Making Their Voices Heard: Why the English Song Festival Isn’t About Hazy Nostalgia | Classical music

For three days each April, the stunningly beautiful town of Ludlow, Shropshire, fills with music for the Ludlow English Song Weekend. As artistic director, I hastened to deconstruct the title. The weekend is long; we offer more than a song; and as for being English – how long do you have? Terms and conditions of application. We are 14 miles from the Welsh border and I am a proud Scot so we are acutely aware of the flags hoisting our mast. The core of our repertoire, however, is the golden period of song spanning the first half of the last century, stretching from Hubert Parry to Benjamin Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Frank Bridge, Gerald Finzi and John Ireland. Our thinking is this: if you like Britten, you’ll find her feeder in Aldeburgh; if you are drawn to Vaughan Williams and his entourage, there is no single point of pilgrimage. This is the void that our Ludlow weekend seeks to fill.

Parry (1848-1918) is one of my heroes, obviously the kindest of men. His musical education was entirely Germanic, his address book filled with his German friends. Translate any of his beautiful songs into German and they would pass as shining examples of the lieder tradition, the ghost of Johannes Brahms smiling over his shoulder. But many of the young composers Parry tutored at the Royal College of Music decided to break away from this Teutonic sonic world – before, during and after the First World War. Their decision was aesthetic and nationalistic. Parry watched in anguish as some of his brightest and best, like George Butterworth, depart for France, only to return. Ivor Gurney returned, but scored inside and out. Bridge took a decade to process the war, later inventing a whole new way of composing.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), one of the lost voices in English music.

Song holds up a mirror for all these composers. Each of them found a path to a new vernacular, in some cases with an explicitly nationalist agenda. Butterworth and Vaughan Williams collected folksongs, attracted by the freshness of their harmony and the directness of their communication. As teenagers, Gurney and his friend Herbert Howells strolled through Gloucester all night, unable to sleep after hearing Vaughan Williams’ Fantasia to a theme by Thomas Tallis at the Three Choirs festival. Tudor church music opened a door for them: going back proved to be radical – and radically English. Then, crucially, in the poetry of AE Housman and Thomas Hardy, the composers found lyrics that spoke directly to them: poetic voices that unleashed their creativity, that took English song in a decisive new direction, distinct German lieder, far from the perfumed world of French melody.

In my heart an air that kills / From this distant country blows, Housman wrote in A Shropshire Lad. What are those blue hills we remember, / What spiers, what farms are they? Housman’s ashes are interred in the grounds of St Lawrence’s Church in Ludlow, the town’s magnificent ‘Marches Cathedral’. There he is physically more connected to Shropshire than he ever was in his lifetime: this arid classics teacher’s Ludlow was a figment of his imagination, those ‘remembered blue hills’ a powerful fantasy. No matter. Housman inspired the music of entire generations of English composers: not just Vaughan Williams and Butterworth, but Arthur Somervell, Ernest John Moeran, Ireland, Arnold Bax and many others.

Gerald Finzi (1901-1956)
Dare we call him a conservative? Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). Photography: Aliyah

The festival is particularly interested in Finzi (1901-1956): it was originally created to encourage the performance of his music by an august group of supporters, the Finzi Friends. They fought a brave battle because for decades the music of Vaughan Williams and Finzi was referred to as “cowpat”, along with the term “pastoral”. applied with a sneer to both. Britten’s post-war supremacy did not favor more traditional outliers, nor did the prominence accorded by the BBC and others to modernist composers who followed. By the 1950s, Vaughan Williams felt his strongly tonal musical language had fallen out of fashion, even on the original grounds of the cathedral-based Three Choirs festival. “Uncle Ralph came to see me at Oxford and told me what he knew of the Three Choirs,” Finzi wrote to fellow composer Herbert Sumsion in 1955. “He said ‘we’re all out of him, I’m out of him, you’re beside him, Howells is beside him’, and although the most critical, was very entertaining. Finzi and his buddies could only watch sideways, more or less bitterly. Composer Edmund Rubbra wrote to him: “Just tried to call you after hearing Britten’s Hardy settings, Winter Words. They were just awful, I thought: vulgarly illustrative and boring beyond words.

Already enough. In Ludlow we are a large church. We find room for Finzi, Howells Rubbra – and Britten too. But the central programming challenge is how to celebrate English song without creating a parallel, hazy fantasy of a lost England. This has become a particular challenge since Brexit, where any flying flag is open to misinterpretation and any implied nationalism can be misinterpreted. Dare we call Finzi a conservative? Is it positive or negative? I have no desire to become a musical version of Jacob Rees-Mogg. So a lot of the reason we’re scheduling more Finzi than Britten is because Britten doesn’t need to be defended anymore. Instead, let’s defend Elizabeth Maconchy and George Newson, say; or Ina Boyle from County Wicklow and Erik Chisholm from Glasgow. And let’s place them next to new works by young composers who are just setting off on their journey.

Elisabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)
Elisabeth Maconchy (1907-1994)

We challenge preconceptions not just about what constitutes an English song, but how it should be interpreted. According to some received opinions, our repertoire should be reserved for light voices, with an emphasis on sensitive poetic delivery. Well, as Little Britain would say, yeah but, no but. I believe that with the right choice of songs, bigger voices can be transformative. Just like the biggest piano. Later this week, our little corner of Shropshire will skydive into central London, when Wigmore Hall celebrates Ludlow’s English Song Day with four concerts on Saturday. The roll call of our singers includes Natalya Romaniw, Claire Barnett-Jones and Nicky Spence, none of them blushing violet. Next April, Ludlow welcomes Wagnerians Rachel Nicholls and Brindley Sherratt. I look forward to finding orchestral colors in their piano accompaniments, trying to match them in their scale and showing that there is more passion and depth to this music than is often believed.

A few years ago, I met a local bigwig hoping for support, moral or financial. It didn’t go well. Scowling, he said, “Are you niche?” The word floated in the air like a bad smell. About to gush about how welcoming we are, how diverse we are, how all-encompassing we are, it dawned on me that yes, damn it, we are all of those things and niches too. There are more English songs to discover, past, present and future. Veins of gold run through these remembered blue hills and our modest three-day festival will continue to tap into them. I now wear my Shropshire niche badge with pride. Please don’t call me English.

Ludlow English Song Day will take place at Wigmore Hall, London on October 22. The Ludlow English Song Weekend will take place next April.

About Norma Wade

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