Many of us are currently gorging on recordings of Beethoven’s music, with this year marking the 250th anniversary of his birth. If you’d like a brief change in anniversary diet, however, then read on.
2020 also marks the 250th anniversary of the birth of the English poet, William Wordsworth (1770-1850). We’ll take a three-pronged approach to that family name, starting with a selection of works that are based on Wordsworth’s poetry, and opening with a very beautiful song that forms part of William Walton’s A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table. It was commissioned for the 1962 City of London Music Festival and was given its premiere in July of that year by soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf accompanied by Gerald Moore. Wordsworth’s Glide gently provides the text for the second song in Walton’s cycle:
Glide gently, thus for ever glide,
O Thames! that other Bards may see
As lovely visions by thy side
As now, fair River! come to me.
O glide, fair Stream! for ever so,
Thy quiet soul on all bestowing,
Till all our minds for ever flow
As thy deep waters now are flowing.
A Song for the Lord Mayor’s Table (8.557112)
Next, we have music by the English composer Edwin Roxburgh (b. 1937) that is based on Wordsworth’s poetry, but doesn’t set the texts as songs. Roxburgh studied composition with Herbert Howells at London’s Royal Academy of Music and was appointed Vaughan Williams Fellow in Composition at the Royal College of Music in 2003. His Wordsworth Miniatures for solo clarinet take four poems as their inspiration. The first two movements of the four-movement suite are titled Calm is the fragrant air and Waters on a starry night. The following extracts from Wordsworth’s poems provide a backdrop for the performances:
Calm is the fragrant air, and loth to lose
Day’s grateful warmth, tho’ moist with falling dews.
Look for the stars, you’ll say that there are none;
Look up a second time, and, one by one,
You mark them twinkling out with silvery light,
And wonder how they could elude the sight!
Waters on a starry night
Are beautiful and fair;
The sunshine is a glorious birth;
But yet I know, where’er I go,
That there hath past away a glory from the earth.
Calm is the fragrant air (8.570539)
Waters on a starry night (8.570539)
To round off this first section of the blog, we have a song for baritone and piano by Mohammed Fairouz (b. 1985). In the words of the composer, “it sets Wordsworth’s strangely piercing ballad We Are Seven. The poem is a breathtaking celebration of the insistent belief of a child in the face of hard ‘reason’ and ‘logic’. A little girl holds on tight to her wondrous faith that two of her dead siblings are still part of the family and are ’with her’, no matter what.”
You can follow this link for the complete text, which starts as follows:
A simple Child,
That lightly draws its breath,
And feels its life in every limb,
What should it know of death?
I met a little cottage Girl:
She was eight years old, she said;
Her hair was thick with many a curl
That clustered round her head.
She had a rustic, woodland air,
And she was wildly clad:
Her eyes were fair, and very fair;
—Her beauty made me glad.
“Sisters and brothers, little Maid,
How many may you be?”
“How many? Seven in all,” she said,
And wondering looked at me.
We Are Seven (8.559783)
And now to William Wordsworth the composer. Yes, you did read that correctly; but, no, it’s not a revelation that posterity has unearthed some of the poet’s dabblings in the art of composition. William Brocklesby Wordsworth (1908-1988) was a great-great grandson of William the poet’s brother Christopher. Born in London into a clerical family, WBW was educated at home by his father, a vicar. However, his musical talents were noticed by a piano teacher, Miss Sterry, who gave Wordsworth piano lessons and steered him into a more general musical education. In his mid-twenties, he went to Edinburgh to study for three years under Sir Donald Tovey. From this liberating experience Wordsworth emerged as a fully-fledged composer, without bothering actually to take the Edinburgh university degree.
In 1955 Wordsworth joined the executive committee of the Composer’s Guild, becoming its chairman in 1959, when he visited the USSR and met Dmitry Shostakovich. Wordsworth’s Sonata No. 2 in G minor, Op. 66 for cello and piano is probably his most important cello-piano composition and was composed in that same year he met Shostakovich in the USSR. There seems to be an audible kinship between the two composers in this dark-hued and often depressive work, which is cast in a single large movement in several contrasting sections. Here’s the opening section.
Sonata No. 2 for cello and piano (8.571361)
Before we leave Wordsworth the composer, let’s listen to his Scherzo, Op. 42, again for cello and piano, which was written ten years earlier than the sonata just heard, during the period of his greatest public success. His handling of tonality in this short piece carries shades of Bartók’s harmonic procedures, an area that Wordsworth had studied. Listen out for its opening tick-tock figure of falling fourths, a dotted-rhythm fanfare figure, and various sharp-elbowed melodic motifs.
Finally to the Wordsworth that repeatedly crops up in the Naxos catalogue, associated equally with concert works for orchestra and the world of ballet. I’m referring to the conductor Barry Wordsworth (b. 1948). In 1973 he became assistant conductor of the Royal Ballet’s Touring Orchestra and in 1974 principal conductor of Sadlers Wells Royal Ballet. He was appointed music director of the Royal Ballet in 2007, having previously held the position from 1990 to 1995; and in 2006 became conductor laureate of the BBC Concert Orchestra, having served as its principal conductor since 1989. I don’t know whether or not Barry is related to William the poet, but his career certainly hasn’t seen him wandering “lonely as a cloud”.
I don’t think we can leave Beethoven out of this anniversary survey completely, however, so to end our blog I’ve chosen a recording of the finale of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 conducted by Barry Wordsworth.
Piano Concerto No. 5 (8.550290)