Published

Novello, 1935

 

Recordings

Hugh Mackey,
Ulster Orch., Renaissance Singers, Vernon Handley
(1990, CD )

 

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Nocturne (1934)
R70

Grez-sur-Loing 3.1.1935

My Dear Moeran,

The poem is beautiful and I am sure it must have inspired you to give the best and most intimate and tender...you have in your heart. Please dedicate it to the memory of Frederick, it is a tribute which I know would have given him great pleasure.

Jelka Delius.

The Nocturne stands at a crossroads in Moeran’s career as a composer. Before Delius died in 1934 Moeran had already accepted a commission from the Norwich Philharmonic Society, but seems to have been stuck for an idea until the poet Robert Nichols gave him some lines from an unfinished verse drama entitled ‘Don Juan Tenorio, the Great’. Why this should have happened remains unclear, unless it is reasonable to speculate that within the framework of Don Juan’s ‘Address to the Sunset’ lies Nichols’s own eulogy for Delius - he knew Delius well. It is essentially a poem of twilight, evoking much of the atmosphere that is to be found in Delius’s own settings of texts by Nietzche and Walt Whitman. But how did Nichols want Moeran to respond? It is indeed rare that any composer should so quickly put aside work on a symphony in order to satisfy the plea of a poet to set his words to music; yet throughout the late summer and autumn of 1934 Moeran took up residence in Nichols’s own Sussex home so that he might complete the Nocturne. Once finished, he sent the piece to Delius’s wife Jelka, receiving in turn what seemed to be the ultimate approval.

There is evidence to support the fact that it was much needed. From his student days at the Royal College of Music Moeran had fallen in love with with the music of Delius and, in the company of Philip Heseltine [AKA Peter Warlock], himself a Delius ‘disciple’, he had the opportunity of visiting Grez on at least two occasions. It is, perhaps, a telling reflection on Heseltine’s relationship with his friend that Moeran, always the less dominant of the two but probably the one with more humility, was left to be ‘mislaid’ (Heseltine’s own word) in a taxi and so never got to meet his idol. Fate was to deal a crueller blow in 1929, when, with the invitation to meet Delius at Beecham’s Delius Festival in London accepted, Moeran suffered an injury which was to confine him to bed for the next eighteen months. It became a time of self-appraisal, of realising that the years spent with Heseltine, although fun, had rendered him creatively sterile.

The sudden death of Heseltine in 1930 was a bitter blow, but, in retrospect, the answer to Moeran’s dilemma - how to go about re-establishing the reputation that he had made over six years earlier on the British musical scene.

"Delius would have loved to set Robert Nichols’s poem. Moeran does not, however, try to tell us how Delius would have done it", wrote the critic Basil Maine after the first performance of the Nocturne in 1935. In the 1933 Songs of Springtime Moeran had already written a kind of ‘choral chamber music’ but here the treatment is broader, the canvas a larger one. Although the work is short, it encapsulates much of what was to come - the Symphony, the two concertos and the 1939 choral suite Phyllida and Corydon.

In Moeran’s words, "The Nocturne should be regarded as a kind of tone poem evolved around Nichols’s lines, from which both its form and inspiration have been derived. As a preliminary to hearing this music, the listener is advised to read the poem carefully through, allowing its mood and meaning to sink in, rather than to attempt to follow it in performance as a literal line by line "setting" of the words."

Exquisite stillness! What serenities
Of earth and air! How bright atop the wall
The stonecrop’s fire and beyond the precipice
How huge, how hushed the primrose evenfall!
How softly, too, the white crane voyages
Yon honeyed height of warmth and silence,
whence
He can look down on islet, lake and shore
And crowding woods and voiceless promontories
Or, further gazing, view the magnificence
Of cloud- like mountains and of mountainous cloud
Or ghostly wrack below the horizon rim
Not even his eye has vantage to explore.
Now, spirit, find out wings and mount to him,
Wheel where he wheels, where he is soaring soar.
Hang where now he hangs in the planisphere -
Evening’s first star and golden as a bee
In the sun’s hair - for happiness is here!

Robert Nichols
(Address to the Sunset,
from ‘Don Juan Tenorio, the Great’)

Notes by Barry Marsh

 

 

"It is essentially a poem of twilight, evoking much of the atmosphere that is to be found in Delius’s own settings of texts by Nietzche and Walt Whitman"

©2001 The Worldwide Moeran Database