Wednesday, 21 May 2008

John Ireland: The Merry Month of May

The text of this song derives from Thomas Dekker’s play ‘The Shoemaker’s Holiday’ which was written in 1600. John Ireland seemingly made this setting early in 1921 although, as the holograph is presently missing, it is not possible to establish the precise date. In the previous year he had composed two of his most important works – the symphonic rhapsody Mai-Dun and the song cycle The Land of Lost Content. There were to be few major works in 1921 – with the exception of the Two Pieces for piano – For Remembrance and Amberley Wild Brooks.

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green!
O, and then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my summer's Queen.

Now the nightingale, the pretty nightingale,
The sweetest singer in all the forest quire,
Entreats thee, sweet Peggy, to hear thy true love's tale:
Lo, yonder she sitteth, her breast against a briar.

But O, I spy the cuckoo, the cuckoo, the cuckoo;
See where she sitteth: come away, my joy:
Come away, I prithee, I do not like the cuckoo;
Should sing when my Peggy and I kiss and toy.

O, the month of May, the merry month of May,
So frolic, so gay, and so green, so green, so green;
And then did I unto my true love say,
Sweet Peg, thou shalt be my summer's Queen.

The sentiment of the song is a little more complex that at first appears. The poet has decided that his ‘Sweet Peg’ would be his summer queen. He rejoices in the fact that winter is over and the whole of nature is ‘so green, so green, so green’! He hears the song of the nightingale who is surely the ‘sweetest singer in the forest quire’. Yet this bird has her breast pressed against the briar rose and is in danger, perhaps, of hurting herself. The poet also hears the cry of the cuckoo and is somewhat distressed by this. He does not want to be near this bird as he and Peg ‘kiss and toy.’ Yet the dark side of this poem is a fear that the poet has of being cuckolded. Finally he returns to the opening verse to put out of his mind these negative thoughts.
Fiona Richards notes that the theme of an ‘Elizabethan Spring’ was one that was often present in the composer’s output. She mentions his setting of Shakespeare’s ‘When daffodil’s begin to appear, Thomas Nashe’s ‘Spring, the sweet spring’ and the present song.

Ireland sets these words with great precision. He basically uses the same melody for each stanza- but varies the detail to fit the sense of the words. Sylvia Townsend Warner writing in her diary about the Ireland programme at the BBC thinks that the Dekker song is “very good, and [an] excited talking vocal curve, almost like hens)”.
The song is ostensibly written in E major –although the right hand part does not seem to realise this for much of the work. The composer asks for this song to be taken at ‘allegro con anima’ which has a tendency to sound like ‘quick lively patter’. The accompaniment is successful yet it is actually very difficult. The left hand plays a number of figures which are effectively in the ‘home’ key. Yet they are subject to range of variation which maintains the interest. The harmonies appear darker when supporting the singer’s thoughts the cuckoo.

‘C.W’ writing in the December 1928 edition of the Musical Times points out that although no-one denies the suggestive power of varied harmonies applied to a vocal melody there is appoint where it is dangerous to go beyond. However he continues by saying that the composer can do this effectively and cites the present song as a good example. He notes that at the “end of each verse the accompaniment makes a wild plunge away from the tonality of the voice part, followed by a wild plunge back again for the cadence.” He thinks that the “excursion is so brief, and is so clearly the climax of the verse that the effect is exhilarating.” He concludes his review by noting that “the numerous rough dissonances are quite in keeping with the bucolic text, and that the song is a strikingly energetic piece of work.”
William Mann writes that this song is “single minded in invention” and encourages the listener to consider the “bass ostinato, the vocal articulation of the poetic text beautifully varied and natural (as if spoken, but better than that, pitched in revealing music).
The first broadcast performance of this work was given on the BBC London radio station on 19 April 1928 at 7:45 pm. George Parker was the baritone and the composer played the piano. The concert on the wireless included music played by Albert Sammons and Beatrice Harrison. The other works performed at this all Ireland recital included his Cello Sonata, the Piano Sonatina, the Second Piano Trio and settings of poems by Thomas Hardy and A.E. Houseman. The first performance dates are not known.

Interestingly there only appears to be one version of this song currently in the CD catalogues – it appears on volume two of the Lyrita re-issue of the Songs. It is sung by the baritone Benjamin Luxon with Alan Rowlands playing the piano. 

1 comment:

Can Bass 1 said...

Hello there, Mr France. What a fascinating blog! I must say I hadn't expected to find anything half as interesting in cyberspace, but I am new to this blogging thing. Well done you!