About this Recording
8.573584 - IRELAND, J. / MOERAN, E.J.: Choral Music (The Carice Singers, D.O. Norris, Parris)
English 

John Ireland (1879–1962) and E.J. Moeran (1892–1950)
Choral Music

 

Renowned for his outstanding catalogue of piano miniatures and solo songs, John Ireland is little known these days as a composer of partsongs, but though his output was slender, he brought a polish and artistry to the genre which evinces a consummate understanding of choral forces gained from many years as organist at Holy Trinity Church, Sloane Square and St Luke’s, Chelsea. His first effort, a setting of Thomas Campion’s The Peaceful Western Wind [4] dates from the late 1890s when he was still a student. Unpublished until 1994, it reveals a stylistic deference to the partsongs of his masters, Parry and Stanford. The Campion text is also typical of the reawakening of interest in Elizabethan and Jacobean texts (as already shown in Parry’s two sets of Elizabethan Lyrics and Stanford’s Elizabethan Pastorales) and this predilection continued for Ireland in Thomas Nashe’s Spring, the sweet Spring (1908) [5], an attractive modified strophic design with suitably onomatopoeic refrain (dedicated to Lionel Benson and the Magpie Minstrel Society), the plangent Weep you no more, sad fountains [2] (1909) and a further Campion setting for voices and piano, In praise of Neptune (1911) [15], a muscular, unison tune (probably intended for use in schools) which he later orchestrated. Between 1910 and 1912 Ireland turned to the poetry of William Blake’s magical Songs of Innocence and set three of the poems. The first, Laughing Song (1910) [3], left in manuscript by the composer, is a joyous (and demanding) Scherzo in which nature joins in the human experience of merriment; Cupid [7], probably written in or around 1912, though not published until 1961, is another Scherzo but more wryly quizzical in its questioning demeanour. In marked contrast to the skittish humour of the two scherzi, A Cradle Song (1912) [1] is an exquisite lullaby. Ireland’s handling of material here is masterly—a simple melody, a gentle rocking ‘charm’, tender suspensions, brief yet telling modulations suggestive of a disturbing darkness—in its evocation of protective childhood innocence, far from the taint of adulthood. The setting of Sea Fever [14] from John Masefield’s Saltwater Poems and Ballads of 1902 remains one of Ireland’s best known and most frequently performed songs. Written in 1913, its later arrangement for baritone, male-voice choir and piano by Mansel Thomas was clearly intended for the tradition of Welsh male-voice choirs which Thomas knew well, though the arrangement also lends itself well to the rough-hewn, male-orientated, maritime world that Masefield envisaged in his poetry.

After the First World War, Ireland provided tunes for two hymns devoted to the peace across the continents. Irene, a full-bodied unison melody, was written for Alfred Moss’s Hymns for the Celebration of Peace in 1918. Implicit in the text and music is a lingering sentiment of patriotism. Fraternity, on the other hand, written a year later, explored a very different world. Published in the first volume of the official publication of the League of the Arts for National and Civic Ceremony, The Motherland Song Book, the words of this unusual hymn were selected from verses from John Addington Symonds’s poem A vista. There is little or no religious allusion here; instead, the poem—entitled These things shall be [10] (which Ireland would later use for his eponymous choral work in 1937)—expresses those aspirations of a war-torn Britain emerging from an unprecedented world conflagration in which mankind will live ‘unarmed… as comrades free’ in search of a better world. They were sentiments of a new democratic order, a new race of men, imbued with a socialist, not to say communist idealism (which Ireland later firmly rejected) and a renewed sense of pacifism that had been rejected in the years before 1914.

Ireland did not compose any partsongs until after the First World War when a distinct change in his style is observable. For When May is in his prime [6], an element of sixteenth-century modality is detectable—more so than in his earlier forays with English renaissance poetry—a stylistic feature appropriate to the literary source of the Tudor poet (and composer) Richard Edwardes. This reference to England’s madrigalian past (which is particularly evident in the becalmed refrains) is, however, exploited in search of a more acerbic harmonic vocabulary in which modality and chromaticism mingle in greater concentration with a more dissonant control of diatonicism. These linguistic aspects were already forming part of Ireland’s more advanced vocabulary in his solo songs of the period, notably in his cycle The Land of Lost Content (1920–21), and this is also palpable in his partsong setting of Tobias Hume’s passionate declaration of love, Fain would I change that note (1921) [8]. Christina Rossetti’s romantic and devotional poetry had already manifested its appeal to Ireland in his song cycle Mother and Child (1918), and once again it proved to be an inspiration for Twilight Night (1922) [9], a heartfelt narrative of close friendship severed by distance and duty, yet imbued with the yearning hope of future meeting and remembrance. Deeply moving in its evocation of a melancholy nostalgia, and so redolent of a war-weary Britain of the early 1920s, this is Ireland at his best. Three years later, another setting about the remembrance of friendship, this time of William Cory’s splendid translation of Heraclitus [13] (by Callimachus of Hallicarnassus), was composed for Herbert Hughes and the De Reszke Singers (a group of singers who had all been pupils of the renowned Polish tenor, Jean de Reszke). A brooding, sinuous elegy in B flat minor, the partsong has much in common thematically (especially in the last phrase of each verse) with the rueful Epilogue of The Land of Lost Content published just a few years before and also presaged similar material in the forthcoming song collections of Five Poems by Thomas Hardy (1926) and Songs Sacred and Profane (1929–30).

After his evacuation from Guernsey in June 1940 (and he was one of the last to escape with his former pupils John Longmire and Percy Turnbull), Ireland resided with friends, first in Hertfordshire and then in Essex. It was during this time, in 1942, that he responded to a request from Leslie Woodgate and the BBC Singers with a setting of Henry Compton’s Immortality [12]. Looking back to the robust diatonic languages of Parry, Stanford and Elgar, the song, with its message of determination and steadfastness, shares a good deal with the style Ireland forged in the 1930s in choral works such as These things shall be (1936–37) [10]. The national fervency of Immortality found voice again in James Kirkup’s The Hills [11] which Ireland contributed to A Garland for the Queen (a set of partsongs by a cross-section of living British composers to celebrate the coronation of Elizabeth II in 1953). A gentle tribute to the monarch, its opening and closing gestures seem to quote, nostalgically, from the slow movement of Elgar’s First Symphony.

Having begun his studies as a composer with Charles Villiers Stanford at the Royal College of Music in 1913, Ernest John Moeran joined the Norfolk Regiment and saw active service in France during the First World War. After being wounded and later demobilised, he resumed his studies at the RCM with John Ireland in 1920. Ireland’s influence on Moeran was certainly strong, but it was the music critic and writer Philip Heseltine (otherwise known as the composer Peter Warlock) who made the strongest impression during their friendship of the 1920s. Heseltine’s passion for Elizabethan and Jacobean song and poetry clearly infected the emerging Moeran whose own solo songs and partsongs amply reflect the same enthusiasm. This is certainly evident from the three early settings he wrote in 1922 and 1923. Weep you no more, sad fountains [24] and especially the extraordinarily intense lament Robin Hood borne on his bier (which bears comparison with Warlock’s A Full Heart) already show Moeran’s propensity for introspective melancholy and the use of trenchant chromaticism influenced by the harmonic experiment of Warlock and his mentor, Bernard van Dieren. The more buoyant setting of Herrick’s famous lyric Gather ye rosebuds reveals an assimilation of metrical fluidity gained from a knowledge of the Elizabethan madrigal, and it was this affinity that led to the completion of Songs of Springtime [16][22] in 1929. While evincing techniques of imitation and word-painting common to the madrigals of his Elizabethan forbears, and a refinement of his musical language, the individual songs also betray a deference towards the renaissance dance (as essayed in Warlock’s Capriol Suite of 1926). Shakespeare’s Under the greenwood tree [16] is a basse dance, The River-God’s Song & a pavane, Spring, the sweet spring [18] its partnering galliard and Sigh no more ladies [20], for all its irregular 5/8 metre, a ballett; while Good Wine [21] (which surely presages the Galop in Moeran’s later Serenade for orchestra) is a drinking song, a genre much favoured by Warlock. Love is a sickness [19] betrays an affinity with the airs of Dowland and Campion, not only in its melancholic melody but also through its affecting chromaticisms. A similar vein of melancholy haunts the last of the set, To Daffodils [22], in which Moeran succinctly captures the valedictory disposition of Herrick’s well-known poem.

This Elizabethan trend continued in Blue-eyed Spring (1931) [23], a song for solo tenor (with pastiche lyrics by Robert Nichols) and a choral ballet-like ‘fa la’ accompaniment, and, in 1939, with a second collection (dubbed a ‘Choral Suite’) entitled Phyllida and Corydon, dedicated to another passionate lover of Elizabethan music, Constant Lambert. Choosing his poems with great care (in which the love-sick youths Corydon and Phyllida are central to the theme of love and all its foibles) Moeran is much more specific with his genres, assigning ‘madrigal’ to three, ‘pastoral’ to two, ‘air’ to two with one ‘canzonet’ and one ‘ballet’. Some of the pieces are conspicuously more ambitious in scope and difficulty as is evident from the amusing encounter of the lovers, Phyllis and Corydon, in the opening number [25], the sensuous Beauty sat bathing by a spring [26] with its rueful refrain and the lively Corydon, arise [32]. Others such as the ravishing pastoral On a hill there grows a flower [27] (which looks forward to the central episode of Overture to a Masque of 1944), the jaunty ballet Said I that Amaryllis [29] and the metrically quirky canzonet The treasure of my heart [30] are shorter and more concise like those of Songs of Springtime. Also in this category is the air While she lies sleeping [31] (actually another setting of ‘Weep you no more, sad fountains’), a true gem and, in its deeply pensive interpretation of the text, powerfully characteristic of the brooding chromatic language the composer had explored so potently in his Symphony in G minor of 1937.

Jeremy Dibble


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