Monday, 27 July 2009

Sir Edward German: Glorious Devon

It is surprising that a song once as popular as Glorious Devon! does not seem to have more than one contemporary recording. In its day it was probably as a well-known as such gems as the The Lost Chord, The Holy City and The Road to Mandalay.
The song was composed by Sir Edward German in 1905 as the last of a set of Three Baritone Songs. The other two were Come to the Woods and My Lady with words by S. Waddington and F.E. Weatherly respectively. However Glorious Devon! was the song that was set to become the best known –especially after the recording made by the Peter Dawson in 1929.
The style of song was aimed at the drawing room rather than the recital hall and made a considerable impact on Edwardian society. Another famous number from this time was German's setting of Rudyard Kipling’s Rolling Down to Rio.
Glorious Devon! was published in 1905 by Boosey & Co. and was available in three keys C, D & F. The copy I have has instructions for repeating the ‘chorus’ if there was a choir available.
Coombe and Tor, green meadow and lane,
Birds on the waving bough.
Beetling cliffs by the surging main,
Rich red loam for the plough.
Devon's the fount of the bravest blood
That braces England's breed,
Her maidens fair as the apple bud,
And her men are men indeed.

When Adam and Eve were dispossess'd
Of the Garden hard by Heaven,
They planted another one down in the West,
'Twas Devon, 'twas Devon, glorious Devon.

Spirits to old-world heroes wake,
By river and cove and hoe;
Grenville, Hawkins, Raleigh and Drake
And a thousand more we know.
To every hand the wide world o'er
Some slips of the old stock roam,
Loyal friends in peace, dread foes in war
With hearts still true to home.

Old England's counties by the sea
From east to west are seven;
But the gem of that fair galaxy
Is Devon, is Devon, glorious Devon.

Dorset, Somerset, Cornwall, Wales,
May envy the likes of we;
For the flower of the West, the first, the best,
The pick of the bunch us be;
Squab pie, junket and cider brew,
Richest cream of the cow'
What 'ud Old England without 'em do?
And where 'ud 'un be to now?

As crumpy [soft] as a lump of lead
Be a loaf without good leaven,
And the yeast Mother England do use for her bread
Be Devon, be Devon, glorious Devon.

The poem was the work of a certain ‘second baronet’ called Sir Harold Boulton (1859-1926) He combined many activities in his seemingly hectic life, including as a business man, a hospital chairman, an editor, a director of the Royal Academy of Music, a Welsh Bard and a philanthropist. Not the least of his achievements was as a song writer. Perhaps his best known text was the Skye Boat Song (“Speed bonny boat, Like a bird on the wing, Over the Sea to Sky”) If anyone had asked me when this song was written I would have said back in the days of Burns!
Glorious Devon! opens with a short piano introduction which consists of a little flourish followed by a short descending sequence. It recurs another twice during the song, linking the chorus to the following verse. The soloist enters with ‘spirit’ for the first verse. There is little in the way of complexity in this verse, save an impressive modulation to Eb major at the words “Her maidens fair as the apple bud…”
Certainly the chorus is a rollicking affair that would have encouraged those listening to join in. Played ‘con anima’ the piano accompaniment has a march like rhythm that soon leads to the strong melodic line of “Devon ‘twas Devon, glorious Devon” ending on C major, before a dominant seventh leads to the piano interlude and the following verse. There is little variation in the solo music or the accompaniment in the subsequent verses save adapting to the metre of the song. The final chorus ends on a high note, as would be expected.

Little criticism of this song has been attempted, however The Times (Thursday 28th June 1906) reported that a singer by the name of Mr. Claud Powell had given this song at a recital at the Aeolian Hall on Monday 25th The reporter was “critical of his Devonshire dialect…it seemed neared to that of Somerset than a son of Devon would approve.” Nonetheless the song was popular and had to be repeated.
I found a reference in David C. H Wright’s Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876-1953. He notes that Glorious Devon! “while celebrating the joys of the countryside (beetling Cliffs by the surging main, rich red loam for plough’) and bygone heroes (‘sprits of old world heroes wake, Granville, Hawkins, Raleigh and Drake’) also stress the manliness of the west-country man.
Perhaps the conclusion that this is somehow a jingoistic or imperial song is a little far-fetched., he concludes that “…it hymns the English racial Diaspora and its imperial links:-
To every hand the wide world o'er
Some slips of the old stock roam,
Loyal friends in peace, dread foes in war
With hearts still true to home.

It seems to me to be more about good old fashioned county rivalry, of the sort that is indulged in even today on the cricket pitch and elsewhere rather than a manifesto for English domination of the world!

This is hardly an important song, or a major contribution to British music – but it was once popular and a song that I rather like. Perhaps some baritone such as Bryn Terfel, could take it up and give us a brand new recording?
Meantime, listen to Al Bowlly singing Glorious Devon! on YouTube


Anonymous said...

I'm surprised that Frederick Harvey's version of 'Glorious Devon' hasn't been mentioned. It's my particular favourite. I'll be posting it on youtube in the very near future (there is a version on there but it's taken from a very scratched EP), accompanied by images of glorious Devon.

Andrew Marcus Kewell said...

Fabulous. As a child I remember we used to sing the second verse every time we returned to Devon after a trip "across the border". When I returned to Devon 16 years ago I introduced the tradition to my own young family. Whilst my mother knew all the words, I sadly never wrote them down whilst she was still alive. It's wonderful now to see the complete version and even better to hear the original recording ! Thank you very much.

Andrew Kewell

John France said...


What a lovely comment!! Thanks

Anonymous said...

I learned this wonderful song when I was a student at Wellington College, Wellington, New Zealand, back in 1954. I still love it and remember most of the words. We visited Devon last year, and whenever we met residents there, I would ask them if they knew of the song. Not one of them had ever heard of it. I was very disappointed.

Anonymous said...

We've named our new-bord son Devon, and we have had lots of people sing this tune when they learn of his name. Just gorgeous.

Anonymous said...

We sang this at primary school in Teignmouth, South Devon. 30ish years ago. Our Devonshire music teacher made sure we emphasised the Cornwall especially for our Cornish teacher Mr Trevarrow! I wish it were more widely known - perhaps Gareth Malone should do county choirs next and include this beautiful song.

Anonymous said...

Our ladies choir, based in Barnstaple, North Devon have just started learning a three part arrangement of this and will be including it in our repertoire in the very near future. I think it's sure to prove very popular!