I do not have a full list of Geoffrey Bush’s music so I cannot be sure what proportion of his songs have been recorded on this superb new CD from Lyrita. However, a glance at Grove and the list printed in the composer’s autobiography (An Unsentimental Education, Thames Publishing, 1990) suggest that this represents a considerable portion of the extant works for voice and piano. The present programme ranges from the early Five Spring Songs composed in 1944 to the Chaucer setting from 1987.
Geoffrey Bush was born in London in 1920. After singing in Salisbury Cathedral as a boy-chorister he entered Lancing College in Sussex. He received the Nettleship Scholarship to Balliol College where he gained his doctorate. A pacifist during the Second World War, he was employed as a warden at a hostel in Monmouth for ‘difficult’ evacuees. After the war, Bush studied with John Ireland in London. Later appointments included Chairman of the Composers Guild of Great Britain, and for 35 years he was Staff Tutor in music at London University. Beside composition, he was a prolific writer on musical topics and was a contributor to the BBC’s Third Programme/Radio 3. He edited the music of other composers including the songs of Stanford and Parry. Geoffrey Bush’s catalogue of compositions is extensive and included two symphonies, a number of operas, incidental music for stage, a large amount of chamber music, choral and vocal works. He is best recalled for his Overture: Yorick and his Christmas Cantata.
Record companies have not been over generous to him. Lyrita has issued the symphonies and ‘Music for Orchestra’; Chandos released an album of Bush’s chamber music and another of songs with Ian Partridge with the composer playing piano. There are a few other pieces scattered here and there in the catalogues.
The liner notes outline Bush’s approach to song-writing presented in a lecture to an adult day-learning class. He would begin by selecting the text from a number of possibilities and then immerse himself in the words by constant rereading. This enabled him to ‘…absorb every nuance of the poetry from the surface meaning to all the subtle ways the poet had clothed the content by the use of verse-structure, verbal inflection, pace and colour.’ And finally his stated aim was not to just ‘set’ the text, but to find ‘a way that enriched the original poem through music.’ It is clear from the works presented on this CD that he practised what he preached.
I do not intend to comment on each individual song or song cycle: the excellent liner notes give a detailed analysis of this music. I want to make three general comments. Firstly, I was impressed with the broad range of poetical material that Bush has explored to make his settings. The present disc has writers as diverse as Robert Herrick, Geoffrey Chaucer and Stevie Smith: his range of interest embraces the Greek poet Meleager, the English Renaissance poet Ben Jonson and medieval lyrics by John Skelton and Charles of Orleans.
Secondly, the listener will be conscious of two fundamentally different stylistic features in these songs. There is music that is clearly influenced by Parry, Stanford, Ireland and other composers of the English musical revival. Beside this, there is a strong element of Bush’s work that is more ‘modernist’ sounding with nods to Prokofiev and possibly even Stravinsky. For example, in the Kathleen Raine settings, The End of Love he responded to the text with music that was ‘infused with a new archness, even sardonic bitterness.’ Some of this music borders on the brutal: it is certainly shrouded in dark shadows. In the Seven Greek Songs there is an operatic feel to the progress of each text. The Ben Johnson songs are typical of the general run of twentieth century English song, but are not without individuality. Interestingly, he has not fallen under the spell of Benjamin Britten.
And finally, Bush’s entire vocal output is characterized by an economy of material. There is wit and humour in much of this music that reflects his interest in French music. However, I believe that melody is primary in virtually every one of these songs. This is accompanied by a colourful, but typically economical piano part.
As with all CDs of songs and song cycles, I suggest that the listener explore slowly. I worked through chronologically. The liner notes by Roderick Swanston are helpful and informative. After a brief biographical sketch of the composer he gives a detailed study of each work. Unfortunately, Lyrita have chosen not to give the texts of these songs. I concede that some of them will still be bound by copyright such as Stevie Smith and Kathleen Raine. Clearly, Ben Jonson, Thomas Dekker and Robert Herrick are not.
I was impressed by the clear, confident singing of Simon Wallfisch. Every word is defined; every nuance of the melody is presented with confidence and understanding. He has mastered the sentiment and literary detail and adapts perfectly his vocal style to the various moods of each song. His voice is controlled and never strained. Wallfisch makes an ideal artist for English song recitals. Edward Rushton provides a consistently sympathetic accompaniment to all these songs.
The ambience of the recording is faultless and reflects the quality of the singing and playing. It is what one expects from Lyrita.
This is an excellent exploration of Geoffrey Bush’s songs. It probably needs to have a ‘Volume 2’ to catch those other fascinating settings such as the remaining three of the Four Chaucer Songs, and ‘Farewell Earth’s Bliss’. And then there are the songs composed for ‘high’ voice…
Geoffrey Bush is a composer who demands reassessment. The compositions that I have heard suggest that there is much of value in his catalogue. The present CD is a hugely worthy contribution to this reappraisal and deserves every success.
Geoffrey BUSH (1920-1998)
Four Songs from Herrick’s ‘Hesperides’ (1949)
Seven Greek Love Songs (Meleager trans. Dudley Fitts) (1964)
Five Spring Songs (1944)
Stevie Smith Songs (1981)
Three Songs of Ben Johnson (1952)
The End of Love (Kathleen Raine) (1954)
Merciless Beauty (1987)
Five Medieval Lyrics (1970)
O, the Month of May (1950)
Simon Wallfisch (baritone) Edward Rushton (piano)
LYRITA SRCD.343 [70:00]
With thanks to MusicWeb International where this review was first published.