The Decline, c.1940 to c.1980
In the 1930s, composers—even before readers—began to lose interest in A Shropshire Lad. This phenomenon was part of a general reduction in English song composition graphed by Stephen Banfield in Sensibility and English Song.1 The Richards Press did seem to maintain sales of its pocket edition of the poems virtually up to the outbreak of the Second World War.2 But by 1940, George Orwell (1903–50), in his essay ‘Inside the Whale’,3 was attempting to explain why A Shropshire Lad had become unfashionable.
Orwell believed that the work’s enormous popularity had depended on four attributes that no longer had the same currency. First, Housman’s poems depicted country life at a time when there was ‘a kind of snobbism of belonging to the country and despising the town’.4 Second, the Lad was an idealized rustic, more ‘primitive and passionate’ than urban readers imagined themselves to be.5 Third, the poems’ ‘adolescent’ themes (such as unrequited love and violent death) gave the reader ‘the feeling of being up against the “bedrock facts of life”’.6 Fourth, Housman’s cynicism—manifest in sexual rebellion, an anti-Christian stance, a mocking of social institutions and a preoccupation with the brevity of life—dovetailed with the mood among young people after the First World War.7 By the 1940s, however, Orwell says that A Shropshire Lad was not convincing; he quotes ‘With rue my heart is laden’ (poem LIV), for example, and says it ‘just tinkles’.8
There were four decades of reduced activity in Housman composition until resurgence about 1980. These four decades—called here the Decline—produced only about 120 settings of individual poems, an average of about three per year. Nevertheless, the period is significant. This chapter identifies and examines three streams of development: a more-or-less tonal mainstream with ultra-conservative and atonal (although not properly modernist) tributaries.
Although it might seem reasonable to regard the output of post-1940 composers as modernist, it is arguable whether this term can be generally applied to the later Housman settings.9 When surveying settings from before the Second World War, Stephen Banfield could identify a series of historical subphases.10 His analysis assumes that the music he discusses is modernist in that it reflects contemporary national, intellectual and artistic milieux. But after the war, forward-looking composers, such as Pierre Boulez (1925–) and Karlheinz Stockhausen (1928–) (the leaders of the third Viennese School), worked on the Continent. Meanwhile, new styles in British Housman music were initially rooted in the 1920s, principally in the work of Arnold Schoenberg (1874–1951) (the second Viennese School). Such modernism does not reflect the newest Continental developments. Moreover, numerous strands of activity produced a bewildering pluralism of compositional style. The net result is that, after c.1940, there no longer seem to be reliable bases for identifying a series of more or less discrete stylistic subphases. Hence, this thesis bases its analyses of the later music on three streams of development running throughout the Decline and, with modification, into the Renewal.
This chapter also attempts to characterize the Decline in terms of its song cycles that anthologize Housman; one composer’s prolificacy; a reduction in amateur choral singing; the rise of novel instrumentation and playing techniques; large-scale, non-vocal works; and the near-disappearance or disappearance of pre-war genres, such as school settings and unaccompanied song. Art song, as might be expected, remains predominant.
Numerical Evidence for the Decline
The smaller number of settings in the Decline affirm Orwell’s mid-century evaluation of Housman’s collection. According to Gooch and Thatcher, from 1941 to 1975 (the cut-off year for their research) there were twenty settings of individual Shropshire Lad poems (both published and unpublished) by ten composers. Research for this project extends the period to 1980 and the total to 122 settings by forty-two composers. (All settings from the period that the author found are listed chronologically in Catalogue 1.) However, this total is skewed by the single-mindedness of one composer, John Raynor (1909–1970), who wrote thirty-one settings. If his Shropshire Lad output is excluded, there are only ninety-one settings by forty-one composers—about one-third the settings of the first period by about two-thirds the number of composers. Clearly, Housman’s influence on composers was less pervasive than it had been earlier; fewer were setting him at a time when the number of composers was probably increasing.11 Thus, the poet was no longer ‘something like common property’ among them.12 Moreover, of the total number of settings in the Decline, only thirteen (about ten per cent) by seven composers were published contemporaneously.13 Because of this big drop, the hold of A Shropshire Lad on performers and audiences probably declined too. Yet the work’s themes and style continued to attract some composers.
The Emerging Mainstream
In 1941, the British Broadcasting Corporation gave Housman’s very English collection wide publicity by using it as wartime propaganda. In August and September of that year,14 on its Music of Britain series, the BBC aired Bredon Hill, a non-vocal rhapsody for violin and orchestra by Julius Harrison (1885–1963).15 This was the first significant event of the Decline.
Published in 1942, Bredon Hill is in the lineage of Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad rhapsody (published 1911) and English Pastoral Impressions (published 1921) by Ernest Farrar (1885–1918). Butterworth’s had been recorded and was more likely to have inspired Harrison. Another possible source of inspiration is Vaughan Williams’s The Lark Ascending, a romance for solo violin and chamber orchestra that evokes English landscape. This work, like Harrison’s, is associated with war: the first draft dates from 1914, and it was published during the First World War (1917).16 Moreover, The Lark Ascending is also associated with a portion of a work by another Victorian poet, George Meredith (1828–1909), which gives the music its title.17
The commissioning of Bredon Hill seems to have been part of a response to a Second World War document from the British Ministry of Information entitled ‘Note on a scheme for commissioning patriotic songs’.18 At the top of the score, Harrison quotes the second stanza of Housman’s ‘Bredon Hill’. Nevertheless, the composer’s biographer, Geoffrey Self (1930–), says that the work was inspired more by a visit to Bredon Hill at sunset on a still, misty evening, rather than a warm, sunny morning.19 Significantly for the broadcast, however, the rhapsody’s evocation of a particular topographical feature seems to conjure all things English. As in the early years of the twentieth-century musical renaissance, landscape was the root of nationhood.
The timing of the broadcast was apt for a reason other than the need for patriotic music. During the war, there was a considerable increase in professional music making, both in London and the provinces. New orchestras began and others moved to full-time contracts with their musicians. On an amateur level, there was also a huge growth in regional music clubs supported by the Arts Council.20 Self adds that coupled with this ‘musical rejuvenation’ was ‘a craving for beauty’.21 Harrison seems to have judged his audience well. His rhapsody is both pastoral (in its modal harmony and simple, folk-like—although foursquare—melody22) and impressionistic (in its organum- and Debussy-like parallel chords). See Ex. 4.1 at end of chapter.
After the war, contemporary Percy Young (1912–2004) said backhandedly that Harrison had ‘an agreeable, old-fashioned style that sets itself happily into picturesque surroundings’.23 However, when Bredon Hill aired during the nadir of the Second World War, there was unalloyed praise from at least one critic. Writing in The Musical Times, W(illiam) R(obert) Anderson (1891–1979) said the rhapsody ‘is one of the sweetest additions to music with our own country’s sap and surety in it. No composer now more genially evokes a testament of things felt and prized, things true for us all, about England’.24
Despite Britain’s wartime ‘musical rejuvenation’25 and the wide publicity afforded A Shropshire Lad by the broadcast of Harrison’s rhapsody, only a couple of other Housman settings appeared in print in the early 1940s—partsongs by Hugh Roberton (1874–1952). Solo songs by Malcolm Boyle (1902–1976), O. M. Jardine,26 John Kirk and Christopher Shaw (1922–95) remained in manuscript.27
The rhapsody’s pastoralism and impressionism place it firmly in the twentieth century, although far from the edge of new stylistic developments. Rather, Harrison’s work, in retrospect, begins the Decline’s mainstream, which accounts for about ninety per cent of its settings.
Most of this chapter is devoted to the mainstream. But it is convenient first to discuss the smaller streams of atonality and ultra-conservatism before returning to consider the mainstream’s diversity.
Atonality Comes to A Shropshire Lad
A few years after the Second World War, an event placed A Shropshire Lad in the forefront of new musical developments in Britain, although this time the audience cannot have been large. In 1948, Humphrey Searle (1915-1982)—a student in Vienna of Anton Webern (1883–1945) and an Oxbridge graduate—published his first vocal settings: Two Songs of A. E. Housman, op. 9. They were composed in 1946. No. 1 is from A Shropshire Lad: ‘March Past’ (‘On the idle hill of summer’).28 Although it is not dodecaphonic, the technique for which Searle became noted, it is atonal—the first published British atonal setting of a poem from A Shropshire Lad. See Ex. 4.2.
When Two Songs appeared, atonality was still largely unknown in Britain (unlike on the Continent), and British composers who employed it were targets of ‘acrimonious criticism’.29 Self observes that Searle chose ‘uncompromisingly to ignore the tastes of the common herd’.30 He was the first Shropshire Lad composer to do so. Now, however, it seems that the dissonance of ‘March Past’ supports well the poem’s false appeal to glory and the Lad’s awareness that he marches to a meaningless death.
Harrison and Searle seem to have set two contrasting lines of compositional development in A Shropshire Lad’s Decline. Searle’s also marks the beginning of a wider stylistic range and an eventual fragmentation of its audience. These trends became more marked after about 1980 when popular settings appeared.
It was almost two decades before anyone followed Searle’s lead in respect of A Shropshire Lad. Then, in 1966, three other Oxbridge graduates—two expatriate— produced atonal settings. In Perth, Australia, Geoffrey Allen (1927–) composed Bredon Hill, op. 10, a cycle of eight songs for tenor voice and piano. It is eclectic31 in that its vocal lines are constructed of note rows and its accompaniments are freely atonal. It is discussed in detail in Chapters 6 and 7.
At Cornell University, Ithaca, New York, Joscelyn Godwin (1945–) produced his cantata for women’s chorus and instruments, Carmina Amoris. It includes a simultaneous setting of ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ and Shakespeare’s ‘Is it thy will thy image should keep open’ (Sonnet LXI) that makes free use of all twelve semitones. See Ex. 4.3.
At New College, Oxford, Robin Holloway (1943–) composed Four Housman Fragments, op. 7, for solo voice, piano, violin and percussion. It begins with ‘Into my heart an air that kills’. The texture is reminiscent of Vaughan Williams’s ‘Bredon Hill’, discussed in Chapter 3: the piano has sustained, regular bell-like chords, and the violin (con sordino) has long double-stops, while the voice sings con moto in irregular, folk-like rhythms. See Ex. 4.4. A few years later, Holloway set ‘With rue my heart is laden’ for another atonal cycle, Georgian Songs (1972), op. 19.32 Holloway’s two works are the only ones by this group of composers to be taken up by a major publisher (Oxford University Press).33
These atonal settings above may be placed in two subcategories: the freely atonal (Searle, Godwin and Holloway) and the eclectic, incorporating free atonality with serialism (Allen). The works by Allen, Godwin and Holloway can still sound jarring because of their sometimes extreme dissonance; but, even at the time of their composition in the 1960s, their techniques were no longer new. On the Continent, Boulez and Stockhausen had already extended Schoenberg’s techniques of the 1920s to total serialism, which governs even non-pitched elements of music.
Aspects of contemporary British developments are also missing from Shropshire Lad settings of the Decline. They include the revival of Restoration vocal styles in the work of Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), the developments attributable to members of Britain’s Manchester School under Richard Hall (1903–1982) and the work of Cornelius Cardew (1936–1981) under the influence of John Cage (1912– 1992).34 Neither did an interest in oratorio and cantata on the part of Britten, Michael Tippett (1905–1998) and other major British composers affect the scale of vocal Shropshire Lad settings.35
Finally, two other Housman settings (postdating those above) require a third subcategory. They mix atonality and tonality, either simultaneously or sequentially. ‘On the idle hill of summer’, the only Housman setting from the ten-movement Summer Music (1970) by Michael Rose (1934–), uses the twelve semitones freely in the accompaniment while allowing clear tonal centres in the vocal line. ‘The Glimmering Weirs’ from the non-vocal diptych, Far in a Western Brookland (1973) by Robin Field (1935–) has a bi-tonal main section with a real-time, atonal introduction and conclusion. These two and some others from this section are discussed again below.
Ultra-Conservatism in the Decline
Unlike settings from the Flourishing that typically follow stylistic trends, thirteen during the Decline are conservative and do not reflect contemporary British developments. Indeed, they have few or no marks of even the early twentieth century. In their functional harmony, diatonic melody, regular phrasing and simple repetitive rhythms, the roots of such settings are in late eighteenth-century Classicism. The composers of these settings are Gordon Dale (1935–2001), Christopher Gibbs (1938–), Mervyn Horder (1910–1998), Kenneth Kirby (1928–), John Kirk and Leonard White.36 Ironically, although they chose a quintessentially English poet, musically they are not nationalist and seem to turn away from the twentieth-century renaissance that inspired an earlier generation of composers.
An ultra-conservative style need not preclude originality, as Chapter 5 will demonstrate. Nevertheless, the settings of the above six composers are generally unremarkable, with perhaps two exceptions: first, Gordon Dale’s two-part ‘Loveliest of trees’ (1963) (mentioned again in this chapter and later in Chapter 10); and second, Mervyn Horder’s five-song A Shropshire Lad, published by Lengnick in 1980, the very end of the Decline.
This latter work has occasional deliberate metrical instabilities, mixing common time (really 2/2, given the metronome indications) and 6/4. An example occurs in ‘When I was one-and-twenty’. See Ex. 4.5. Yet, in spite of departures from the customary single metres of the nineteenth-century, Horder’s set generally manifests the other ultra-conservative characteristics named above. In a contemporary review, Peter J. Pirie (1916–) dismisses Horder’s settings as ‘very old-fashioned’ but scornfully acknowledges a market for them; he says, ‘there are still some who pant after these things’.37 Nevertheless, Horder is sensitive to his texts: for example, ‘When I was one-and-twenty’ ends unexpectedly in the tonic minor key, capturing the Lad’s melancholic realization that even love—the most valued emotion of youth—does not endure.
The Diversity of the Mainstream
In the Decline’s mainstream, tonality and twentieth-century developments prevail in varying degrees. The works of six composers indicate a range: from most to least tonal and, simultaneously, from least-influenced to most-influenced by the twentieth century. Among those with the strongest tonality and strong late-Romantic roots are those of Malcolm Boyle, O. M. Jardine, and Gordon Dyson (1939–). Boyle’s ‘Loveliest of trees’ (1940s) is characterized by lush, Karg-Elert-like harmony revealing the composer’s organ-loft background and expressing the Lad’s early love of nature.38
‘O. M. Jardine’ was the maiden name of Monica Landauer. Her brother-in-law was the Austrian-American conductor Erich Leinsdorf (1912–1993), but she was not professionally trained as a composer.39 She has three Lad settings, dating from c.1944. The most successful is ‘Oh, when I was in love with you’. Its vocal line expresses the flippancy at the surface of the poem, although it moves too predictably in two-measure phrases. On the other hand, Jardine’s harmony with twentieth-century chord extensions40 (coupled with Schubertian oscillations between tonic minor and major) captures the deep sadness at the realization that ‘nothing will remain’. See Ex. 4.6.
In his ‘Loveliest of trees’ (rev.1969), Gordon Dyson’s accompaniment consists largely of functional harmony. See Ex. 4.7. Yet the composer can create an almost expressionist mood with juxtapositions of unrelated keys, coupled with juxtapositions of common chords and chordal extensions. The excerpt first vacillates between major and minor common chords and then abruptly moves to C major in a short passage laden with dissonant sevenths and ninths. Such changes induce insecurity in the listener and suggest the Lad’s apprehension at seeing the blooming cherry tree.
John Jeffreys (1927–) composed five Lad songs from 1964 to 1968. They are contained in the facsimile Book of Songs (1983) and Third and Last Book of Songs (1990), published by Roberton. The dissonance and chromaticism of the accompaniments sometimes almost obscure key centres. See Ex. 4.8. In the second last line of ‘When I came last to Ludlow’, for example, it is the broken chords of the vocal line that anchor the passage in F sharp major.
Twentieth-century developments are most evident in the settings of Kenneth Leighton (1929–1988) and Geoffrey Hanson (1939–). The astringency of Leighton’s ‘Loveliest of trees’ (1951), coupled with its modality, suggests an early interest in neo-classicism. See Ex. 4.9. With a key signature of three flats but anchored around F, the music is in the Dorian mode, transposed. Frequent chromatic notes (such as the C flat in the accompaniment) mask the mode, but the song gravitates to a final chord of F major, appropriate for the Lad’s release of tension following his carpe diem resolve.
In contrast, Hanson’s ‘On the idle hill of summer’ (1978) remains loosely tonal to the end. Initially, it passes through a number of clear centres related by semitone (G to G flat, then D to E flat, and so on), but ends on a quiet augmented fourth that suggests the drone of insects before the lad must rise to join battle. The setting is as much intervallic as chordal, achieving a sense of harmonic movement through the juxtaposition of tritone and perfect fifth. It is discussed again in Chapter 10. See Ex. 4.10.
As mentioned above, the stylistic diversity of the Decline precludes the identification of historical subphases. However, this survey suggests that the 120 or so settings from c.1940 to c.1980 could be placed on a continuum according to their degree of adherence to a tonal centre and to the extent of their absorption of twentieth-century developments. At one end, there are the ultra-conservative settings (such as Horder’s), at the other, the atonal or dodecaphonic (such as Searle’s) and, between, the more-or-less-tonal (such as Hanson’s).
This chapter now turns to other developments in the Decline: the musical anthologizing of A Shropshire Lad, the preoccupation of a few composers with Housman’s poetry, the near-disappearance of the amateur chorus, changes in accompanying instrumental forces and some belated echoes of Harrison’s non-vocal rhapsody.
Abstract and Key Terms
Part I: Preliminaries
1. Objectives, Musicological Considerations and Research Methodology
Assumptions about Text and Music
Musicological Characteristics of the Thesis
The Wider Musicological Context
2. A. E. Housman and A Shropshire Lad
A. E. Housman
A Shropshire Lad’s Appeal
The Formalist Approach to Literature
B. J. Leggett’s Formalist Approach to A Shropshire Lad
3. The Flourishing (to c.1940)
A Shropshire Lad in the Twentieth-Century English Musical Renaissance
First Settings and the Appeal of the Poems for Composers
Stephen Banfield’s Art Song Subphases in the Flourishing
The Drawing Room Ballad Tradition
Experimental Song for Solo Voice
Solo Voice and One Orchestral Instrumental
Solo Voice and Chamber Ensemble
Solo Voice and Orchestra
Choral and Partsong Settings
Part II: A Survey of Settings Since c.1940
4. The Decline (c.1940 to c.1980)
Numerical Evidence for the Decline
The Emerging Mainstream
Atonality Comes to A Shropshire Lad
Ultra-Conservatism in the Decline
The Diversity of the Mainstream
A Shropshire Lad in Multi-Poet Anthologies
Prolificacy in the Decline
Changes in Accompaniments
A Shropshire Lad in British Music Since 1940: Decline and Renewal
5. The Renewal (from c.1980)
1: Evidence, Reasons and Constraints
Evidence for the Renewal
Possible Reasons for the Renewal
Constraints to Enlarging the Canon
2: The Three Streams, Newer Techniques and Revived Genres
Ultra-Conservatism in the Renewal
Atonality in the Renewal
The Mainstream in the Renewal
Further Techniques of Textual Exposition in the Renewal
3: A Shropshire Lad Throughout Recent British Musical Life
Composers’ Career Categories
Part III: Literary-Musical Analyses
6. The Developmental Song Cycles for Voice and Piano
The All-Shropshire Lad Cycles Since 1940
The Developmental and Thematic Divisions
Al Summers’s A Shropshire Lad (1976–c. 1984, rev. 2004)
Gordon Lawson’s A Shropshire Lad (1957)
Mervyn Horder’s A Shropshire Lad (1980)
Geoffrey Allen’s Bredon Hill (1966)
7. The Thematic Song Cycles for Voice and Piano
Paul Adrian Rooke’s When I Was in Love with You (1999)
Robin Field’s When I Was One-and-Twenty (1959–60, rev. 1976)
Alan Moore’s Chill Heart of England (1985–86)
Conclusion: The Developmental and Thematic Cycles
8. Collaborative Concept Albums in Popular Styles
John Williams’s Jacqui Dankworth and New Perspectives
Polly Bolton’s Loveliest of Trees
The Two Albums in Relation to the Post-1940 Streams of Development
9. John Raynor’s Evolving Understanding of ‘Loveliest of trees’
Raynor’s Life and Music
The First Setting (1947)
The Second Setting (1953)
The Third Setting (1960)
The Fourth Setting (1965)
A Shropshire Lad in British Music Since 1940: Decline and Renewal
10. Multi-Voice Settings
Two Solo Voices
Conservatism, Atonality and the Mainstream
11. Out of Simplicity and Complexity: Settings by Howard Skempton and Michael Finnissy
Howard Skempton’s ‘Into my heart an air that kills’ (1996)
Michael Finnissy’s ‘In my own shire, if I was sad’ (1993)
Summary and Conclusions
The Flourishing (to c.1940)
The Decline (c.1940 to c.1980)
The Renewal (from c.1980)
The later All-Shropshire Lad Cycles
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