1946, Joseph Williams
Penguin Music Magazine, 1947
Six Poems of Seamus O'Sullivan
2. The Poplars
3. The Cottager
4. The Dustman
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
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 An eighth, unpublished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".
"I think these are my swan songs as far as solo songs
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.
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"