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Composer’s note: As a first-year student at the Royal Academy of Music in 1958 I set ‘Winter the huntsman’ by Osbert Sitwell and my composition professor Howard Ferguson seemed pleased. I then embarked enthusiastically on settings of James Joyce and sketched out numbers 1,5, 9 and 35 of his poem collection called ‘Chamber Music’. However the reception was less favourable and I abandoned the idea. Yet certain qualities in the songs remained with me over the years, in particular the mysteriously alternating harmonies of ‘All day I hear the noise of waters making moan’ which seemed particular to me. In 2012 the distinguished soprano Patricia Rozario who had premiered and recorded my oratorio ‘The Passion of Mary’ asked if I would consider writing her a song-cycle in which I would also act as her accompanist. We looked at the old sketches of James Joyce and Patricia was enthusiastic. I had qualms over the suitability of the text, since the poems are very much the expression of a man’s love for a woman, but we agreed that the songs should be rescued.
So fifty-four years after the first sketch I embarked enthusiastically on the same project. As I set the poems I became more and more intrigued, since they are so overwhelmingly romantic, so sentimental and so extraordinarily ‘old-fashioned’, with many of the poems overtly aping English verse forms from the 17th, 18th or early 19th century. Why did he write them? He obviously had a phenomenal inborn gift for lyrical poetry and its sensitivities and euphemisms; he delighted in the subtleties of the past and adored to allow them to flow out of him as if by second nature. Yet the time he was writing was the time of Ibsen and Yeats and Maeterlinck, poets who had thrown away this delicacy and affectation and were moving into a post-Darwinian, atheist age casting scorn on such stylistic mannerisms. Was he laughed at for writing them? I would suggest that he was. Perhaps laughed at by the woman he loved. The poems up to number 13 are all expressions of an exaggerated and sensitive worship of the feminine, the anima, the unachievable beloved outside the reach of the love-struck poet infused with longing. But at number 13 the lovelorn poet seems to have triumphed. The poems continue in the same vein but shadows of doubt appear. Fast-forwarding to numbers 35 and 36 (which were in any case added to the collection later) one finds a completely new emotion and mind-set: that of blank despair. In this work I make the same fast-forward and Joyce’s 35 and 36 are re-numbered as 14 and 15, which almost combine to make one final song. Could it be that Joyce found his perfect love and was utterly rejected? Could it also be that this trauma made him realize that to be ‘taken seriously’ he must commit an agonising suicide of his early over-sensitive self and strike out towards ‘modernism’. Perhaps both scenarios are true, for that is what he did. The conclusion of this cycle tries to imply that.
|18th December 2016||Richard Edgar Wilson (tenor, Howard Blake (piano), Aldeburgh Music
Recordings of Howard's songs for tenor and piano made in Snape/Aldeburgh with tenor Richard Edgar Wilson and the composer as pianist, released December 18th 2016 on Highbridge Music, www.howardblake.com. Enquiries; firstname.lastname@example.org