Thursday, 13 September 2012

Elisabeth Lutyens: Stevie Smith Songs

Recently, the Heritage Records label has re-released a number of British song-cycles sung by the mezzo-soprano Meriel Dickinson and her brother Peter as accompanist. The CD includes music by Lennox Berkeley, Gordon Crosse, Jonathan Harvey, Elisabeth Lutyens and Peter Dickinson himself. Of all the works performed, the one that immediately attracted my attention was Lutyens’ Stevie Smith Songs. Over the years, it has become an axiom that Elisabeth Lutyens’ music is difficult and often unapproachable. Not without justification has she been dubbed ‘twelve-tone Lizzie.’ Many years ago, I had (what I then regarded as) a dreadful experience with a piece of her music called O Saisons, O chateau. I still remember feeling that this was the most appalling music I had heard up to that time.  Yet later exploration of her music has revealed that there is a less-challenging and surprisingly ‘tonal’ side to her composition.  A later post will deal with the attractive En Voyage Suite for orchestra. There are also many film scores, including one for the British Transport Film production unit, The Weald of Kent with a commentary by John Betjeman. Although some of her film music uses 12-tone techniques, much of it is relatively straightforward and often sounds quite diatonic and even ‘pastoral.’

Elisabeth Lutyens met the poet Stevie Smith during the Second World War and came to admire her work.  She is quoted as having suggested that Miss Smith adopted a ‘deliberate and “childish” manner’ and had added ‘Who the hell wants innocence in an adult or a child?’  Interestingly, this is backed up by Meirion and Susie Harries who writes in the Lutyens biography [Pilgrim Soul. The Life and work of Elisabeth Lutyens] that ‘she struggled...with the poetry … [and] the personality, of Stevie Smith’.  Lutyens had once said that Smith was ‘a good acquaintance…but a bad friend’. The authors suggest that she was always capable of making one laugh, but when it came to cadging lifts to and from Palmer’s Green she was ‘the most frightful bully.’ Later in the biography, they note that Lutyens had been disturbed by ‘Stevie’s excessive insistence on ‘gin and tears’. Yet, whatever the ambivalent relationship was between the two women, the songs are a success.  Apparently they were composed ‘in a couple of mornings’ for the singer Hedli Anderson, who gave the first performance with the pianist Norman Franklin. They certainly show no sign of haste or second rate work.
There were originally nine songs in the sequence with a tenth remaining in manuscript. They were published by the University of York Music Press circa 1948 and latterly in 1953 by Universal Press. This is a dyeline reproduction of the holograph. There also exists a manuscript copy of three of the songs- Nos 4, 7 & 6 - copied out in Heidi Anderson’s hand. This is held at Cambridge University Library.
I list the songs as presented on the CD– however the numbers in brackets refer to the order noted in the works list in Pilgrim Soul.
1. Progression [4]
2. The Songster [5]
3. Up and Down [9]
4. Ceux qui luttent [Those who struggle] [7]
5. Be off! [In typescript]
6. Lady ‘Rogue’ Singelton [8]
7. The film star [2]
8. The Actress [1]
9. The Repentance of Lady T [6]
10. Pad, pad [3]

The critic in the Musical times (April 1969) was impressed with the songs – he believed that they were ‘superbly set, very funny and very sad.’ He suggested that the ideal performance would be a ‘nice mixture of blandness and piquancy.’
A.W. reviewing the present recording for The Gramophone back in 1981 noted that Elisabeth Lutyens’ ‘delightfully mordant Stevie Smith settings are beautifully done, without a hint of exaggeration’.  Ten years later, the same reviewer suggested that ‘Lutyens’ Stevie Smith Songs are no less simple and distinctive. Although their gentle diatonic style is worlds away from Lutyens’ normal modernism, it reveals a comparable refinement and as sure an instinct for the effective fusion of economy and expressiveness.’

Martin J. Anderson commenting on the original recording insisted that ‘the real surprise on the record is Elizabeth Lutyens' Stevie Smith Songs He continued: - ‘If I knew every other note of her output, I do not think I would have been able to guess the composer of these settings: their style is tonal, simple, and direct, gentle and understanding, very different from the uncompromising serialism of her more serious works. The quirky honesty in Stevie Smith's poems evidently touched a sympathetic chord in Lutyens: the humour is warm, the response to the failings of Smith's characters not contempt of weakness but concern for frailty.’ He concluded by saying that Meriel Dickinson sang them ‘with comparably gentle warmth’.  

Fundamentally, these songs are cabaret songs. However, this must not be deemed as a criticism. It is right to suggest that these settings manage to capture the heart of Stevie Smith’s poetry. There is an excellent balance between humour and wistfulness. They are essentially light music and are easily approachable by anyone who enjoys song.

The Stevie Smith Songs can be heard on the Heritage Label (HTGCD240) with Meriel Dickinson and Peter Dickinson. 

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Lutyens at her best. Her 12 note music hasn't aged well (not on account of the technique of course) but these songs are as clear as a bell. She should've stuck to this idiom as it suited her much better.