“Look, stranger, at this island now
The leaping light for your delight discovers, Stand stable here
And silent be,
That through the channels of the ear
May wander like a river
The swaying sound of the sea.
Here at the small field’s ending pause
Where the chalk wall falls to the foam, and its tall ledges
Oppose the pluck
And the knock of the tide,
And the shingle scrambles after the suck-
Ing surf, and the gull lodges
A moment on its sheer side.
Far off like floating seeds the ships
Diverge on urgent voluntary errands;
And the full view
Indeed may enter
And move in memory as now these clouds do,
That pass the harbor mirror
And all the summer through the water saunter.”
- W. H. Auden
In 1936, English poet W.H. Auden (1907-1973) released thirty-one fanciful, experimental poems in a somewhat haphazard compilation called Look, Stranger!. The poems, in their virtuosic verbosity, encapsulated the painful intricacies of nationalism in a time where the social and political landscape of Europe was being severely shaken by the looming threat of aggressive regimes and imminent wartime. The collection was as perspicuous as it was incoherent; as painful as it was pleasurable; as luxurious as it was lonely. Its title poem perfectly exemplifies the nature of the book, as analyzed in the Cambridge Companion to W.H. Auden, edited by Sam Smith:
“Ultimately these numinous wholes derived from the political vision of a blessedly insular, insulated, internally integrated England, ‘this island now’ of the title poem to Auden’s strangely patriotic volume, Look, Stranger!. In the first two stanzas England is superlatively delineated as a harmoniously interdependent island of green fields, chalk cliffs, a shingle beach and contented human observers. Nonetheless, the poem’s close suggests a fragility and impermanence to England’s literal and metaphoric insularity...The cliff that falls to the foam...is, from one perspective, happily fixed in an eternal, unhistorical present – always falling but never fallen. From another, though, that iconic white bulwark of friable chalk is inexorably crumbling under the assault of the sea, time, history.”
W.H. Auden befriended the precocious Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) in the autumn of 1935, while the two collaborated on documentary film projects for the G.P.O. Film Unit; Auden as the screenwriter and Britten as film score composer.. An admirer of Auden’s prose and charming intellect, Britten was inspired to write his first song set, setting five poems fromLook, Stranger! to music . It was appropriately titled On This Island (1937), which was also the revised title of the poetry collection published in the United States. Britten’s apparent veneration for Auden and his poetry traveled with him to America in 1939, where the composer, along with life partner and collaborator Peter Pears, both pacifists, followed the poet’s lead out of Europe. Britten and Auden continued their collaboration for a brief time in America, including their operatic collaboration on Paul Bunyan and the now ubiquitous Hymn To St. Cecilia for unaccompanied choir.
One can easily recall multiple renditions of this ode to the patron saint of music around Boston. In fact, the city’s vibrant church music scene and its predilection for English sacred repertoire is no secret. Walk into any Episcopalian church in Boston, and surely you will hear the repertoire of Howells, Parry, Stanford, Britten, Holst, Tavener, Chilcott, and many more. But 20th century British ex-pats are not the only ones responsible for Boston’s musical heritage, of course. A major wave of Irish immigrants in the 1850’s brought their language, and their culinary and musical heritage with them to the streets of South Boston. The Scottish emigrated around the same time, settling primarily in Central Massachusetts and Southern New Hampshire. And then, of course, there were the English colonists, who helped shape America’s destiny, both in its civics and in its culture. The result is an abundance of English, Irish, and Celtic originated/inspired musical ensembles in the area. Furthermore, many of the Greater Boston colleges and universities have Celtic studies programmes, the region is dotted with social societies and heritage organizations representing respective Isles origins, and, well, there’s that basketball team. It may not be an island, but Boston’s proud Anglo-Celtic roots are still very prevalent among descendents and newcomers from the region.
Unlike most islands, trapped in their own singularity, the British Isles are an intricately-woven quilt, rich in a multiplicity of cultures and histories. One can easily recall beloved tunes like The Last Rose of Summer (Thomas Moore, 1813), or The Sally Gardens (William Butler Yeats, set to the traditional Irish melody T he Moorlough Shore, 1909; tonight’s arrangement by Benjamin Britten), or popular Irish drinking songs like The Rare Ole’ Mountain Dew (Harrigan/Braham, 1882). Due to the advancement of technology, and a subsequent increase in awareness and interest, it is amazing what one can find in libraries across the world: old prints of antiquated Scottish psalm tunes to be sung in a 500 y ear-old “precenting the line” style such as those found in Gaelic Psalmody, folk song collections from Guernsey, Shetland Islands, and the Isle of Man, and Welsh hymnbooks from generations past. Even newly-conceived a cappella arrangements of Irish folk songs like The Parting Glass by Peter Hollens or The Wailin’ Jenny’s fuse new sounds of popular music today with beloved melodies of the past. Without library or concert hall access, one could easily tune into A Celtic Sojourn with Brian O’Donovan on WGBH on Saturday afternoons, spend an evening at the Burren in Somerville, or attend a traditional music jam session anywhere in New England to absorb the unending abundance of this literature.
But this desire to tap into roots across the pond is not new, and not exclusively American. In the 19th and early-20th centuries, British composers gathered and celebrated this folk culture, contributing part songs for the singing societies and amateur ensembles to enjoy. The keenly nationalistic Benjamin Britten was no exception. His epic work for male voices, The Ballad of Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard utilizes a text from poetic sources dating as far back as the 16th century. Edward Bairstow (1874-1946) was widely known as an organist and church musician, who held posts at churches in London, Lancashire, Leeds, and ultimately as Organist of York Minster, from 1913 until his death. While his contribution to male vocal literature is sparse, his part song for men’s voices, M usic, when soft voices die (1929) - harmonically surprising and rich with retrogression, while expertly handling voice leading - harkens to the old Victorian sensibilities for which he so famously chided Arthur Sullivan, ironically. Like Britten, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) devoted much of his compositional output to British Isles folk song arrangements, whether for orchestral, choral, or solo vocal forces. For vocal ensembles, his catalogue includes choral collections of Herefordshire, Sussex, Norfolk, Cambridgeshire folksongs, as well as his massive collection of national song arrangements called T he Motherland song book for unison and mixed voices, published in four volumes, many intended, or rearranged at publisher’s request, for male voices. His dramatic arrangement of Ca’ the yowes (1925), is based on the poetry of Robert Burns, of whom the National Poetry Foundation writes, “That [Burns] retains the designation ‘national poet of Scotland’ today owes much to his position as the culmination of the Scottish literary tradition...his brilliance and achievement could not be equaled and, more particularly, because the Scots vernacular in which he wrote some of his celebrated works was—even as he used it—becoming less and less intelligible to the majority of readers, who were already infected with English culture and language.” A baritone soloist tells the haunting poetry, while the humming seamen provide a lulling, triadic backdrop, only to interject in Burns’s climactic verse. His contemporary, Granville Bantock (1868-1946), while perhaps lesser known today, was a highly respected composer, conductor, and arranger, responsible for over 800 compositions, and for the foundation of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra during his time there as a music professor at the University of Birmingham (preceding Edward Elgar). One of his early arrangements, My luve is like a red, red rose (1911) another of Robert Burns’s canon, unlike Vaughan Williams, is set nearly strophic, and is quite straightforward. This is not, however, indicative of Bantock’s later compositional style. To hear something completely different, his Hebredian Symphony is highly recommended – reminiscent of Russian orchestral writing with a color of Percy Grainger.
Traditional music and poetry from the British Isles continues to be celebrated today. Irish composer, arranger, and choral director Michael McGlynn (b. 1964) is internationally recognized for providing a fresh perspective on Irish/Celtic musical heritage through his choral output and as the Artistic Director of ANÚNA, which has been giving audiences across the world a new way to appreciate traditional Irish music since 1987. Dúlamán (1995) is taken from an Irish folk song about traditional customs for seaweed, embracing in its asymmetric, free-flowing, driving rhythms. Welsh-born composer Hilary Tann (b. 1947), “influenced by her love of Wales and a strong identification with the natural world”, has been lauded for her “lyricism and formal balance” in her music. Paradise (2016), also excitedly and breathlessly relishes in the asymmetric, using text by George Herbert (1593-1633), and as she explains, is “framed by phrases in Vulgate Latin that are gradually ‘pruned’ to a bell-like figure.” Another Welsh-born composer, Paul Mealor (b. 1975), has been hailed by the New York Times as “the most important composer to have emerged in Welsh choral music since William Mathias.” I Saw Eternity is an impressive soundscape, utilizing long, sustained phrases, supporting a solo tenor singing the text of Welsh poet Henry Vaughan’s (1621-1695) The World in an ornamented, folk style. A wailing soprano saxophone provides ringing clarity to deep eternal darkness.
While art is eternal, so is the unavoidable trend of history repeating itself. In light of the recent vote on the U.K.’s involvement in the European Union, or Brexit, Great Britain is yet again faced with challenges of being an island within a continent riddled with political, social, and cultural confusion. Similar to what Auden wrote about in his collection, there is a reverence and glory about national pride, and yet, isolationism casts a heavy burden. And as we in the United States watch this political turning inward of sorts, we also remain optimistic that the culture of the British Isles will continue to influence and be influenced, and shared with all people, as all people can share their culture with them. Particularly during this season in the United States, we are faced with similarly difficult decisions about how we choose to participate on the global scale. From our current presidential election process, to the recent public outcry by Isles musicians over how American visa laws greatly inhibit international musicians to share their talents and teachings in our nation, this is a time when the people of Boston could raise their voices, not just their glasses, in order to preserve and protect the prolonged influence international art and humanity has in America and around the world. As the legendary English poet, and another of Britten’s favorite lyricists, John Donne (1573-1631) so famously wrote:
“'No man is an iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee....'”
Eric Christopher Perry
04 October 2016