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Ian Bostridge & Dame Sarah Connolly

Ian Bostridge and Dame Sarah Connolly in front of a Barbican tower

Chausson’s beautiful song cycle Poeme de l’amour et de lar mer is a revealing companion to Vaughan Williams’s quintessentially English pastoral idyll, On Wenlock Edge, as Harriet Smith explains.

In contrast to the text of the Poème de l’amour, there’s no doubting the quality of the poetry in Vaughan Williams’s On Wenlock Edge, which sets six poems from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad – a cycle which was to prove irresistible to British composers from George Butterworth to Lennox Berkeley. On Wenlock Edge was among the earliest musical responses, completed in 1909, a mere 13 years after the poems were published. They marked an important moment for the composer, being the first work to emerge after Vaughan Williams had spent a three-month stint in Paris, studying with Ravel. Although by now in his thirties, he was still struggling to find his authentic voice and Ravel paid him the rare compliment that among his pupils, he was the only one ‘not to write my music’. 

Vaughan Williams’s initial idea was a cycle for voice and piano but how much more potent (und unorthodox) is the addition of a string quartet, greatly increasing the available colour palette. Housman’s subject matter is frequently based around love and loss, and the commemoration of young soldiers guilelessly going off to die in foreign fields was to prove horribly prescient.

In On Wenlock Edge the composer delights in the many opportunities for word-painting, from the gale depicted in the woods in the eponymous opening song, which mirrors the stormy emotions of both the poet himself and the protagonist, a Roman centurion. Vivid too is the way that the composer conveys the bells in ‘Bredon Hill’, which initially peal joyously but ultimately sound a funeral knell as we move from summer to winter, and with it the death of hope. Vaughan Williams understands too the brilliant irony of the brief fourth song, ‘Oh, when I was in love with you’. In the conversation between the living and the dead in ‘Is my team ploughing?’ – one of the most poignant of all the poems in A Shropshire Lad – Vaughan Williams responds with an almost operatic sense of drama, while the composer creates a true sense of transcendence in his final setting ‘Clun’, a poem full of resignation. It’s no surprise that the premiere of On Wenlock Edge on 15 November 1909 signalled the arrival of a major new British voice.

What a loss Ernest Chausson’s premature death was at just 44 in a cycling accident. Had he lived maybe he’d have been the man to solve the problem facing every French composer of the time – how to absorb Wagnerism within a wholly French idiom. He forms a link between César Franck, his teacher, and Debussy, his protégé and friend. He had in common with Wagner a fascination with epic themes, frequently mythological (as in his sole opera Le Roi Arthus), as well as a lusciousness to his harmonic language, and a heightened sense of yearning in his vocal writing. 

These qualities come together to astoundingly moving effect in the Poème de l’amour et de la mer, an ambitious half-hour work originally construed as a song-cycle for voice and orchestra. Like many of Wagner’s music dramas, too, it was a long time in the making: Chausson tussled with it for much of the 1880s, finally finishing it in 1890, though even then he was not entirely happy, and made a further revision in 1893. Part of that struggle may have been down to its unorthodox form, with two vocal movements separated by a purely instrumental inner section. 

The text comes from a set of poems by his friend Maurice Bouchor, who was only 20 at the time – and which might help explain their relatively banal sentiments. But like great song-writers from Schubert onwards, Chausson transcends those limitations to spectacular effect. The version we hear this evening was made for voice and piano quintet by Franck Villard. He was born in 1966 and, like Chausson, studied at the Paris Conservatoire and has since worked widely as a conductor and composer. In his arrangement it is the strings who largely take on the part of the orchestra, while the piano frequently duets with the voice, to potent effect. For the brief, purely instrumental, interlude between the two main movements Villard picks up on Chausson’s original orchestration which made prominent use of a cello, giving it the main theme accompanied by piano before the other strings appear.

The evocations of the sea in the outer movements are prescient of what Debussy was to achieve a few years later in La mer, and the sense of surging emotions at love lost in the protagonist himself is wonderfully conveyed by music that resists all temptation to resolve, at least until the final few minutes of the piece, which are devastating in their beauty. 

© Harriet Smith

Programme and performers

Ralph Vaughan Williams On Wenlock Edge
1 ‘On Wenlock Edge’
2 ‘From far, from eve and morning’
3 ‘Is my team ploughing?’
4 ‘Oh, when I was in love with you’
5 ‘Bredon Hill’
6 ‘Clun’

Ernest Chausson Poème de l’amour et de la mer (arr Franck Villard)
1 ‘La fleur des eaux’ (The flower of the waters)
2 Interlude
3 ‘La mort de l’Amour’ (The death of Love)

Ian Bostridge tenor

Dame Sarah Connolly mezzo-soprano

Julius Drake piano

Carducci Quartet

Artist biographies