Published

1946, Joseph Williams

 

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Robin Hull,
Penguin Music Magazine, 1947

 

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Six Poems of Seamus O'Sullivan (1944)
R85

1. Evening
2. The Poplars
3. The Cottager
4. The Dustman
5. Lullaby
6. The Herdsman


"The six Seamus O'Sullivan Poems I did a good bit of in the public lounge of Wynn's Hotel in the centre of Dublin"

(Letter to Leonard Duck)

Seamus O'Sullivan was the pen name for James Sullivan Starkey (1879-1958), the Dublin born writer who founded the 'Dublin Magazine' in 1923 which he edited until the year of his death. He was one of several Irish literary friends of Moeran, and his 1944 setting of six O'Sullivan poems for solo voice and piano is one of the highlights of Moeran's song output.

The Six Poems of Seamus O'Sullivan came at a time when Moeran was at a creative peak - the same year saw his Sinfonietta and Overture for a Masque, the Violin Concerto and Rhapsody for Piano and Orchestra were only just behind him, and he was about to scale the heights of his Concerto and Sonata for Cello of 1945 and 1947 respectively. These were golden years indeed, and the O'Sullivan songs fit perfectly into this as superb examples of Moeran's songwriting skills.

Moeran did in fact set seven O'Sullivan poems to music at this time, with "Invitation to Autumn" appearing separately. An eighth, unpublished and undated setting of O'Sullivan's "If there be any Gods" survives as a pencil manuscript, the first page of which can be seen in Geoffrey Self's book, "The Music of E J Moeran".

Letter, 1943


"I think these are my swan songs as far as solo songs are concerned"

Of the six songs published together there is a definite feeling of wistfulness, or as Self suggests, "a haunted, fey feeling...autumnal in mood...an imagery of aging and transience". The piano accompaniment is clean and sparse by comparison to his earlier style (none of the "mush of Delius-line chords" he was so keen to purge in 1930) - the opening of The Cottager, for example consists of a single, simple chord followed by seveal bars of unharmonised solo melody before the singer enters, almost unaccompanied.

Moeran was about to entend his orchestral technique in setting the Sinfonietta for a Haydn sized orchestra, successfully refining his mastery of orchestration to get the most out of deliberately limited resources. One detects a similar 'less is more' philosophy informing these songs settings, as if at times Moeran is deliberately paring down his earlier tendencies to see how far he could move in the opposite direction. Of the final song, The Herdsman, he wrote to Peers Coetmore in 1943:

"The one I have done today is strange; it is called The Herdsman and is about slow moving cattle. As the vocal part is largely on one note, it is possible it will not find favour with our brilliantly intelligent English singers!"

It must be said that Moeran did not hold singers in very high regard! Yet Moeran uses a near single note idiom to great effect when performed sensitively, allowing his performer a brief moment central to the song in which to shine - "Oh happy meadows and trees and rath and hedges" - as the piano breaks out of its eerie bitonal sparsity to throw a ray of sunlight over the proceedings - a typical Moeran device.

Of the other songs in this collection, Evening starts out in a warm sunny major key which drifts in and out of darker tonalities, capturing perfectly in music the onset of the "twilight and the darkening day".

The Poplars seems to recall something of the Norfolk in Moean's use of melody, whereas The Dustman, told from the perspective of one watching through a window at night is a brief musical description, first setting the insomniac wandering through his house to a languid atmosphere, before sparking into life as he spots the dustman, already up and about and doing his work.

Finally, Lullaby, the penultimate song, alternates between a gently rocking piano accompaniment and a dream sequence section that is more a depiction of the lyrics - "dream of the wild winds that wrestle in the night", while the vocal melody slips in and out of tonalities, its wide leaps contrasting with The Herdsman that follows it.

 


 

 

"a haunted, fey feeling...
autumnal in mood...
an imagery of aging and transience"

©2001 The Worldwide Moeran Database