I was immediately impressed by the first piece on this CD - a
fine setting of A.E. Housman's Loveliest of Trees
is surely a brave person who dares to write a new version of
a song that seems to have had its definitive setting made some
dozen or so years earlier by George Butterworth. Yet history
suggests that at least ten composers have thrown their hat into
the ring with this text. Muriel Herbert's edition of this melancholy
text is superb. It adds value to both the words and to the history
of setting. There is a simplicity about the music that captures
the sense of the transience of life, and there is a freshness
and subtlety of the melodic line that does not attempt to parody
any previous settings. For me, this is the
song’ on this disc.
I confess that I had never heard of Muriel Herbert before this
CD was released. To be fair, there is no entry in Groves and,
although I do not have it in front of me, there is, I believe,
no reference in Sophie Fuller’s The Pandora Guide to Women
Composers. There is one mention of her in Stephen Banfield’s Sense
, and that is only a name check in the middle
of a list of composers who had set Housman in the year 1923.
The Internet only helps if one knows of the existence of somebody.
So, like another ‘lost’ composer Janet Hamilton,
Herbert has remained in the shadows - virtually forgotten.
This review is not the place for a full biography of Muriel Herbert,
but a little thumbnail sketch may prove of interest.
Muriel Emily Herbert was born in Sheffield in 1897 and grew up
in Liverpool in what was a musical household. By 1913 she had
abandoned plans to become a concert pianist and had begun to
write music - exercises for the piano and song settings of Herrick,
Browning, Bridges and Christina Rossetti.
She entered the Royal College of Music in 1917 and under the auspices of composers
and teachers such as Quilter and Stanford she began to develop her own musical
voice. She was well read in poetry and had an especial fascination for Y.B. Yeats,
Thomas Hardy and James Joyce. For a time, she earned money by teaching before
her musical career took off - in a somewhat limited way. Roger Quilter was impressed
with her songs and arranged for a number of them to be published. Barbirolli
included her Two Violin Pieces
in a concert in the 1920s. She also gave
broadcasts of her music on the BBC. All this slowly came to an end when she married
and began to raise a family. The author and historian Claire Tomalin, one of
her daughters, writes that from the early nineteen-forties her mother wrote less
and less music, although there were a few recitals and she still taught music
and composition. The memory of what had been was largely forgotten: it was not
discussed with her children. Her confidence as a composer had been lost as new
styles of music began to permeate the concert halls and recital rooms.
The songs on this CD are from a wide variety of literary authors. I mention a
few that particularly impressed me. These include James Joyce’s Goldenhair
hear an army charging
and She weeps over Rahoon
. Ada Harrison, who
was a neighbour of Herbert’s provided some charming verse for the set of
six Children’s Songs
and the haunting In the Days of November
A particular favourite of mine is the great poem by John Masefield, Tewksbury
. The music is equally as great as the imagery of the words. It is strange
that this poem was not set by Gurney or Finzi or Gibbs. Leigh Hunt’s Jenny
is charming and imaginative. I must mention the setting
of Thomas Hardy’s Faint Heart in a Railway Train
. I am not sure
that this has been set before: none is noted in Michael Pilkington’s book British
. Herbert’s setting is subtle, appropriate and quite moving.
It captures exactly the mood of Hardy’s ‘what might have been’ poem.
It is difficult to try to suggest the influences that inform Muriel Herbert’s
music. When this present CD has ‘sunk in’ to the repertoire and a
deal of her music is republished, it will be possible to tie down allusions and
references. Certainly, as a pupil of Stanford she has imbibed some of his style
and mood. Her infatuation with Roger Quilter - until she realised that he was
gay - is the most noticeable stylistic marker, yet even this is not universal.
Other notes are present in this music, and it would not be too fanciful to detect
echoes of Richard Strauss, Frederick Delius, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy.
Certainly at the time when Herbert was at the Royal College of Music all these
composers would have been part of the regular diet of recitals and concerts.
There is a fascinating essay included in the CD notes by Claire Tomalin, which
explores the career of Muriel Herbert and her work. The saddest part is that
her mother “spoke very little about the early years and she never showed
me any of the songs written when she was young.” Sadly a number of researchers
and students did visit her to ask about her ‘famous’ meeting with
James Joyce in Paris. However no-one cared to see the manuscripts that were the
source of the anecdote. It is depressing that Tomalin initially had little success
in promoting her mother’s music. After Muriel Herbert’s death in
1984 she “packed up all the papers she had left, and stored them in folders”.
She lamented the lack of any interest and recalled that one musician, to whom
she showed them dismissed the songs with the comment, “Everyone’s
mother wrote songs …”
Ailish Tynan and James Gilchrist along with their accompanist David Owen Norris
give impressive and committed performances. The sound quality is excellent and
the presentation lends itself to listening to this CD in the order given.
There are further possibilities for future recordings: two published pieces for
Violin & Piano - Enchanted April
an extant Violin Sonata and a number of other songs, either published or unpublished.
On the basis of this present recording, any further exploration of Muriel Herbert’s
music is to be welcomed and encouraged.
This is one of my major musical discoveries of the year.
1) Loveliest of trees
2) I cannot
lose thee for a day
3) The Crimson Rose
4) I hear an army charging
6) She weeps over Rahoon
7) On a time
8) Have you seen but a white
9) I dare not ask a kiss
11) To Daffodils
12) How beautiful is night
Renouncement (Alice Meynell)
14) I think on thee in the night
15) Faint Heart in a Railway Train
16) Rose kissed me today
17) Lean out
of the window, Goldenhair
19) MS of Benedictbeurn
(Walter de la Mare)
21) The Lost
22) Jenny kissed me
23-28) Six children's songs
29) In the
Days of November
30) The Lake Isle of Innisfree
31) David's Lament for Jonathan
32) Most Holy Night
33) When Death
to either shall come
34) Cradle Song