May. In names and notions.

May’s music. From Theresa May to Frederick May, the dawn of The First of May to the dusk of May Nights—we can view the month through a variety of musical optics which we’ve assembled for this week’s blog.

Our earliest example comes from 16th-century England in a ballet by Thomas Morley (1557–1602), but that’s not dance music in this Renaissance-period context. A ballet (with a hard-sounding ‘t’) was a form of madrigal, a vocal genre popular in Italy at the time which Morley did much to promote to English consumers. The ballet is distinguished by a recurring refrain of fa-la-la, which does indeed sound more Italian than English.

Morley was probably a pupil of William Byrd, to whom he dedicated his popular book A Plaine and Easie Introduction to Practicall Musicke, published in 1597. Morley was employed at St Paul’s in London and became a Gentleman of the Chapel Royal in 1592, publishing his first set of part-songs in 1593. He was later involved in printing and publishing music, for which he was granted a share in the monopoly in 1598. Here’s his ballet for five voices, Now is the month of Maying (PRCD9063), and the words of the opening stanza:

Now is the month of Maying
When merry lads are playing
Each with his bonny lass
Upon the greeny grass

‘Maying’ is defined as the celebration of May Day, which is the first day of May. In olden days in England the day would be celebrated with community festivities that included the crowning of the May Queen and dancing around the Maypole.

In more recent times, however, May Day has lost that saccharine association and is now better known for its workers’ parades and political demonstrations. Shostakovich gave his Third Symphony (8.572396) the subtitle ‘The First of May’. Composed in 1929, premiered in 1930 and then consigned to oblivion between 1933 and 1964, it’s a one-movement work with a choral conclusion. The Soviet composer Boris Asafyev (1884–1949) described it as having been fashioned from the fervour of the revolutionary spirit. Here’s the concluding part of that choral conclusion, the words of which refer to the organisation of a May Day parade, destroying the old to kindle the new, and the advancement of socialism through the presence of rifle-bearing miners flooding town squares in their millions.

We turn to the composer Arthur Meulemans (1884–1966) for something less ardent. With more than 350 works to his credit, he ranks among the most important Flemish composers of the first half of the 20th century. He was particularly influenced by Claude Debussy’s harmonic audacity and revolutionary approach to orchestration, and this can be heard at its purest in his earliest compositions, such as May Night (8.223776), which originally served as an instrumental intermezzo in Beatrijs, a symphonic legend for large orchestra, speaker, soloists and female choir. It tells of a nun who falls under the spell of a handsome knight, is unfaithful to her vows and spends fourteen years in debauchery before returning to her convent in repentance. Meulemans explained that the subject of the symphonic poem is … the state of Beatrijs’ soul, her mood in the May night that lives in this music … the corridor to happiness through the moonlit May night … that song so cruel, so sweet, a wonder between happiness and pain.

Frederick May (1911–1995) was an Irish composer with a cosmopolitan outlook. Having graduated from Trinity College, Dublin he went on to study at London’s Royal College of Music with Gordon Jacob and Vaughan Williams. His first compositions earned him a travelling scholarship to Vienna to compose under the tutelage of Alban Berg (and later with Egon Wellesz). The fact that May wanted to work with Berg, and his attendant openness to atonality and serialism, marked him out as the first Irish composer to escape the insularity that inhibited composers of the first generation following the establishment of the Irish Free State in 1922. Here’s an extract from the second movement of his String Quartet in C minor (8.223888) which, although one of his earliest works, is one of his finest achievements.

Fascinated by nature, the seasons, and the outdoors, American composer Judith Lang Zaimont (b. 1945) has written several compositions that make connections to the environment. One such piece is A Calendar Set (8.559665). As the title implies, the collection is a musical commentary on the months of the year, with each prelude being written during the month it depicts. The transitional seasons of autumn and spring feature more virtuosic material, highlighted by September which is filled with the winds of change, and May which depicts the exuberance of life and rebirth.

Finally, to the favourite music of the UK’s current prime minister Theresa May, which she selected as her Desert Island Discs when making an appearance on the radio show in 2014. The compilation represented the music she would be most comforted by if she ever found herself a castaway. We’ll play out with one of May’s picks, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto (8.554409), and an extract from the second movement.

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