The Wordsmith's Guide to English Song: Poetry, Music and Imagination

By Lisle, Nicola | Musical Opinion, April 1, 2017 | Go to article overview

The Wordsmith's Guide to English Song: Poetry, Music and Imagination


Lisle, Nicola, Musical Opinion


The Wordsmith's Guide to English Song: Poetry, Music and Imagination Volume I: The Songs of Roger Quilter Volume 2: The Songs of Ivor Gurney Nicola Harrison Compton Publishing, June 2016, 174pp/184pp, paperback, illustrated, £25 each ISBNs: 9781909082083 & 9781909082557

These two excellent volumes - the first in a planned series - provide a fascinating, in-depth exploration of the songs of Roger Quilter and Ivor Gurney, placing them In their historical, religious and romantic contexts, looking at the relationships between the words and the music and offering fresh insights into interpretation and performance. Nicola Harrison is an experienced singer, teacher and journalist, whose many years of performing, teaching and studying the English song repertoire, together with her fascination with poetry and its relationship to music, inform both books. Through these volumes, Harrison hopes to inspire other singers to re-think their approach to learning and performing English song through careful and critical analysis of the words and music.

In her preface, Harrison talks about how researching the books took her on some "truly extraordinary excursions" as she delved into the diverse worlds of mythology, legends, customs and traditions, religion, fashions, politics, philosophy, flora and fauna - all of which she has brought together to form a kaleidoscopic backdrop against which to bring these songs vividly to life and throw new light on their origins and meanings.

Each book begins with a biography of the composer, followed by a chapter-bychapter guide to each song or set of songs. Selected texts are reproduced in full, followed by biographies of the poets, interpretations of the words and details of the context in which they were written, together with comments on how the composers' settings both match and enhance the mood of the songs. In a discussion of Shelley's Love's Philosophy, for instance, in the first volume, she notes how Quilter's "elegant and stylish setting" of the words "perfectly matches the urgency of Shelley's appeal" as he tries to woo the lady he loves. Similarly, in the volume on Gurney, she notes how the composer captures the sense of wonderment and man's connection with nature in Wilfred Wilson Gibson's All Night Under the Moon. In this romantic piece, she tells us, Gurney opts for the "strange key of G# minor" to create a mysterious atmosphere, while evoking the sound of birds in flight with the use of rising and falling quavers in the accompaniment and a high tessitura in the vocal line. …

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