Sunday, 28 August 2016

Introductions XVIII: E.J. Moeran by Philip Heseltine (Peter Warlock): Part II

[Moeran] then spent a year at the Royal College of Music, joined the army at the outbreak of war, was severely wounded in France in May 1917, and after his recovery was attached to the transport section of the R.I.C, [Royal Irish Constabulary] [1] remaining in Ireland until demobilized in 1919. Military service did not, however, entail a complete suspension of his musical activities. By the end of the war he had acquired considerable facility in the technique of composition, and had a fair amount of chamber music to his credit. But feeling still a little unsure of himself he had some lessons from John Ireland, for whose work he had conceived a particular admiration.
It was about this time that Moeran discovered that the tradition of folk-singing was still vigorously alive in the district of Norfolk in which he had lived from his eighth to his twentieth year. His familiarity with the neighbourhood gave him facilities which are often denied to the stranger, and his collection of songs, which now number considerably over a hundred, is undoubtedly one of the finest that has yet been made in any part of the kingdom. There has certainly been no collector who has entered more whole-heartedly into the spirit of the old tradition. He collects these songs from no antiquarian, historical, or psychological motives, but because he loves them and the people who sing them. It is of no more interest to him whether a tune be referable to this, that, or the other mode, or whether a variant of its words is to be found on some old broadside, than it is to the singers themselves. For him, as for them, the song itself is the thing - a thing lived, a piece of the communal life of the country; and, indeed, it is a much more heartening musical experience to sit in a good country pub and hear fine tunes trolled by the company over their pots of beer than to attend many a concert in the West End of London. It is no good appearing suddenly at a cottage-door, notebook in hand, as if you might be the bum-bailey [2] or the sanitary inspector, and - if you manage to overcome the singer’s stage fright at all - holding up your hands in pious horror at any verses of a song which may conflict with the alleged tastes of a suburban drawing-room; nor should you spoil the ground for other collectors (as someone has tried to do in Norfolk, its seems) [3] by forgetting that old throats grow dry after an hour’s singing. The scholarly folklorist has his own reward, but he does not get in touch with the heart of the people. Perhaps the finest tribute that could be paid to Moeran’s personal popularity in the district was the remark of an old man at Sutton after a sing-song to which Moeran had brought a visitor from London: ‘We were a bit nervous of him; with you it’s different, of course - you’re one of us - but he was a regular gentleman, he was.’

Of the ‘Six Folk-songs from Norfolk’ arranged for voice and piano (Augener) [4] which were first sung on the concert platform (and inimitably well sung) by John Goss at South Place last winter, three are quite perfect specimens of the English tradition in its purest and most beautiful form. These are ‘Down by the River side’, one of the most natural 5/4 tunes imaginable (incidentally 5/4 is quite a favourite measure in Norfolk, and any suspicion of it being a possible distortion of triple or quadruple time is dispelled by the decisive thump with which mugs come down on the table or boots come down on the floor to mark the rhythm); ‘The Shooting of his Dear,’ which is an excellent example of Moeran’s characteristically free but always appropriate methods of harmonization; and ‘Lonely Waters,’ which he has treated in a more extended manner in a very attractive little piece for small orchestra. [5]

The influence of English folk-song is naturally apparent in many of Moeran’s original compositions, notably in the spacious and impressive ‘Rune’ for piano (Augener), [6] in his admirable setting of ‘The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair’ from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (Oxford University Press), [7] and in the principal theme of his first orchestral ‘Rhapsody’ which - presented by the bassoon in its upper octave - will always appeal to the ribald as the ideal tune for all Limericks. There are occasional traces also of the very different and rather less salutary influence of Gaelic folk-song. It is an influence that is too easily over-worked and, although there are undoubtedly many whom no melody that suggests a Scottish or an Irish origin can fail to enchant, there are others to whom the all-too-frequent appearance of pentatonic tunes in our music of recent years recalls the story Robert Burns [8] tells of a gentleman who ‘expressed an ardent ambition to compose a Scots air’ and was told to ‘keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, and preserve some kind of rhythm, and he would infallibly compose a Scots air.’ But Moeran has far too strong a vein of original melodic invention to rely overmuch upon this too facile resource.

[1] This is part of the ‘Moeran Myth’. There is no suggestion that he was posted to the Royal Irish Constabulary.  In his thesis, The Importance of being Ernest John, Challenging the Misconceptions about the Life and Works of E.J. Moeran, (University of Durham, 2014) Ian Maxwell states that in January 1918 units of Moeran’s outfit, the 1/6th (Cyclist) Battalion of the Norfolk Regiment ‘were deployed to Ireland to support efforts to control increasing Nationalist disturbances.’ At this time Moeran was still assigned light duties which included being a motor-cycle dispatch rider. No documentary trace of Moeran being attached to the Royal Irish Constabulary can be found. Maxwell suggests that ‘the most likely explanations for this notion having arisen are either that Moeran misremembered his attachment or that Heseltine misunderstood Moeran’s story.’
[2] ‘Bum-bailey’ was an Elizabethan expression for the bailiff or the sheriff's officer, who was deemed to catch people by sneaking up behind them.  It was used by Shakespeare in Twelfth Night Act III Scene IV.
[3] I wonder who this individual folk-song collector was. I was unable to trace him. Any information welcome.
[4] ‘Six Folk Songs from Norfolk’ were written in 1923 and published in 1925 by Augener.  The songs include: ‘Down by the riverside’, ‘The Bold Richard’, ‘Lonely Waters’, ‘The Pressgang’, ‘The Shooting of his Dear’ and ‘The Oxford Sporting Blade.’
[5] ‘Lonely Waters’ is the first of ‘Two Pieces for Small Orchestra’. The second is ‘Wythorne’s Shadow.’ Both were published by Novello in 1935. However, there is some debate as to when ‘Lonely Waters’ was composed. Clearly, Warlock writing in 1924 claimed to know the orchestral piece. Geoffrey Self believes, based on a stylistic analysis, that it was revised in later years, possibly 1930-1. The score calls for an ad-lib folksinger positioned at the back of the orchestra to sing ‘Then I will go down to some lonely waters/Go down to where no one shall me find/Where the pretty little small birds do change their voices/And every moment blow blustering wild.’
[6] ‘Rune’ is the second number of Two Legends composed in 1923. The first was ‘A Folk Story.’ They were both published by Augener in 1924.
[7] ‘The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair’ was completed in ‘Midsummer 1916’and was the final song in the cycle ‘Ludlow Town’ derived from Alfred Edward Housman’s ‘Shropshire Lad’. The other poems in the set included ‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow’, ‘Farewell to barn and stack and tree’ and Say, lad, have you things to do?’
[8] Robert Burns (1759-96) the Scottish poet and lyricist wrote in a letter dated November 1794 to his editor, George Thomson concerning the song ‘Ye Banks and Braes o’ Bonie Doon’: ‘Do you know the history of the air? - It is curious enough. - A good many years ago a Mr Jas Miller, ... was in company with our friend, [the organist Stephen] Clarke; & talking of Scots music, Miller expressed an ardent ambition to be able to compose a Scots air. - Mr Clarke, partly by way of joke, told him, to keep to the black keys of the harpsichord, & preserve some kind of rhythm; & he would infallibly compose a Scots air. - Certain it is, that in a few days, Mr Miller produced the rudiments of an air, which Mr Clarke, with some touches and corrections, fashioned into the tune in question ...

To be continued…

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