the dates of the works had been given in the track listing. The booklet is illustrated by photographs of the two performers and a thoughtful study of Maconchy as a young woman. The charming cover, Herding cows before a farmstead, is by the Newlyn School artist, Harold Charles Francis Harvey (1874–1941).

James Geer is always sensitive to the music and the words. Ronald Woodley provides the perfect accompaniment. The balance between singer and piano is flawless.

This pairing was a wonderful idea. It makes a fascinating opportunity for exploring the vocal music of two major English composers. I look forward to reviewing the second instalment of this series.

John France

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Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958)
Songs of Travel (1901-1904)
1. The Vagabond
2. Let Beauty Awake
3. The Roadside Fire
4. Youth and Love
5. In Dreams
6. The Infinite Shining Heavens
7. Whither Must I Wander?
8. Bright is the Ring of Words
9. I Have Trod the Upward and the Downward Slope
Elizabeth Maconchy (1907–1994)
10. Love Stood at My Door (1938)
11. The Bee-Sting (1938)
12. The Woodspurge (1930)
13. The Cloths of Heaven (1929)
14. The Thrush (1934)
15. Impetuous Heart, Be Still (1924)
Ralph Vaughan Williams
Four Poems by Fredegond Shove (1925)
16. Motion and Stillness
17. Four Nights
18. The New Ghost
19. The Water Mill
Elizabeth Maconchy
20. Faustus (1971)