Monday, 28 March 2011

Charles Villiers Stanford: Irish Rhapsody No.4, Op.141 ‘The Fisherman of Lough Neagh and what he saw’.

The subtitle of this fine Irish Rhapsody by Charles Villiers Stanford has long intrigued me. I cannot quite recall when it was that I first heard this piece, but I think it might have been on an old vinyl Lyrita recording. I have always wondered what the ‘fisherman saw’ and no-one has yet given me a good, convincing answer. At present there are seemingly five CDs with this work, however I understand that four of them are the same recording by Vernon Handley ‘repackaged.’ However, as a preliminary study of this work I give the programme note written by Stanford himself for a performance at Bournemouth on 1st May 1914. The composer conducted the orchestra.

This Rhapsody (which was written in November, 1913) bears the motto:- “‘Land of Song!’ said the warrior-bard, ‘Tho’ all the world betrays thee, One sword at least thy rights shall guard, One faithful harp shall praise thee!’”

It is founded upon three Irish folk-songs:- 1. A Fisherman’s Song (A minor, 3-4 time) with the title (as given by Petrie) ‘I will raise my sail black, mistfully in the morning.’ The third strain is a variant of the second, and the fourth of the first, the melodic scheme of a great number of Irish folk-songs, corresponding to the metre of ‘In Memoriam.’ 2. The second tune is an Ulster march-time (F major, 6-8 time) of strong rhythm, and fiery character, with a second part in contrasted style. 3. The third is an old solemn Ulster tune (C major, 4-4 time) to which was given the name ‘The Death of General Wolfe,’ probably from some broadsheet poem set to it at the time of Wolfe’s death.

The scheme of the Rhapsody carries out the poetical significance of these three tunes. It begins with the Fisherman’s song, peaceful and misty, which after a time leads to the melody No.3 given to three trumpets, pianissimo, suggesting his vision of the triumph of heroism: as this passes, the mist and the song return, dying away in the distance. The time changes to 6-8 and the march tune (No.2) begins to assert itself. The first phrase the Fisherman hears is the cadence (of No.2). By degrees the rhythm gets more and more insistent and the war-tune is heard in its entirety. It is answered in turn by No.3 which is now heard on strings and harp, with fragments of the Fisherman’s song. A stormy interlude follows, based on the last bars of No.3. The march tune then returns with full force, and after its climax it becomes gradually fainter and fainter. Once more the Fisherman’s song is heard with greatly altered treatment, and mostly given to four violoncellos: it here suggests the character of a prayer, which is answered by the vision of heroism (No.3); the trombones give the theme, and it reaches its climax as the melody proceeds. There is one last allusion to the Fisherman’s song as the work ends. At the close of the score is written the line ‘Dark and true and tender is the North.'[1] C.V.S.

The work was first performed in Concertgebouw in Amsterdam on 12 February 1914 and then was given in London a week later at Philharmonic Society concert at Queen’s Hall, both times conducted by Mengelberg.

Notes:
[1] Alfred Lord Tennyson ‘O Swallow, Swallow’ from The Princess.

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