About this Recording
8.571360 - HODDINOTT, A.: Landscapes: Song Cycles and Folksongs (Booth, N. Spence, J.H. Williams, Matthews-Owen, Pollock)
English 

Alun Hoddinott, CBE (1929–2008)
Landscapes: Song Cycles and Folk Songs

 

Alun Hoddinott was born in Bargoed, Glamorganshire on August 11, 1929 and grew up on the beautiful Gower peninsula to the west of Swansea. When he died there on March 11, 2008 he had dominated the musical scene in Wales for well over half a century. His unique achievement was fittingly recognised, in what would have been his 80th birthday year, when the new home of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales within the Wales Millennium Centre in Cardiff Bay was named BBC Hoddinott Hall in his honour. Hoddinott spent most of his professional life in Cardiff—initially as an undergraduate at the University (1946–49) and then as a lecturer at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama (1951–59) before returning to his alma mater as Lecturer (1959–67) and subsequently Professor and Head of Music from 1967 until 1987. In initial partnership with his great pianist friend John Ogdon, this pivotal year 1967 also saw Hoddinott establishing the Cardiff Festival of 20th Century Music, a pioneering event which he directed until 1989. At the age of 60 he then retired from all administrative duties to concentrate exclusively on composition. As one of the most gifted, versatile and prolific composers of his generation internationally, Hoddinott contributed significant works to all genres—10 symphonies, 6 operas, 13 piano sonatas, 5 string quartets, 6 violin sonatas, several large-scale choral canvases (notably The Tree of Life, Sinfonia Fidei and The Legend of St. Julian) and over 20 concerto-like scores for virtually every traditional instrument, including the cello concerto Noctis Equi for Mstislav Rostropovich in 1989. This recording brings together for the first time all his songs for high voice and piano (together with his last vocal work of all) and thus represents an important strand of his vast and prodigious output.

During his years as a student at Cardiff University and also with Arthur Benjamin in London, Hoddinott composed numerous songs which set a wide variety of poets writing in English—Romantics such as Matthew Arnold, A.E. Housman, Walt Whitman, Shelley and Keats rubbing shoulders with Shakespeare and John Fletcher (an early favourite) and, at another extreme, Cecil Day-Lewis and Edith Sitwell. But with the exception of the Two Songs, Op. 2 (setting Fletcher for bass and piano) and the anonymous Lullaby, Op. 4, No. 1 (for medium voice and piano) both from 1950, all these early settings were withdrawn by the composer, so that we have to wait until 1975 for the first mature collection of songs for voice and piano—the set of Landscapes (Ynys Môn), Op. 87—which, perhaps significantly, continues an important collaboration with a fellow Welsh artist—the distinguished and versatile writer Emyr Humphreys (born 1919) who is a prolific novelist, poet and dramatist. Hoddinott and Humphreys first worked together in 1959 and again in 1964 when the latter was producing two plays by Saunders Lewis for the BBC in Wales—Esther (for radio) and subsequently Blodeuwedd (for television)—for both of which Hoddinott was commissioned to write the incidental music. Then in 1968 Hoddinott set two texts by Humphreys—An Apple Tree and a Pig (for unaccompanied chorus) and Roman Dream (for soprano and ensemble, subsequently recorded by Dame Margaret Price)—so it was perfectly natural in 1975 to find the composer turning again to Humphreys for the first of three song cycles on which they were to work together, the others being Ancestor Worship (for baritone Stephen Roberts and piano in 1977) and Songs of Exile (for tenor Robert Tear and orchestra) in 1989.

The timing of this first cycle is interesting in that it comes hard on the heels of Hoddinott’s first opera—The Beach of Falesa, a richly romantic score based on the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson—which was premiered by Welsh National Opera on March 21, 1974. This contained a major role for the Welsh baritone Sir Geraint Evans and the experience of writing for voices on a broad and dramatic scale seems to have encouraged Hoddinott then to explore solo vocal writing in its more intimate recital-based guise—and for another great Welsh singer, the tenor Stuart Burrows. He gave the first performance of Landscapes as part of a celebrity recital at the Reardon Smith Lecture Theatre in Cardiff on May 27, 1975 with the pianist John Samuel, followed by a radio broadcast a year later. As the subtitle Ynys Môn indicates, the five poems are meditations upon a variety of locations on the island of Anglesey, where Emyr Humphreys and his wife Elinor lived at the time. They explore topography, land and seascapes, history and prehistory, the natural world and the inevitable passage of time. Hoddinott’s word setting follows the sense and scansion of the poetry with exemplary care and he succeeds in creating a vivid musical atmosphere for each poem. These are in no sense pastoral landscape songs related to an English tradition (or a Welsh one either for that matter) but establish instead an entirely individual vocal idiom within the stylistic parameters of Hoddinott’s own distinctively coloured language. And it is perhaps not insignificant that concurrent with this song-cycle Hoddinott was planning a major orchestral triptych for the BBC which he also called Landscapes (Op. 86) and which conjured in music the craggy grandeur of Snowdonia from the poetry of Sir T.H. Parry-Williams—the majestic mountain range of Eryri being the dramatic backdrop and mainland context for the entire southern coastline of Anglesey.

Two further solo works were written for Stuart Burrows—and both are settings of Welsh folk-songs. The first collection, the Six Welsh Folksongs, selects some of the most familiar and popular from a rich and priceless heritage and was written in January 1982 for a series of performances later that year to be given by Burrows in a number of capital cities from Vienna to New York. Although they can of course be sung to the traditional Welsh words they are more often than not given in the felicitous English translations specially crafted by the composer’s wife Rhiannon. These were first sung in Wales on December 2, 1982 at the National Museum of Wales in Cardiff by tenor Maldwyn Davies with the piano part very suitably adapted for the harpist Caryl Thomas and they were also subsequently transposed by the composer for baritone. There are surprisingly few first-class arrangements of Welsh folksongs by Welsh composers and it is possible that Hoddinott seems here to take a discreet leaf from the example of Benjamin Britten when writing his famous settings for Peter Pears—they came to Cardiff at Hoddinott’s invitation in 1970 to give a recital at the Festival (including the public premiere of part of Britten’s Who Are These Children? Op. 84) and quickly became great friends of the Hoddinotts. Pears famously wrote after a visit in 1972—“I drove back to London next morning, with a wonderful present from Alun. He is a real Father Christmas of a man, and Rhiannon is just beautiful: she could start a Trojan War.” But Hoddinott himself was a violinist and not a pianist and so his settings are in general less obtrusive in style than Britten’s but just as subtle in effect—supporting but not drowning the vocal contour. Then in 1990 he selected two far less familiar songs from Glamorganshire to celebrate the 80th birthday of Sir Cennydd Traherne, whose ancestral home was the ancient and beautiful house Coedarhydyglyn just outside Cardiff in the fruitful Vale of Glamorgan and who was a long-serving and distinguished Lord-Lieutenant of Her Majesty in the county of Glamorgan. The premiere of the beautifully realised Two Songs from Glamorgan was given at a special celebration in the Edwardian splendour of Cardiff City Hall’s Assembly Rooms on December 12, 1990 when Stuart Burrows was again accompanied by John Samuel.

Another celebrated Welsh tenor—Kenneth Bowen—commissioned a cycle from Hoddinott in 1985 for performance at the Royal Academy of Music and for this the composer turned for his text to the poet Ursula Vaughan Williams (1911–2007, the great RVW’s second wife and widow). They had already collaborated a year earlier on a work for the Camden Chamber Choir—a cantata called Lady and Unicorn—and the new piece sets a richly unified cycle of poems entitled The Silver Hound, which presents the life-journey of a man from Prologue, through his remaining Seven Ages, issuing in a poignant concluding Epitaph—his accumulation of memories likened to the incessant chasing of a hunting hound through his evanescent life. The author’s poetic style is more florid and romantic than that of Emyr Humphreys but Hoddinott responds, paradoxically, with vocal lines of greater simplicity and spareness—a tendency which reflects the general development of his idiom at the time. The decade between Landscapes in 1975 and The Silver Hound of 1985 had seen the composition of a further four operas—two one-acters for television (The Magician and The Rajah’s Diamond), one for children based on Hans Christian Andersen (What the Old Man Does is Always Right) and a full-scale grand opera from Thomas Hardy’s novel The Trumpet-Major (the last three of these to libretti by Myfanwy Piper, the children’s opera in 1977 at Fishguard also designed by her husband John, thus continuing a partnership long-established with Benjamin Britten at Aldeburgh and elsewhere). These very varied operas develop a mastery of stage-craft and vocal economy of gesture often yielding a new vein of lyricism, which trait can be heard very clearly in the seamless evolution and narrative unfolding of The Silver Hound, Op. 121, whose premiere was given in the Duke’s Hall at the RAM on January 6, 1986 when the pianist was the composer and teacher Roger Steptoe.

Even though Hoddinott composed only one set of songs for soprano and piano—One Must Always Have Love in 1994—it would be wrong not to point here to two very significant earlier works of his for soprano and orchestra, the ravishing A Contemplation upon Flowers for Dame Felicity Palmer in 1976 (setting the metaphysical poets George Herbert, born in Montgomery Castle in 1593, and Henry King in a sequence designed by Myfanwy Piper) and the magisterial Symphony No. 9: A Vision of Eternity (to poems by Blake and Shelley) written in 1992 for Dame Gwyneth Jones. The soprano cycle with piano, however, was not written with a specific voice in mind but was the result of an epistolary friendship with the American poet Alice Witherspoon Bliss, who had heard some of Hoddinott’s music and so determined to commission from him a work in memory of her mother Evelyn Lee Witherspoon. The result was the set of Three Motets for chorus and organ (written in 1993) for which he chose suitably meditative words by Donne, Blake and ‘Silurian’ Welshman Henry Vaughan. Alice Bliss was so taken with the piece that she immediately commissioned another work—and for this soprano cycle Hoddinott wove poems by Christina Rossetti, Emily Dickinson and W.B. Yeats around a Tasmanian Poem by Bliss herself. A new sense of freedom and ecstasy informs the vocal writing here and following the US premiere in Georgia, the Welsh premiere of One Must Always Have Love, Op. 152, No. 3, was given by the gifted Welsh soprano Gail Pearson (and a student of Hoddinott’s at Cardiff) with pianist Michael Pollock on June 27, 1998 at the Lower Machen Festival in St Michael’s Church, an idyllic country village on the north-eastern fringes of Cardiff in rural Monmouthshire.

Many of Hoddinott’s later vocal works were commissioned by or written for the young Welsh baritone Jeremy Huw Williams who, in 1999, appeared as Emrys, the pit manager, in the documentary-style music-drama Tower (Hoddinott’s last opera, produced by Opera Box in Swansea and on tour)—a moving and visceral recreation of the heroic struggle to buy the last working colliery in South Wales and which starred the famous Welsh opera-singer Robert Lloyd as the charismatic Tyrone O’Sullivan who led the miners to a famous victory. A year earlier the 1998 Beaumaris Festival commissioned a work from Hoddinott for Jeremy Huw Williams and piano quintet which led to a setting of part of Grongar Hill, the glorious extended poem by John Dyer (1700–58). Not only was this a talismanic location at the heart of rural Carmarthenshire (near Llangathen and Aberglasney Gardens and just within sight of the new National Botanic Garden of Wales) and well-known to the Hoddinotts from their childhood years, but they had now just returned from Cardiff to live in West Wales, at Three Crosses on Gower and from where Grongar was but a short and favourite journey. Another source of inspiration was the special connection with John and Myfanwy Piper. At her suggestion in 1982, Piper provided illustrations for a special limited edition of Dyer’s poem by the Stourton Press. He recalled in his Foreword to the volume that in youth he had thought of the Towy Valley’s landscape (running from Llandovery down through Llandeilo to Carmarthen) as the mythical ‘Promised Land’ (it does in fact include a tiny hamlet called Bethlehem which for many years was the home of iconic Welsh Nationalist Leader and first Plaid Cymru MP Gwynfor Evans!) and that in the late 1930s he’d returned there to make a collage painting of Grongar Hill followed by a lithograph of neighbouring Castell Dryslwyn in the 1950s. With so many resonances in common—location, paintings and poem were a frequent source of discussion between the Hoddinotts and the Pipers during their many festive sessions together either at Maesawelon in Lisvane near Cardiff or at Fawley Bottom Farmhouse just outside Henley—sessions however which were now to be no more. John Piper had died on June 28, 1992 and after a brave and energetic widowhood, Myfanwy followed him suddenly on January 18, 1997. Although never stated explicitly it would nevertheless be hard not to think of Grongar Hill, Op. 168 as a beautiful joint memorial to a remarkable creative couple and it is worth noting that John Piper eloquently described Grongar Hill as ‘one of the best purely topographical poems in existence, because it is so visual. I return to it whenever I feel depressed about the countryside getting spoilt.’

Hoddinott himself returned to the poem a few years later in 2005–06 when the young Welsh pianist Andrew Matthews-Owen (and the mastermind behind this recording) asked for a new work to be scored for soprano, baritone and piano duet—and with Claire Booth, Jeremy Huw Williams, himself and Michael Pollock in mind as the performers. The commission of Towy Landscape, Op. 190 was funded by the Arts Council of Wales in partnership with the PRS Foundation and the premiere was given in Swansea during the Crwth Chamber Music Series at the historic Brunswick Church on September 30, 2006 by these artists in the composer’s presence. The London premiere followed at The Warehouse, London on December 6, 2007 as part of the Cutting Edge Series under the auspices for the BMIC (now Sound and Music).

It is hardly surprising that the abundant riches of Dyer’s poem Grongar Hill (cast throughout in octosyllabic couplets) with its many associations should have triggered a new setting of different lines from within it by Hoddinott, and he was especially inspired by the exciting new possibilities of blending two voices with a piano duet accompaniment. He finds six contrasted sections to set—varying the vocal conjunctions accordingly—and though he did not think of this as his last vocal work there is a particular poignancy in that these very local and personal words should have been his envoi to a lifetime of writing for the human voice.

Although Hoddinott realised in 2007 that his final orchestral score—Taliesin—had reluctantly, but inevitably, to be his musical swan-song, he retained a strong creative vision for the future, which included a ballet with a vocal part for the National Dance Company of Wales and much more beyond. Our regret at these unrealised projects should however be tempered by the extraordinary richness of the musical treasure-trove which Hoddinott left for posterity. I think now of the magical landscape overlooking the Duad valley from the restored farmhouse of Llwyncalennig (where Alun’s ashes rest) at Alltwalis to the north of Carmarthen and which Rhiannon—and her son Ceri and family—can view and ponder as they listen to this haunting yet powerful final vocal canvas. Here is a legacy which enshrines not only the spirit of the most all-encompassing Welsh composer to date but also the distinctive perspective which he translated into music—the personal becoming the universal in a manner unique to both composer and his muse.


Geraint Lewis


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