Thursday, October 4, 2018

Songs of Farewell

The October issue of the BBC Classical Music Magazine included a disc with Hubert Parry's Songs of Farewell. And these performance notes  by John Bawden explain:

By the time Parry was composing the Songs of Farewell he knew that he had not long to live. Though they are Parry’s own valediction – he died two years after their completion – they can also be seen as his farewell to the rapidly vanishing world of his youth. Common to all the texts are the contrasting themes of the transitory nature of life and the redeeming power of faith. The motets are to a large extent expressions of personal belief rather than orthodox liturgical works; only the final setting has a recognised sacred text.

The six individual motets are arranged in a carefully organised scheme of developing length and complexity. The first two, for just four vocal parts, are quite short and rhythmically and harmonically relatively straightforward. Here and elsewhere Parry’s liberal use of rests to punctuate phrases and emphasise (sic) aspects of the text is both effective and original. "Never weather-beaten sail" and "There is an old belief" are in five and six parts respectively, and introduce a degree of counterpoint into the texture. The final pair of motets, "At the round earth’s imagined corners" and "Lord, let me know mine end", are significantly longer and call for seven and eight voice parts. The harmony now becomes much more chromatic, the rhythmic figuration more intricate, and the counterpoint more audacious. This treatment of the set as a single, organic entity gives it an intensity and power considerably greater than the sum of its six individual parts. Not surprisingly, Parry’s
Songs of Farewell are widely acknowledged as masterpieces of unaccompanied choral writing.

The second song is by Sir John Davies, who was an attorney and poet, according to the History of Parliament:

In later years, Davies prospered as a lawyer but he never succeeded in obtaining a permanent post in London. In March 1603 he accompanied Lord Hunsdon to the Scottish court. King James, on hearing that the author of Nosce Teipsum had come, is said to have ‘embraced him and conceived a considerable liking for him’. Preferment followed and Davies embarked on a career in Ireland. In 1619 he returned to England to practise as a serjeant-at-law. He published legal works, including digests and reports specifically adapted for Ireland, and made an abridgment of Coke’s reports, published in 1615. Appointed chief justice of the King’s bench in November 1626, he died on 8 Dec., before he had entered upon his new office.

In his later years, he lived at Englefield, Berkshire. His wife, says Aubrey, ‘was a prophetess, or rather witch’ who afterwards published several fanatical works which led to her imprisonment in the Tower for sedition. She foretold Davies’s death by three years, insisting on wearing mourning in the interim. A daughter married Ferdinando Hastings, Lord Hastings, 6th Earl of Huntingdon.
Man, by Sir John Davies. 1569–1626

I KNOW my soul hath power to know all things,
Yet she is blind and ignorant in all:
I know I'm one of Nature's little kings,
Yet to the least and vilest things am thrall.

I know my life 's a pain and but a span;
I know my sense is mock'd in everything;
And, to conclude, I know myself a Man—
Which is a proud and yet a wretched thing.

Even more than John Davies, John Donne struggled to find secure employment and success, especially after he married Ann More clandestinely:

Throughout his middle years he and his wife brought up an ever-increasing family with the aid of relatives, friends, and patrons, and on the uncertain income he could bring in by polemical hackwork and the like. His anxious attempts to gain secular employment in the queen’s household in Ireland, or with the Virginia Company, all came to nothing, and he seized the opportunity to accompany Sir Robert Drury on a diplomatic mission in France in 1612. From these frustrated years came most of the verse letters, funeral poems, epithalamiums, and holy sonnets, as well as the prose treatises Biathanatos (1647), Pseudo-Martyr (1610), and Ignatius his Conclave (1611). . . .

Donne took holy orders in January 1615, having been persuaded by King James himself of his fitness for a ministry “to which he was, and appeared, very unwilling, apprehending it (such was his mistaking modesty) to be too weighty for his abilities.” So writes his first biographer, Izaak Walton, who had known him well and often heard him preach. Once committed to the Church, Donne devoted himself to it totally, and his life thereafter becomes a record of incumbencies held and sermons preached.

His wife died in childbirth in 1617. He was elected dean of St. Paul’s in November 1621, and he became the most celebrated cleric of his age, preaching frequently before the king at court as well as at St. Paul’s and other churches. 160 of his sermons have survived. The few religious poems he wrote after he became a priest show no falling off in imaginative power, yet the calling of his later years committed him to prose, and the artistry of his Devotions and sermons at least matches the artistry of his poems.

Holy Sonnet 7, by John Donne. 1572-1631

At the round earth's imagin'd corners, blow
Your trumpets, angels, and arise, arise
From death, you numberless infinities
Of souls, and to your scatter'd bodies go;
All whom the flood did, and fire shall o'erthrow,
All whom war, dearth, age, agues, tyrannies,
Despair, law, chance hath slain, and you whose eyes
Shall behold God and never taste death's woe.
But let them sleep, Lord, and me mourn a space,
For if above all these my sins abound,
'Tis late to ask abundance of thy grace
When we are there; here on this lowly ground
Teach me how to repent; for that's as good
As if thou'hadst seal'd my pardon with thy blood.

The other poems/selections are "My soul, there is a country" by Henry Vaughan (1622-1695); "Never weather-beaten sail" by Thomas Campion (1622-1695); "There is an old belief" by John Gibson Lockhart (1794-1854), Sir Walter Scott's son-in-law, and Psalm 39, "Lord, let me know mine end".

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