Friday, 5 June 2009

Paul Spicer: Stars, I have seen them fall

I recently had the pleasure of reviewing a CD of Paul Spicer’s choral works. My review will appear, hopefully, in a future edition of the Finzi Society Journal. However I was struck by his setting of A.E. Housman’s beautiful miniature poem “Stars, I have seen them fall...” and I felt that I needed to say a few more words about this lovely setting than is in my review.

Stars, I have seen them fall,
But when they drop and die
No star is lost at all
From all the star-sown sky.
The toil of all that be
Helps not the primal fault;
It rains into the sea,
And still the sea is salt.
A.E Housman No. 7 More Poems published 1936

Richard Perceval Graves notes that the poet believed that “the Universe is fatally flawed (original sin) and is linked with the idea of a fatal destiny...” [p216] Yet somehow I feel that the poem is actually more positive that the commentators would allow. Whereas they would probably emphasise the lines “The toil of all that be/Helps not the primal fault” I would draw the readers attention to the simple words- “No star is lost at all”.

Like much of Spicer’s music, this setting came into being through people. In fact it has a sad genesis. Robert Gower, the organist and academic, had accepted a post at the Glenalmond College. Both Gower and his wife Pauline were friends of Spicer’s. Tragically, one of their children, Phillipa died of cancer on 30th September 2002. The sleeve notes tell how “she was about to go up to Oriel College, Oxford as Organ Scholar to read Philosophy and Theology”. At that time she had been acting organist at Perth Cathedral – which was convenient to her father’s college. Spicer relates that she was a “very talented artist and a very considerable individual.” A few months after Phillipa’s death a concert was given at Radley by her friends: this was a celebration of her life and achievements. The present part-song was composed by Paul Spicer for that occasion. He wrote that the poem “seemed to encapsulate so much of what needed to be said with admirable brevity...”

The part-song opens in a somewhat ambiguous style – with shifting harmonies and counterpoint. Although the composer uses quite a number of soft dissonances, there are quite a few places in the apiece that use consonant chords. Interestingly the composer chooses to repeat the last two a number of times – the final statement being introduced by a little rising unison phrase. Although the work ends with a positive affirmation, it is perhaps not the emphasis I would have chosen:-“No star is lost at all.”

This motet, along with a fine selection of Paul Spicer's other choral music appears on Regent Records REGCD280

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