When I first started listening to British Music I believed the conventional wisdom that the Victorian era was a ‘Land without Music’. The first glimmer of hope had come with Elgar’s Enigma Variations – or was it Parry’s Prometheus Unbound? And some of my contemporaries went further: there had been no decent British music written between the death of Purcell and Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes – or whatever particular work was in fashion. One day, I heard an amateur performance of Arthur Sullivan’s ‘The Long Day Closes’. I was bowled over by this beautiful and moving part-song. During the same concert, I heard George A Macfarren’s ‘Come Away, Death’. It too, was a revelation. I was convinced that there was more to this music that I had been led to believe. Since that time I have explored music by these ‘dry as dust’ composers and have rarely been disappointed. From John Field (the Irish Chopin) through the two Macfarrens and on towards Parry and Stanford I have found much hidden treasure. Names such as Francis Edward Bache, William Sterndale Bennett, Hugo Pearson, Cirpriani Potter, Arthur Sullivan and Frederic Cowen have written impressive concert and recital music that does not deserve to be forgotten.
All this is said to introduce the YouTube recording of George Macfarren’s ‘Come Away, Death’. This part-song was composed around 1850. It is a setting of the Shakespeare’s fine lyric from Twelfth Night given to the character of Feste, the ‘fool that the Lady Olivia's father took much delight in’ (2.4). In the song, he describes the feelings of someone who has died for his uncaring love, and wishes to be buried in a far country and without due ceremony.
Come away, come away, death,
And in sad cypress let me be laid;
Fly away, fly away, breath;
I am slain by a fair cruel maid.
My shroud of white, stuck all with yew,
O prepare it!
My part of death, no one so true
Did share it.
Not a flower, not a flower sweet,
On my black coffin let there be strown;
Not a friend, not a friend greet
My poor corpse, where my bones shall be thrown:
A thousand, thousand sighs to save,
Lay me, lay me, lay me, O where
Sad true lover ne’er find my grave,
To weep there!
This is not the forum to give a detailed analysis of this fine part-song. However two things can be said. Firstly the composer does not over sentimentalise his theme. The emotion is kept in check throughout the entire piece. He has not used sugared harmonies. Secondly Macfarren’s skill as a contrapuntalist is clear from the first bar to the last. It is a well balanced presentation of the text and admirably written for the voices.
‘Come, Away, Death’ appears to have been first published in Novello's Part-Song Book. First Series, 1851. It was subsequently printed in Novello's Part-Song Book. Second Series. Vol.1. No. 51, 1869, etc. and Novello's Tonic Sol-fa Series. No. 35, 1886. It is currently available in The New Novello Part-Song Book, Novello, London, 1999.
George Macfarren’s 'Come Away, Death' can be heard on YouTube