This Scepter’d Isle
Posted On March 31, 2020
An all-English playlist.
We start with a sequence from Sir Patrick Stewart in the soliloquy John of Gaunt speaks in Richard II…and we’re off!
This Scepter’d Isle
The first work up is Vaughan Williams – Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis –
a work written to be performed in Gloucester Cathedral as part of the
Three Choirs Festival in 1910 – and – filmed here, in that very
cathedral. I think this was the first work by any English composer I
really became aware of – and it’s been close to my heart ever since. RVW
managed to channel the stark beauty of the Tallis original and clothe
it in the most sumptuous sonorities for string orchestra ever created
‘imho’. The antiphonal effects created by the double string orchestra
and solo strings are without compare…this is one to savor!
We jump to “Zadok the Priest” – yes, I know it’s Handel (and he was
German) but he dominated the 18th century in his adopted home of London
to such a degree that most people give him at least “honorary” English
status – sing along if you know it!
Next up is a sequence of 17th century music by England’s greatest
native composer (at least until the late-19th Century) – Henry Purcell.
We start with his birthday ode for Queen Mary – “Come, ye sons of art” –
a great example of the English ode (which Handel would later
appropriate, along with the English anthem, and expand into the English
This is followed by a famous sequence from Purcell’s King Arthur –
and uniquely English theatrical form, called the ‘masque’ a kind of
‘operatic’ entertainment with a VERY loose plot – it wasn’t quite opera,
yet, but imagine what English opera might have become had Purcell not
Following the “cold genius” sequence, you get two versions of a different sequence from King Arthur –
from the Harvest celebration sequence…’Your hay it is mow’d’ – one
somewhat straightforward and the other a performance from Salzburg in
2004 and treats it rather – ummm – uniquely! Bear in mind – it’s a
‘period’ orchestra – but during Michael Schade’s solo it sounds like a
rock band! – and then you get Barbara Bonney singing one of Purcell’s
most beautiful arias…not bad at all…!
After that we turn to two bawdy and rather NSFW tavern ‘catches’ or
‘rounds’ by Purcell – what would an English playlist be without some
potty humour (sp. intentional) – I hope this makes you at least smile!!
After some laughs, we turn to Anglican chant – something I’ve been
trying to teach all the non-anglicans in the chorus to do for years! The
beautiful psalm is followed by the “Weather Report” – sung in Anglican
Chant style – more brilliant British humor!!
We turn to Britten next and his amazing opera Peter Grimes – English opera would have to wait about 300 years from Purcell to Britten, but the wait was worth it! The sea is a character in the opera and this interlude is the “Moonlight” interlude – where the ocean is quiet, but you can sense the power and turmoil beneath the seeming calmness of the surface. This movement always reminds me of Whitman’s poem “On The Beach At Night Alone”:
On the beach at night alone,
As the old mother sways her to and fro singing her husky song,
As I watch the bright stars shining, I think a thought of the clef of the universes and of the future.
Fun fact – there’s a connection between Britten and Whitman –
Brooklyn!! In the early 1940’s Britten, Peter Pears, W. H. Auden, Carson
McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles and Gypsy Rose Lee shared an house in
Brooklyn Heights – which became the artistic party center of New York in
the early 40’s – the cream of New York artists, writers and composers
showed up all the time – EVERYONE who was anyone in artistic circles
went to the parties there! There’s a great book you can read that
describes the whole amazing scene – ‘February House’.
We go from night scene to night scene – with “Nimrod” from Elgar’s ‘Enigma’ Variations –
each variation has a set of letters which were the initials of Elgar’s
friends; and each variation was a musical portrait of those friends.
“Nimrod, the Hunter” was meant for August Jaeger (‘jaeger’ in German
means ‘hunter’), Elgar’s friend and a music editor at Novello and Co.,
In 1904 Elgar told Dora Penny (“Dorabella”) that this variation is
not really a portrait, but “the story of something that happened”.[ Once,
when Elgar had been very depressed and was about to give it all up and
write no more music, Jaeger had visited him and encouraged him to
continue composing. He referred to Ludwig van Beethoven, who had a lot of worries, but wrote more and more beautiful music. “And that is what you must do”, Jaeger said, and he sang the theme of the second movement of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 8 Pathétique.
Elgar disclosed to Dora that the opening bars of “Nimrod” were made to
suggest that theme. “Can’t you hear it at the beginning? Only a hint,
not a quotation.”
If you want to hear what Elgar meant – I also give you the 2nd
movement of Beethoven’s “Pathetique” Sonata…it ain’t bad either! Next, I
take you to the English countryside…Stanford’s part song, ’The
Bluebird’, is one of the most beautiful in the repertory and it seemed
appropriate to follow it with RVW’s ravishing ’The Lark Ascending’ –
nature doesn’t get more gorgeous than this!
Finally, I take you to heart-on-the-sleeve English patriotism – we
hear “I Vow To The My Country” – which Holst set from exiting music
(‘Jupiter’ from The Planets) to a poem that was circulating
during the 1st World War…it has become an integral part of the November
11 “Remembrance Day” ceremonies since the 1920’s; AND finally, to that
most ‘echt’ of English patriotic songs – Hubert Parry’s, ‘Jerusalem’ in
the orchestration by Elgar. It closes the Proms each year – and this is
one of those performances from the “Last Night at the Proms”…nothing
better than this!
I end this week’s playlist ends quietly with the King’s Singers New Day – which is something we’re all looking forward to.