Golden Age of English Song
Beloved MASTERPIECE series All Creatures Great and Small so vividly evokes the Yorkshire Dales in the early twentieth century. In anticipation of the release of the third season on January 8 at 8 pm on WILL-TV, we thought we'd help transport you to that same era with a selection of some of the greatest English art songs. Read on to learn more about the Golden Age of English Song and listen to a specially curated Spotify playlist of songs by Roger Quilter, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and more sung by some of the best interpreters of the genre. (Don’t worry if you don’t have a Spotify account; YouTube videos of each selection will be linked to in the context of this story.)
The Golden Age of English Song lasted from approximately 1900 to the start of World War II in 1939 (where season three of All Creatures picks up). In the late nineteenth century, the genre of the drawing-room ballad reigned supreme. Meant to be sung at home by amateur singers, these songs were not particularly sophisticated either musically or poetically. Composers such as Hubert Parry, Charles Stanford, and Arthur Sullivan (of Gilbert and Sullivan fame) sought to raise the musical standard of English song, but it was Edward Elgar who created a sea change (as it were) with his orchestral song cycle for mezzo-soprano, Sea Pictures, which premiered in late 1899.
Sea Pictures ushered in an English art song renaissance, bringing renewed interest and artistic excellence to the genre that hadn’t been seen since the baroque era with the lute songs of John Dowland, Henry Purcell, and John Blow.
The generation of composers after Elgar saw the beginning of the golden age in earnest. However, this renaissance was soon interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. Many composers saw active service. For instance, George Butterworth was an incredibly promising young composer who had already written several song cycles of note, including A Shropshire Lad (“The Lads in Their Hundreds”), before he was killed at the age of 31 at the Battle of the Somme.
Though composer Ivor Gurney survived the war, his psyche did not emerge unscathed. He was institutionalized for the last fifteen years of his life and died of tuberculosis at the age of 47 while a patient at the City of London Mental Hospital. He still left behind several songs of profound beauty and intense emotion, “Sleep” being the most famous among them.
Although he was already 42 when the war broke out, Ralph Vaughan Williams served as a wagon orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps and later an artillery officer. Interested in English folk music at time when not many were, Vaughan Williams initiated the trend of the “English pastoral style,” which drew upon English folk music idioms and songs (see “Silent Noon” and “Wither Must I Wander”). This English pastoral style would influence instrumental music as well, dominating British music for much of the first half of the twentieth century.
The music of Roger Quilter, a contemporary of Vaughan Williams, is also decidedly English in flavor. Quilter had a unique gift for writing appealing vocal lines that enhance the rhythm of the words instead of bending them awkwardly to fit a melody. He had a particular affinity for William Shakespeare and Percy Bysshe Shelley, as in “Love’s Philosophy.” (See also "Fair House of Joy".)
Gerald Finzi was another great setter of Shakespearean poetry, as evidenced by one of his most popular song cycles, Let Us Garlands Bring ("It was a lover and his lass"). However, the poet he turned to most frequently was Thomas Hardy, using his poetry for six of his nine song cycles (e.g., “The Clock of the Years” from Earth, Air and Rain).
Other prominent composers of English song include John Ireland, who lent many of his songs an impressionistic quality, as exemplified by the sea-shanty-like “Sea Fever.” Peter Warlock also wrote over 150 atmospheric songs (e.g., “My Own Country”), and Herbert Howells, renowned for his choral works, left several solo songs of distinction (e.g., “King David”). Michael Head, though slightly lesser-known, also left behind a charming oevre of songs, including his 1923 cycle Songs of the Countryside ("Sweet Chance").
Benjamin Britten ushered in a new era of English song as the naiveté of the English pastoral style fell out of favor after the Second World War. A pupil of Frank Bridge (see “Love Went A-riding”), Britten wrote 200 songs, including 60 folk song arrangements (e.g., “O Waly, Waly”). In these arrangements, the vocal melody is largely left unaltered, but he puts his trademark harmonic stamp on the piano accompaniments, which become increasingly discordant and complex with each stanza.