About this Recording
8.573695 - DELIUS, F. / BAX, A.: Choral Music (The Carice Singers, Parris)

Frederick Delius (1862–1934) and Sir Arnold Bax (1883–1953)
Choral Music


From a contemporary perspective, it is all too easy to underestimate the historical importance and centrality of the part-song. For much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, part-singing was one of the most popular and widely practised forms of musical entertainment, at both amateur and professional levels, and part-songs became a richly diverse (and challenging) medium for composers and audiences alike. Though Frederick Delius and Arnold Bax are better known today for their orchestral scores and chamber music, they both made substantial contributions to the part-song repertoire. Delius was a generation older than Bax, and spent the majority of his life in residence outside the United Kingdom. The two composers nevertheless moved within the same artistic circles and shared many musical friends and acquaintances, including Thomas Beecham, Granville Bantock, Balfour Gardiner and Percy Grainger, all of whom were keenly interested in choral music. Delius and Bax’s part-songs offer fascinating insights into their highly individual creative temperaments, but they are simultaneously deeply rewarding works in their own right, and a compelling testament to the vibrancy of a musical tradition that is once again receiving significant critical and artistic attention.

Delius must have first become acquainted with partsong during his childhood in Bradford, West Yorkshire. Part-singing was an integral part of middle-class recreation, and Delius’s father, a wealthy German businessman from Westphalia with commercial interests in the textile industry, was a keen supporter of such amateur musical activities. Delius’s earliest part-songs date from his time at the Leipzig Conservatoire in 1886–87, after his father had reluctantly agreed to allow him to study music professionally. Part-singing was an even more important part of student life in Germany than it was in industrial English cities, and Delius’s first essays in the genre were written with this context in mind: setting texts by German poets (or in German translation), and employing a musical idiom that would have been familiar to many of his student contemporaries. The topics often evoke conventional tales of sunlit landscapes and youthful romance, although sometimes with an ironic twist or darker undertow. Durch den Wald (Through the Woods)  3  is a swinging Schumannesque evocation of a young lover awaiting his beloved. The golden light of spring gives way to darkness as doubts emerge: will she meet him as planned? The third verse brings joy and relief: ‘es jauchzet mein Herz und der fröhliche Wald!’ (‘And my heart and the merry woods rejoice!’). An den Sonnenschein (O Shining, Golden Sun)  4 , is a similarly volkstümlich (folk-like) text by Robert Reinick, and a companion poem by Carl Andersen, Frühlingsanbruch (The Coming of Spring) 5 has the same mood of anticipation and wistful expectation: ‘Was dämmert im Ost in der purpurnen Höh? / Vielleicht schon der Frühling, mit Grüssen so schön?’ (‘What’s glowing in the east, in the purple hills? / Perhaps springtime is coming, with its greetings so fair?’). The slowest and most sustained number in the set, Ave Maria  2 , draws on religious symbolism to evoke a hushed, hymn-like intensity—a curious choice, perhaps, for a composer who became a committed atheist in his adult life.

The two remaining songs are both settings of translations of texts by Norway’s world-leading nineteenthcentury authors, Henrik Ibsen and Bjørnstjerne Bjørnson. Bjørnson’s Sonnenscheinlied  7  outwardly evokes the same idyllic spirit of innocent joy in nature as the Andersen and Reinick songs, only for the narrator’s reverie to be rudely interrupted by the gadflies and wasps of the final line: an irritant softly suggested in the gentle chromatic inflections of Delius’s coda. The setting of Ibsen’s Her ute skal gildet staa (Here We Shall Feast) 6, from his 1855 play Gildet paa Solhaug, (The Feast at Solhaug) is especially reminiscent of Edvard Grieg, Delius’s close friend and, briefly, mentor. Grieg’s artistic sponsorship was crucial as he sought to pursue his musical ambitions after graduating from Leipzig, and Delius’s lifelong attraction to Norway is captured in the poem’s final couplet: ‘all kvide maa enda naar felen er stemt / i birkelunde’ (‘All sorrow will cease when the fiddle sounds / in the birch grove.’)

If Delius’s earlier part-songs look back nostalgically to the sound-world of Mendelssohn, Schumann, and other Leipzig composers (including Grieg himself, a senior Leipzig graduand), his later essays in the medium are more individual and distinctive. The three part-songs written in late 1907 and early 1908 were most likely commissioned by Granville Bantock for his Liverpool Festival chorus, and are conceived on a larger scale than any of the Leipzig songs. The first, a setting of Arthur Symons’ brooding nature impression, On Craig Ddu  1 , was completed in December 1907, and later published by Harmonie Verlag in 1910. It is one of Delius’s most remarkable creations: a single, sustained chromatic wave that slowly rises and falls like the contour of a distant hill or mountain slope. The whole setting, in fact, feels directed toward the poem’s sonorous closing lines: ‘Blue, thro’ the bracken, softly enveloping, / Silence, a veil.’ Midsummer Song  11  provides a very different form of escapism, in the manner of a stylised pastoral dance whose trochaic rhythms slip away almost as swiftly as they emerge: the promise of happiness and merriment is only fleetingly proffered and then withdrawn once more. Delius’s final part-song was largely dictated to his wife, Jelka, in 1923, after his eyesight failed due to the effects of advanced syphilis. It is a setting of Tennyson’s poem The Splendour Falls on Castle Walls  10  from his 1847 narrative poem The Princess, more familiar from Benjamin Britten’s later Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings. Delius’s response is no less magical, the sound of the ‘horns of Elfland faintly blowing’ captured in the wordless echoes of chorus at the end of each verse. It is a glowing vision but, as so often in Delius’s work, one seemingly heard from afar, fading into an infinite horizon.

Although he studied in London at the Royal Academy of Music and remained resident in England for the majority of his career, the allure of wind-swept isolation and desolate landscapes proved no less powerful for Bax than for his friend and older colleague. In Bax’s case, he was drawn to the rugged Atlantic coast of Western Ireland as well as to the Scandinavian north, and much of his work is underpinned by the sensation of powerful natural forces and elemental change. His part-songs, however, are equally concerned with the evocation of historical distance and remoteness. An encounter in 1920 with the Oriana Madrigal Society, conducted by Charles Kennedy Scott, stimulated Bax’s interest in medieval symbolism. His setting of the anonymous text Of a Rose I Sing a Song  18  is scored for a delicate accompaniment of harp, cello and double bass, suggesting an other-worldly ethereality and enchantment. A concert at Wyndham Place organised by Bax’s muse and lover Harriet Cohen, featuring a performance of Byrd’s 5-part mass by the Tudor Singers, further deepened his responsiveness to early texts and renaissance polyphony. The remarkable setting of Mater Ora Filium  20 , from 1921, borrows its words from a manuscript in the library of Balliol College, Oxford. Bax’s work is a virtuosic essay for double choir, and begins with a solemn chorale (with archaic parallel fifths), framing a more florid imitative passage for semi-chorus. The tutti enter boldy at the phrase ‘Man to father He had none but Himself God alone.’ Though the opening chorale briefly returns, a series of rippling alleluias animate the texture once more. The final sequence is a majestic upward curve, and closes the work with a radiant sense of affirmation.

The 1922 motet, This Worldes Joie  12 , likewise takes its text from an early fourteenth-century source, and opens with a distinctly antique modal colour. The phrase ‘and we shall die’ gives way to more Tristan-esque chromaticism, and announces the entry of a march-like bass ostinato that underpins the motet’s central section. The song reaches a powerful climax before the hushed mood of the introduction returns in an atmospheric epilogue. I Sing of a Maiden that Is Makeless  19 , written a year later, is based on a fifteenth-century carol. Bax’s setting begins with a madrigalian interplay of homophony and imitative passages. More characteristic part-writing slips in at the end of the opening verse, at the words ‘King of all Kings’, and ushers in the subdued central section before the carol’s initial energy returns. The work was dedicated to the Scottish composer and professor at the Royal Academy, J.B. McEwan.

In December 1927, Bax met the Hungarian composer, educationalist, and folk collector Zoltan Kodály, and it may have been the influence of Kodály’s choral works (or the lingering sounds of Stravinsky’s Les noces) that inspired Bax’s own later arrangements of Greek folksongs, based on translations by the music critic M.D. Calvocoressi. Written in 1942, and premièred by the BBC singers after the end of the Second World War, on 11 November 1946, they belong to the very last phase of Bax’s creative career. The distinctive modal inflection of the opening number, Miracle of Saint Basil  13 , is immediately arresting, and contrasts with the delicate textural stratification of the second setting, The Bridesmaids Song $. In Far-off Malta  15  has an engaging rhythmic energy and poise, whereas The Happy Tramp  16  has a wistfulness and melancholy that is reminiscent of Bax’s earlier works, as if wandering once more amid the wild Irish hills. The final number, A Pilgrim’s Chant  17 , opens with a strident call to prayer and the sound of pealing bells. An ecstatic hymn of praise celebrates the ‘holy Virgin, Mother of mercy’, before the bells return to bring the set to a close.

Daniel M. Grimley

Close the window