The name of Arthur Somervell is inevitably associated with his Cycle of songs from Tennyson's 'Maud' and, indeed, it was as a song composer that he particularly made his mark. But he also composed a symphony ( Thalassa, premièred by Artur Nikisch, no less) whose slow movement was often played on occasions of national mourning; a violin concerto commissioned and championed by the Hungarian-born violinist Adila Fachiri; a concertstück , first performed by Fachiri's sister Jelly d'Arányi; a delightful clarinet quintet; and various other pieces including the 'Normandy' Variations for piano and orchestra which, with the Violin Concerto, was sufficiently highly-regarded to earn a place in Tovey's celebrated Essays in musical analysis. The Concertstück's publisher once told Somervell that 'if I could only put the name of Max Bruch or Saint-Saëns on this work, every fiddler in the world would play it'. But, as Somervell himself commented: 'The word had gone forth that I was a song writer, and therefore incapable of any other form of musical expression'.
Arthur Somervell was born at Windermere in the Lake District on 5 June 1863. His father was the founder of Somervell Brothers manufacturers of K (for 'Kendal') Shoes and Arthur was the youngest of six sons. He followed the unsurprising route from public school to Cambridge (Uppingham and King's in his case) and at Cambridge came under the influence of Stanford and met many visiting musicians, his favourite being Joseph Joachim. Somervell was all set to go from Cambridge to one of the London music colleges, but on Stanford's advice went instead to Germany to study at the Berlin Hochschüle für Musik and later wrote that 'after such musical starvation as I had suffered all my life, I felt rather like a dog suddenly let loose in a large field full of rabbits'. He studied with Friedrich Kiel (1821-1885), who had also been Stanford's teacher, and Woldemar Bargiel (1828-1897), but the real benefit of this period in Berlin was the opportunity to soak up a vast number of musical performances mainly operas, but also concerts, at one of which he heard Brahms conduct the first-ever performance of his Third Symphony.
Back in England in 1885 Somervell entered the Royal College of Music and again Stanford unselfishly suggested that his former pupil should study composition with Parry, and be all the better for a different mentor. After a year at the Royal College he began to make his living teaching and composing choral works mostly, for the many festivals held at that time in such places as Birmingham, Leeds, Norwich and the Three Choirs cities. In 1900 he went to Australia to examine for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music and on his return succeeded Sir John Stainer as Inspector of Music to the Board of Education and saw this appointment as a means of improving musical education in schools. As late as 1924, in the Board of Education's annual report, he was obliged to assert that 'education should fit people to live, not merely to earn a living, and that, by neglecting music, we are seriously handicapping the future of our boys and girls'.
Because of this work (from which he retired, as chief inspector, with a knighthood in 1928) most of Somervell's composing was done during the summer holidays, but he read a great deal on his many journeys by train and with his photographic memory could recite a poem after reading it through only twice, which may explain the discrepancies between some of the words in, for example, his Maud cycle and Tennyson's poem.
The Five songs of innocence (1889) is the earliest music on this recording, setting familiar words by William Blake and showing Somervell's ease at composing for children. In the revised printed edition (1894) 'Piping down the valleys wild' was added as an Introduction but, oddly, has a higher tessitura than the rest and perhaps fits better (as here) at the end.
'The Shepherd's cradle song' was published in 1890 with anonymous words 'from the German'. Perhaps they are by Somervell himself, for he wrote the original words for 'When spring returns' (1904) as well as the English texts for his Handel arrangements, such as 'Silent Worship'. As for the music, one can only agree with Geoffrey Bush that 'Somervell had a gift for writing lullabies'. (1)
Four of Somervell's five song-cycles are represented on this recording and Maud is probably the best-known and most frequently performed (with A Shropshire Lad a close second). The three songs come from the middle of the cycle, of which 'Come into the garden, Maud' is the emotional climax. In 1900 Somervell played the cycle to Hallam, Lord Tennyson, the poet's son then Governor of South Australia who at the end said 'You have set those songs exactly as my father used to read them'. Maud was first performed (at the Salle Erard, London , on 2 November 1899) by Lawrence Rea, but its principal exponent was Harry Plunket Greene, as the composer acknowledged: 'Perhaps I did write the Maud songs, but Harry Greene made them. He had a magical power not only of seeing what the composer meant, but of seeing a great deal more, which the composer also saw when it became crystal clear at the performance'. 'Come into the garden, Maud' is a great outpouring of pent-up emotions, with the scents and sounds of the garden crowding in on the hero's senses, and in the background the dance music of the distant party at Maud's house, to which he has not been invited. The piano part must surely be unequalled by anything else of the time, certainly in Britain .
Love in springtime (1901) is Somervell's only anthology cycle and is perhaps less successful because of this the narrative nature of the others is their strength but 'Young love lies sleeping' is, in Michael Pilkington's opinion, 'a perfect pastorale, quite unforgettable' (2) and has retained its popularity with sopranos!
Somervell was the first composer to set Housman's poems from A Shropshire Lad and one of the few to compose a true cycle, with thematic links between the songs. Although Geoffrey Bush's view is that 'Housman's irony and gritty pessimism are quite beyond the composer's reach' (3) there must be few moments more poignant than the voice's monotoning of 'Into my heart an air that kills' while the piano plays the tune of 'Loveliest of trees'.
James Lee's wife is like his fifth and final cycle, A Broken Arc a setting of poems by Browning and was written for Marie Brema, a regular singer at the Bayreuth Festivals, who in January 1907 wrote to Somervell 'to thank you for entrusting such an exquisitely beautiful work to me'. The accompaniment was originally scored for orchestra, then for string quartet, which is the version heard on this recording.
'Orpheus with his lute' and 'O mistress mine' come from the group of Three new old songs , published in 1927; 'Fain would I change that note', 'The Bargain' and 'Come to me in my dreams' were published as Three songs with piano in 1935. 'Sweet Kate' is a realization of a duet by the Elizabethan composer Robert Jones, to be found in his Musicall Dreame ('Fourth Book of Ayres'), 1609. (4)
© Garry Humphreys, 1998
1 Athlone history of music in Great Britain: the romantic age, 1800-1914 , p. 283
2 Pilkington, Delius, Bridge and Somervell (English solo song: guides to the repertoire', vol. 3), p. 62
3 loc. cit.
4 I am grateful to Michael Pilkington for identifying the original song. Neither its composer nor its origin were disclosed by Somervell.