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Nicola Harrison

Song cannot live without words

9:00, 8th September 2016

Poetry is the quintessence of a moment. It may be the expression of an emotion, a sense of beauty, a sudden flash of faith, passion or awe, but the poet is able to capture this moment and fashion it into words.

Once written, a poem will sit, sometimes for centuries, shut up inside a book of verse. Then one day, a composer will hove into view and, seeking inspiration, will decide to pick it up and open it. Page after page of lovely poetry is revealed, and bingo! New worlds open up, the imagination is given a good shaking and the process of setting words to music begins. For verse is the raw material of song, and without it, a song can never be anything more than a hummed tune.

Vol 1Song is exotic. It is the child of not one, but two entirely different consciousnesses brought together, often across centuries, into a third art form that both conjoins and makes new artistic departures. And it cannot live without words, for words are both the impulse and the foundation of a song. They also provide the meaning, context and character of the song, and supply its phrasing, metre, rhythm and dynamics.

Yet how often we forget this order of things. Those of us brought up on a musical rather than a literary diet will naturally tend to think in dots rather than words and perceive the music first. In the immensely demanding process of learning to sing, we forget that a song is driven by the words and instead we see the words as a vehicle for carrying the song.

When preparing a song, the singer might ask all manner of questions about the poem and the poet: what were they thinking and feeling when they wrote these words and how does that relate to the world they lived in? When, where and why was the poem written? Is there a political, geographic or religious context that might shed light on its meaning? What was the prevailing taste of that time and how does this affect style, choice of material and literary reference?

From ploughing the soil to stargazing, from priests to imps and fairies, from death to resurrection, the poems in The Wordsmith’s Guide have been brought to us through music, and when gathered together, they form an entirely unique anthology of their own. Each book is focused on the songs of two composers: Roger Quilter and Ivor Gurney, and each song explored provides narratives, biographies, illustrations and a wealth of detail to create a singer’s almanac that will entice and encourage new interpretations.

Vol 2Writing the book has yielded some extraordinary excursions: from the ins and outs of the English civil war to the strange fate of Shelley’s heart, snatched from his burning corpse on a beach in Viareggio. I have enjoyed the company of Sir Walter Raleigh, stylish and dignified to the last, and that of the amorous and romantic Robert Herrick, permanently on hot bricks for his beloved Julia.

Beauty, sex and love are the stuff of ballads, finding their most violent expression in the rough and murderous terrain of the Scottish Borders, a terrifying universe where even the crows exhibit a grim view of life and strange, dark worlds collide in verse. From there to the symbolism of trees: Shakespeare’s wonderful evergreens, laden with metaphor, and Housman’s scarily prophetic poplars. And thus to the many meanings of the rose, the medieval adoration of the Virgin Mary and the bold lives of the Cavalier poets that were doomed to die in penury.

As the information gathered so the book began to take shape, drawing in fascinating detail from the very different worlds of history, music, biology, geography, sociology, natural history, classical mythology, war, religion, philosophy, politics and, of course romantic love. I hope that this will be a valuable resource for singers, teachers of singing, accompanists and even composers as they work towards their own artistic interpretations.

In all, The Wordsmith’s Guide is an invitation to think differently about the way we approach the singing of English song, to offer a widening understanding of the repertoire and a deeper exploration of the text. For art song, whatever the language it is presented in, is multi-sensory: the magical fusion of not two but many forms. It is seeded in the rich soil of the imagination, rooted in words and brought to flower in song.

The Wordsmith’s Guide to English Song – Poetry, Music & Imagination, Volumes I and II are supported by interactive workshops, study days, and practical workbooks

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