One Foot in Eden—conductor’s note

“Of one thing we can be certain; what Hanslick called ‘the morganatic marriage of words and music’ is the least destructible of all musical elements. The marriages may be happy or unhappy, but, surely as birds must sing, so long as words exist and man is capable of feeling, there will be song.”—Gerald Finzi, 1953.

This is a program of contrasts: between the celebration of spring in Le Jeune’s Reveci Venir du Printemps and Britten’s Succession of the Four Sweet Months, and the autumnal melancholy of Finzi’s part-songs; between suffering and paradise, between joy and sadness. Much of the music we will perform for you tonight might be called ‘pastoral’, a category it has unfortunately become fashionable to mock—on hearing Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral Symphony, Sir Thomas Beecham exclaimed ‘a city life for me!’. To do so, though, is to ignore a great richness of beautiful, introspective and delicate repertoire.

At the conceptual heart of this evening’s program is Nicholas Maw’s extraordinary setting of Edwin Muir’s poem ‘One Foot in Eden’. Muir’s poem holds the world in a delicate balance between suffering and paradise, and the power of the poetry is perfectly matched by the taut harmony and intricate textures of Maw’s music, scored for eight-part choir and four soloists.

An immediately apparent characteristic of all the works in this program is the importance of the text. At first glance this seems an obvious thing to say; I challenge you to find any choral conductor who would not say this about every work ever performed by singers! But this is a special case: Benjamin Britten and Gerald Finzi in particular were vocal proponents of the importance of sensitive settings of English poetry and prose to music. Not all composers working with English texts have the same regard for the words: think of Handel’s original setting of ‘incorruptible’ in Messiah (‘in-COR-rup-TI-ble’), for example.

Britten was a champion of the revival of Henry Purcell’s music in Britain and was particularly impressed by his setting of English texts. ‘I had never realised, before I first met Purcell’s music, that words could be set with such ingenuity, with such colour,’ he wrote. Britten’s Flower Songs, of which we will perform three today, are a masterpiece in concise writing for choirs, with impeccable attention to the detail of each poem.

Finzi, too, had a great affinity for the English language, amassing a library of over 3000 volumes of poetry, philosophy, and literature. His intricate and finely-wrought composition style is immediately evident in his setting of the poetry of Robert Bridges for three-, four-, and five-part choir, with its hint of melancholy evident throughout.

Finzi’s musical career was cruelly cut short, firstly by World War II, which delayed the premiere of Dies Natalis at England’s Three Choirs Festival (one of the world’s oldest classical choral music festivals and a platform that might otherwise have firmly established Finzi as a major English composer), and then by Hodgkin’s disease. He died in Oxford in 1956, the day after his remarkable Cello Concerto was broadcast for the first time—an enormous loss to English music. (Given the Eden imagery of our program, I should note that Finzi was also a devoted apple-grower, and saved a number of rare English apple varieties from extinction.)

Exquisite word-painting has long been a feature of English song. There are some particularly beautiful examples to listen for in this evening’s program—in Nightingales, Finzi sets the line ‘among the flowers, which in that heavenly air bloom the year long’ using layer on layer of contrasting rhythms (semiquavers set against crotchets and triplet quavers) to create the aural equivalent of a shimmering heat-haze. And in One Foot in Eden Still, I Stand, listen for Maw’s wonderfully understated setting of the final couplet: ‘strange blessings never in Paradise fall from these beclouded skies’.

One of the delights of working with the Oriana Chorale is the group’s flexibility and sense of adventure in dealing with diverse repertoire: from the eight-part cathedral anthems of Harris and Wood to the delicate three-part construction of Finzi’s I have loved flowers that fade; from the unmistakably modern harmonic clusters of Whitacre’s Flower Songs to the Victorian solidity of Elgar—an unaccompanied chamber choir really is the most versatile of musical ensembles and it has, as always, been a great pleasure to work with Oriana in preparing this program for you.

—David Mackay, April 2011

One Foot in Eden—program:

  1. I praise the tender flower (Finzi)
  2. I have loved flowers that fade (Finzi)
  3. My spirit sang all day (Finzi)
  4. Reveci venir du printemps (Le Jeune)
  5. I hide myself (Whitacre)
  6. To daffodils (Britten)
  7. The succession of the four sweet months (Britten)
  8. The shower (Elgar)
  9. One foot in Eden still, I stand (Maw)—soloists: Emma Griffiths soprano, Heather McIntyre alto, John Virgoe tenor, Michael Tatchell bass.

interval

  1. Es ist ein Ros entsprungen (Sandström)
  2. Hail, gladdening light (Wood)
  3. Faire is the heaven (Harris)
  4. Clear and gentle stream (Finzi)
  5. Nightingales (Finzi)
  6. Haste on, my joys! (Finzi)
  7. The evening primrose (Britten)
  8. Go, lovely rose (Whitacre)—soloists: Claire Parkhill soprano, Daniel Sanderson tenor
  9. With a lily in your hand (Whitacre)
  10. Linden Lea (Vaughan Williams)