This Scepter’d Isle

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!

Vaughan Williams - Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis
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 oratorio). 

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 died young! 

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., his publisher:

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.

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