To those who know the music of John Sanders (1933-2004) it may come as a surprise that he wrote a number of fine songs that follow in the footsteps of Ivor Gurney and Gerald Finzi. I guess that most listeners would associate him with the organ loft at Gloucester Cathedral and the Three Choirs Festival where he conducted for over a quarter century. As a composer, he is perhaps best known for his liturgical music – in particular the St Mark’s Passion and the fine Reproaches. For organ he has given a Toccata and a less imposing but no less impressive Soliloquy. However, he has turned his pen to more secular matters with some four song cycles. To my knowledge, none of them have been recorded in full.
The song cycle The Beacon was commissioned by James Hoyland for the Painswick Festival . It was written in 1993 to commemorate the sadly underrated composer C. W. Orr who was a Gloucestershire man, having been born in Cheltenham in 1893. Orr moved to London and studied at the Guildhall School of Music. It was during this period that he came under the spell of Frederick Delius and Peter Warlock. But after a period of ill health he was advised to leave the City. In 1929 he moved to Painswick in the Cotswolds where he lived until his death in 1976. I assume that both composers were on friendly terms!
The Beacon has four songs:
1. On Painswick Beacon: F.W Harvey
2. When I go down the Gloucester lanes: James Elroy Flecker
3. Cotswold Choice; Frank Mansell
4. Painswick Beacon; E. R. P. Berryman
Unfortunately only two of the four poems have been recorded by Roderick Williams and Ian Burnside. All four songs celebrate the Gloucestershire countryside.
F.W. Harvey wrote his poem after returning home from a long time in a P.O.W. camp during the Great War. The whole poem exudes the relief, the joy and the sadness of retuning to the place that he loved best. The setting emphasises the sense of wonder or perhaps even fear as to why he has escaped death when so many of his comrades died in battle. Yet it also presents the poet’s thanks that he is looking at his beloved Gloucestershire once more. It is an emotion that anyone who has been far from home can relate too – but the First World War connection obviously heightens the sentiment. The poet’s words assume that he is on top of Painswick Beacon surveying the landscape below. On a clear day it is said that five counties can be seen. Painswick Beacon itself is actually an Iron Age fort high on a hill which has impressive views over the surrounding countryside.
Here lie counties five in a wagon wheel.
There quick Severn like a silver eel
Wriggles through pastures green and pale stubble
There, sending up its quiet coloured bubble
Of earth, May Hill floats on a flaming sky
And, marvelling at all, forgetting trouble,
Here – home again – stand I
A small piano figure opens On Painswick Beacon. In just a few notes Sanders manages to create an impression of a summer’s day. When the soloist enters, it is with a strange half sung, half spoken melody: it heightens the sense of awe and wonder at the view. There is a little climax when the singer reiterates ‘May Hill – floats on a flaming day’. Perhaps ‘flaming day’ reminds the poet of the horrors of the battlefield. The remainder of the song is a reflective. He muses over the words ‘And marvelling at all’ repeating it twice. He quietly sings about ‘forgetting trouble’ about forgetting the things of the past. The song ends with a thrice repeated ‘Home again’ with a tenderness that belies the songs genesis. The final 'again' is held for an achingly long time.
Cotswold Choice is really quite a charming song that is certainly not quite as profound or thought provoking as On Painswick Beacon. Of course the main effect of the poem is Frank Mansell’s presentation of a litany of Gloucestershire village names that meant so much to the poet. Of course the names have been chosen to give movement and alliteration to the poem's construction – but the point is well made. Interestingly, Mansell makes reference to a certain hamlet called 'Paradise' – this is the same place that inspired Herbert Howells to compose the impressionistic Paradise Rondel. Of course there has to be one place that the poet loves best of all –
At times I’ve loved them all,
But if by chance I die,
Then set me down in Sheepscombe,
In Sheepscombe I would lie.
The piano opens the proceedings with a longish introduction. The soloist enters with the first of the five lists. Each one is terminated by a wistful phrase – when he points out all the villages “In quest of Love I’ve been” or perhaps where “Gay have I gone and sad” or maybe recalling “Tales too long to tell.” Yet the nub of the matter is the fact that he has “At times loved them all.” Obviously his favourite spot is Sheepscombe (pronounced as Shepscombe) and it is where “But if by chance I die” he would like to be laid to rest. The final ‘lie’ is a very long held note. The piano closes with a short modulation to the major key.
A performance of this song cycle was given on the 9th August at the 2004 Three Choirs Festival along with works by Gerald Finzi, Charles Ives, George Dyson, Ian Venables and Trevor Hold. The recital was given by the baritone Roderick Williams with Ian Burnside as pianist in St Mary De Lode Church, Gloucester.
John Sanders died in 2004. Seen & Heard on MusicWeb International noted that “touchingly, the Festival honoured him this year with a concert of his music. Williams and Burnside performed The Beacon with a lyricism that captured the charm of the settings and their wistful undertones.”
‘Severn & Somme:’ Songs by Gurney, Howells, Sanders, Wilson and Venables. Roderick Williams, baritone and Susie Allan, piano. SOMM CD 057