Not Just Hey Nonny No! Some Thoughts on a Career Accompanying English Song

Andrew West | August 2019 | London

When I was a student at the Academy, English song was regarded as very much the poor relation of German Lieder and French mélodies. The German tradition unfolded in a long and glorious line from Schubert and Schumann to Schoenberg and Berg, exploring the human condition in music which was full of emotional depth – and immortal tunes. Later on, the great French school – Fauré, Debussy and Ravel – brought transparency, sensuousness and refinement of colour. With composers such as these, the piano parts were unsurprisingly as rewarding to play as the vocal lines were to sing.

English song, by contrast, seemed provincial and timid. The arrogance of youth induced in me a lazy approach in my playing, as though none of this music were really worth serious exploration: on one side floated polite settings of Elizabethan ditties and pastoral trivia, while on the other lurked the horrors of the English Romantics, their textures frequently thick as pudding, with harmonies fatally weakened by endless added 6ths and 7ths. There were prizes not only for English song in general, but also specifically for performances of works by Michael Head and John Ireland, well-crafted but indubitably not of the first rank. And so I played it all half-heartedly, with a superior, patronising detachment, and the result of course was that it sounded unconvincing.

Two comments changed this attitude. The first was a chance remark from my teacher John Streets, that the weaker the piece of music, the more committed to it you had to be – it was the job of the performer to make it work. The second comment cast English song itself in a whole new light, and came from the great tenor Robert Tear in a masterclass on Roger Quilter’s Songs of Sorrow. “You must play this as though you believe in it completely”, he said, for then its power would be revealed, and so our opinion of it would be radically revised.

This immediately made sense, and I have been performing English song ever since. In fact, I first worked on two of the great twentieth century song cycles, Winter Words by Benjamin Britten, and The Heart’s Assurance by Michael Tippett, with Professor Nancy Yuen, Head of Vocal Studies at the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts, when we were students together in London!

There are several reasons why I have come to enjoy it so much.

First, most of my audiences understand English as their first language, so communication of the text is much more immediate. Most performers do not perhaps give this fact enough consideration. There are venues in the big cities and major British music festivals, where an appreciative crowd will sell out any good song recital; elsewhere, however, the story is quite different – promoters are fearful of putting on Lieder or mélodies, as audiences wish neither to spend their evening baffled by foreign texts, nor to strain their eyes reading translations.

Second, I very quickly discovered just how much great repertoire there actually is. From Purcell in the seventeenth century to Thomas Adès and Harrison Birtwistle today, the range of invention and the exhilaration of the technical and musical challenges make for hugely rewarding repertoire.

And third, I have had the good fortune to work over many years with some of the foremost British song singers of our time, such as the tenor Mark Padmore and baritone Roderick Williams.

The exploration of the poem is for me where the real work on the song begins. Of course, I will probably play through the notes first to get an idea of how it all sounds, but the inspiration for the song is very obviously the pre-existing poem. I do believe that by digging into the words – not just superficially understanding them, but really searching for the moods and feelings underneath – we have a better chance of seeing what it is that has excited the composer.

That is not to say that the poem and the song are saying exactly the same thing, one in words, the other in sound. A few months ago I was involved in a fascinating series at the Aldeburgh Festival. Founded by Benjamin Britten in 1948, the festival has a long tradition of presenting his music to fairly knowledgeable audiences, but it was the great idea of Mark Padmore to redirect the spotlight to focus on the words, and to call the series Poetry and Music. At each of the five events, a living poet was invited to lead us in discussion of a different Britten song cycle: Did his music emphasise and match the highlights of the poem? Or was the music sometimes so brilliant that we stopped paying attention to the words? Were there complex ideas in the text that the music failed to grasp?

Here I think we begin to reach the heart of the matter when it comes to setting poetry. Poetry condenses thought into a shortened form of words, and the more sophisticated and complex the thought, the more difficult it is to illustrate it successfully with music. Take, for example, Britten’s setting of John Donne’s Holy Sonnets. These poems are sometimes notoriously hard to unravel, even when read carefully and slowly on the printed page. But to make its point, music must choose a clear and direct interpretation of the words, because it is a temporal art form that does not allow us to stop and consider subtle or contradictory ideas. For all their dazzling musical effect, I felt Britten had sometimes oversimplified Donne’s poems, whereas in other cycles, such as the Songs and Proverbs of William Blake, the surface simplicity of the text allows him to reach inside to the darkness within, and produce music of enormous power.

Whatever reservations I may have had about some of the Britten settings, they did have the advantage of being familiar to our audience. I have also given world premiere performances of song cycles with both Mark and Roddy, where the challenge is not to stimulate our audience to listen to a familiar work in a fresh way, but to lead them through a new one as helpfully as possible. The basic discipline is always the same: first of all, learn the notes with care, shape the phrases and enunciate the text. But knowing what it is that we want to communicate is even more important in a contemporary work. Whereas a Schubert song may at least guarantee reasonably pleasant sounds, even to a listener who doesn’t understand German, a brand new song may be much less friendly – the performers must really know what the composer is trying to get at, for if we are only following the instructions on the page, we risk boring our audience and losing their attention. The best I hope to achieve with a completely new work is to make the audience want to hear it again because this is my own test as a listener. I hope to instil some interest that will leave the audience asking questions, particularly as new music has often become hard to grasp at first contact.

One of the main advantages of recording unfamiliar works, as opposed to hearing them in a concert hall, is obviously that this gets around the problem of the sounds vanishing forever once the performance is over. I recently completed a recording of all the English Lyrics of Sir Hubert Parry, in a three-CD project led by the soprano Susan Gritton. There are seventy-four of these songs, of which not more than a handful are well known. Given the wonderful singers on this project – Susan, Sarah Fox, James Gilchrist and Roderick Williams – and the fine working conditions, it was a great pleasure to be involved, and such a project has many virtues. The record company is interested because there is a gap in the catalogue (no one has done it before) ; the artists get to explore and discover a lot of music that we are not familiar with ; and so does our potential audience.

However, I can’t help feeling that it is all a bit unsatisfactory. The end result is a CD, or in this case three CDs, each with about twenty-five songs, all by Parry – a strange way to listen to them, and certainly not what the composer intended. In addition to which, the busy schedules of the singers, and the economic reality, tend to mean that we may meet only two or three times before each recording, so we are to some extent discovering the music for ourselves during the recording, which is not very consistent with what I said earlier about preparation! Even in such apparently unpromising circumstances, though, the music can still take flight, providing the artists can find the commitment and adrenaline of a performance in an empty studio in front of a microphone, rather than facing a packed concert hall.

Certainly, experience has taught me the value of that early advice from John Streets and Robert Tear, that we must play English song with energy and belief. The legacy of English song is a great one and it is to be treasured and shared as widely as possible, and it has been a thrill and a privilege to be a part of this process throughout my career.

Andrew West is known internationally as a song-accompanist and chamber musician. His regular duo partners include singers Benjamin Appl, Emma Bell, Robert Murray, and Roderick Williams, flautist Emily Beynon, and clarinettist Emma Johnson. He appears regularly with the tenor Mark Padmore. Their concerts have included staged performances of Schubert’s Winterreise in London and New York, and the world premiere of Harrison Birtwistle’s song-cycle, Songs from the Same Earth, at the 2013 Aldeburgh Festival. They opened the 2016/17 recital series at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Andrew has been one of the artistic directors of the Nuremberg International Chamber Music Festival since 2005. promoting a wide range of British music, from Purcell to Adès, performed by leading European singers and instrumentalists. He is Chairman and Artistic Director of the Kirckman Concert Society, which for over 50 years has auditioned exceptional young musicians and offered them London debut recitals at the Southbank Centre or Wigmore Hall. He also served on the jury of the 2014 Kathleen Ferrier Competition. Recordings include Strauss Lieder with Emma Bell; music by Les Six with Emily Beynon; Schubert’s Die schöne Müllerin with Robert Murray; and most recently a three-volume CD of the English Lyrics by Parry, featuring Sarah Fox, James Gilchrist, Susan Gritton and Roderick Williams. Andrew has worked with violinist Sarah Chang in Britain and Ireland, and performed with cellist Jean-Guihen Queyras at many of the major European halls. He won second prize at the Geneva International Piano Competition and has since made solo tours of South Africa, South America and the United States. Andrew has an MA (Hons) from Clare College, Cambridge, where he read English before studying under Christopher Elton and John Streets at the Royal Academy of Music. He was Pianist-in-Residence at Lancaster University from 1993–99. He is currently professor of chamber music and accompaniment at both the RAM and GSMD.