About this Recording
8.557113 - SOMERVELL: Shropshire Lad (The) / James Lee's Wife / Songs of Innocence (English Song, Vol. 2)
English  French  German 

Arthur Somervell (1863-1937)
The Shropshire Lad • James Lee’s Wife • Songs of Innocence

The English composer Arthur Somervell was knighted in 1929, an honour bestowed in recognition of his services as Inspector of Music to the Board of Education. His interest in education had, by then, distracted his attention from composition, for which he had shown considerable early ability. Born at Windermere in 1863, the youngest son of a well-to-do shoe manufacturer, he had his schooling at Uppingham, before entering King’s College, Cambridge, where he graduated in 1883 and was awarded a doctorate in 1903. At Cambridge he had been taught by Stanford and from 1883 to 1885 he studied in Berlin at Joachim’s Musikhochschule with Friedrich Kiel and Woldemar Bargiel, the latter the son of Clara Schumann’s mother by her second husband. In London he entered the Royal College and was later a pupil of Hubert Parry. From 1894 he taught at the College. After his retirement from his position as Inspector in 1928, he went on to devote a considerable amount of his time to the School of English Church Music, and his hymns We give thee but thine own (Windermere), When wilt thou save the people? (Kendal) and Every morning the red sun (Langdale) retain an occasional place in Anglican worship, the melody titles proclaiming Somervell’s allegiance to his native Lake District.

For his songs Somervell chose a wide variety of texts, with settings of poems from Shakespeare to Browning and Housman. His five song-cycles include two groups of poems by Browning, James Lee’s Wife, included here, and A Broken Arc, drawing on a number of poems. From Tennyson come verses for the cycle Maud, and from A. E. Housman verses from A Shropshire Lad, while for Love in Springtime he drew on Tennyson, Rossetti, and Kingsley. His chamber music includes a Clarinet Quintet, his choral music a setting of Arnold’s The Forsaken Merman and of Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade, and his orchestral music a symphony and concertos for violin and for piano. It is the songs, however, that remain a part of current English repertoire.

The settings O mistress mine and Orpheus with his lute were published in 1927 as part of Three New Old Songs. The first takes its familiar words from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and the second from Henry VIII, where it is sung by one of Queen Katharine’s women. Sweet Kate reworks a song by Robert Jones, published in 1609 in his A Musicall Dreame, or the Fourth Book of Ayres.

Somervell’s four songs on poems from William Blake’s Songs of Innocence were written in 1889, dedicated to Dolly and Gwen, and simple and child-like in form and appeal, perfectly crafted examples of such work.

The song cycle based on Tennyson’s monodrama Maud dates from 1898. There are thirteen songs in the whole work that traces the story from the memories of the suicide of the protagonist’s father, ruined by unfortunate speculation, making his son’s match with Maud, daughter of his father’s closest friend, and his betrayer, impossible. Three of these are included here. Maud’s family return to the Hall and gradually the young man at the heart of the drama falls in love with her again. In the fifth song of Somervell’s cycle, Birds in the high Hall-garden, the lovers meet, before Maud returns to the house, with the flowers she has picked. The verses that tell of the arrival of another to woo her are omitted. The seventh song, Go not, happy day, expresses the love of the couple. The first part of the poem ends with the words that provide the ninth song of Somervell’s cycle, Come into the garden, Maud, words perhaps more familiar in the setting by Balfe. The singer calls Maud to the garden, as he hears the sound of music from the Hall, where he has not been invited. As she approaches, he is in ecstasy, but the song does not tell how their meeting is to be interrupted by Maud’s brother, his quarrel with her lover, and her brother’s death in the dreadful hollow, where the drama had started. In the remaining songs Maud’s lover seeks exile abroad and goes out of his mind, while Maud, in his absence, dies. The cycle ends with the singer’s resolve to meet his fate in war for his country.

The song cycle derived from Robert Browning’s James Lee’s Wife was published in 1907 with a dedication to Marie Brema, a Liverpool-born singer of German-American parentage who, in 1894, was the first English-born singer to appear at Bayreuth, where she sang Ortrud in Lohengrin and Kundry in Parsifal. James Lee’s Wife first appeared, under the title James Lee, in 1864 in Browning’s Dramatis Personae and from the original nine poems Somervell takes five. The first version has an orchestral accompaniment, but the songs were later arranged for an accompaniment of piano quintet, and then simply with a piano accompaniment. As in other dramatic monologues by Browning, the woman of the title reveals her story, telling first of changing love, more dramatically in the second song, By the Fireside, as she tells of the rot and rust, run to dust, of a ship seemingly safe in port, as she and her husband had seemed. The same idea continues in the third song, In the Doorway, from which the middle two verses of the original poem are omitted. In the fifth of Browning’s poems, On the Cliff, she sings of the parched vegetation on the rock and how from this may come colour and life, as with the minds of men. The cycle ends with the seventh of Browning’s poems, Among the Rocks, in which she proclaims her message that If you loved only what were worth your love, / Love were clear gain.

The settings of The Bargain, Sir Philip Sidney’s My true love hath my heart, and I have his, from Arcadia, the anonymous Fain would I change that note and Matthew Arnold’s poem Longing, Come to me in my dreams, were published in 1935. Shepherd’s Cradle Song, with words from the well known German lullaby Schlaf, Kindlein, schlaf!, was published in 1890, a song to match the original German folk-song. Dainty little maiden is taken from the 1901 song cycle Love in Springtime, and is a setting of Tennyson’s poem The City Child. The 1904 When Spring Returns has words by the composer.

It was with some reservations that A. E. Housman allowed poems from his A Shropshire Lad to be set to music, after his experience with Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, where some very slight alterations had been made in the texts. The ten poems chosen from the 63 that make up Housman’s collection provided the texts for the songs by Somervell, the first setting of poems from a work, that was the later source of poems so effectively transformed by George Butterworth. Somervell’s cycle of 1904 is thematically unified and his settings seem admirably and inevitably fitted to the words throughout. Together with other connections between the songs, the reminiscences of the first song in Into my Heart an Air that kills is particularly poignant, leading to the haunting final song, with its treatment of Housman’s recurrent preoccupation with youth and death. The cycle was introduced to the public by the Irish bass-baritone Harry Plunket Greene, son-in-law of Hubert Parry, a singer to whose abilities and advocacy English song-composers owed a great deal.

Keith Anderson


Close the window