‘East to West’ by Charles Villiers Stanford (1893)

By far the most complex recreation I’ve attempted, this is a section of a setting by Charles Villiers Stanford (1852-1924) of Swinburne’s ‘East to West’. The lyrics were commissioned by Stanford for the ‘Chicago World’s Fair’ or the ‘Chicago Columbian Exposition’ of 1893, but the piece was actually premiered at the Royal Albert Hall on 10 May of that year.[1] It appears that the music never made it to Chicago after its premier, only managing a further performance a bit nearer to home, in Cambridge, a month later.

As I say, this is just the first choral section (of a piano and four-part version, published by Augener & Co.), but hopefully it gives an idea of a piece that was very warmly received at its premier, with Stanford – a Cambridge and Royal College of Music professor and one of the greatest composers of the era – called to the platform by the audience for applause.[2]

It starts with a stately introduction, which the vocalists eventually join, before truly taking off at bar 41, and then turning wonderfully and swiftly melodic after bar 55. After a series of vocal exchanges reminiscent of ringing bells, this increasingly complex piece ends on a rather lovely piano section, though as this was supposed to blend into the next part of the ode, the video then ends rather abruptly.

Where the vocal parts share the words, I have only typed them out once. Where they break, I have given words to each line. It must be said that Swinburne’s lyrics are not exactly inspired, but then they were written to order for an event which perhaps, in turn, he didn’t find that inspiring. It is, however, yet another fine example of Swinburne’s work with the most important composers of the period.

London: Augener & Co, 1893.

[1] The Musical Times, ‘New Poem by Mr. Swinburne’, 1 February, 1893, p. 82.

[2] The Morning Post, ‘Royal Albert Hall’, 11 May 1893.

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Sounding Victorian

The School of English and Drama at Queen Mary, University of London, has published a blog post about this site and the consortium that it’s to become part of, Sounding Victorian. To read this post on AllthingsSED, please click the image below.


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‘The Hounds of Spring’

Muriel Elliot’s setting of Swinburne’s ‘When the Hounds of Spring’ from his Greek tragedy Atalanta in Calydon (1865), must have been hugely dramatic in performance, and not least at its premiere in the extraordinary venue of the Crystal Palace in 1906.

The beat hammers out the rhythm of Swinburne’s words with huge energy. The producer, Elise Fogerty (1865-1945), had long nurtured a desire to ‘recover what I should call the Dionysiac spirit of Greek Drama’, to ‘release a wild ecstasy’ and to give new life to the ‘glory that was Greece’. Combining this desire with her love of Swinburne (she had been in William Poël’s 1899 production of Swinburne’s Locrine) Fogerty researched ancient Greek choric dance and chant ‘from historical evidence’, and with her drama students, tried to perfect a ‘poetry of movement with poetry of sound’.[1]

The ‘wild ecstasy’ had to be focused of course, and her chorus of 15 women were drilled over many months: ‘The students spoke and shouted and reiterated the lines till the rhythms took fire and seemed to make a music of their own; and gradually Muriel composed the themes that expressed their meaning.’[2]

What is interesting about this quote is that the composition of Elliot’s music was an organic process. It was born out of the repetition of Swinburne’s words. The chorus, the actors in the named parts, and the composer worked together. They aimed at a unity of performance, it seems, where all the elements grew out from and were part of a whole.

There were two performances at the Crystal Palace in 1906 and two more at the Scala Theatre – now demolished, but sited behind Tottenham Court Road, near the British Museum. Fogerty had researched Greek movement at the museum, in an effort to bring ‘to life the still, carved beauty of Attic vase and frieze’.[3]

The production was revived in 1911 at the Lyceum Theatre, this time as a fund-raiser for the Women’s Local Government Association (WLGA). The minutes of the meetings for these performances – which are much concerned with the serving of tea and coffee – and their publicity materials survive at the London Metropolitan Archives. Kit Anstruther-Thomson (artist, sculptor, and former partner of the writer Vernon Lee) appears as one of the members for the WLGA.  The association, also called ‘The Society for Promoting Women as County Councillors’, was a network of liberals, suffragettes and others who wanted women to play a greater part in political life. It is interesting that Swinburne should be used in the aid of a feminist cause, but given the strong women in Atalanta – both Althaea and Atalanta herself – it seems entirely appropriate. The 1906 productions were fundraisers for The Waifs and Strays’ Society and the Bedford College Endowment Fund, which was a college dedicated to the education of women.[4]

The performances were well received. The Times on 8 June, 1906, said, ‘We look for poetry, and we find it; words that soar, that rush, that sting, that burn, a sustained eagle-flight in the eye of the sun, the perfect impassioned “form” that makes the search for “matter” mere pedantry. In seeing Atalanta in Calydon acted, we ask that beautiful figures shall give outline and solidity to our own imaginations of these people, and that beautiful voices shall make audible music of these magic words’.

The section of music presented here is from the beginning of Swinburne’s play, formed from four verses of the Chorus’s first chant, lines 65-96. The next section of music – I presume that the intervening words were spoken, though Fogerty reports that she had to cut text – starts on the Chorus’s line ‘Before the beginning of years’, at line 314.

It is not known what Swinburne thought of this production. Fogerty received a letter from his sister Isabel, which highlights that his deafness would have made it impossible for him to have enjoyed it fully, but that she was ‘so greatly moved by your most beautiful rendering of my dear brother’s poem’.[5]

In the 1906 production, Fogerty played Althaea, Elsie Thompson, Atalanta, Lewis Casson the Chief Huntsman, and Gerald Ames, Meleager. Elliot’s equally energetic overture to the play can be found here.

[1] Marion Cole, Fogie: The Life of Elsie Fogerty, CBE, (London: Peter Davies, 1967), pp. 34-35

[2] Fogie, p. 40

[3] Fogie, p. 34

[4] The Times, 27 February, 1906

[5] Fogie, p. 41

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My Love, Mine Own, 1880

While I appear to have broken my rule about only including music set to Swinburne lyrics, this really is a special case. The lyrics were clearly inspired by Swinburne, and – as I can find no clue as to where they have come from – I’m assuming that they’re by the composer himself, Francis Hueffer (a.k.a. Franz Hüffer, 1845-1889).

A close friend of Swinburne and William Michael Rossetti, Hueffer was The Times music critic from 1879, the editor of the New Quarterly Magazine, and wrote extensively on Wagner, including Richard Wagner and the Music of the Future (1874). He was one of the translators of Wagner’s libretti for the 1877 Wagner festival at the Royal Albert Hall, at which Wagner himself was present, and translated libretti for several other operas, including Verdi’s Otello. Hueffer also composed settings to poems, including Swinburne’s A Match.

Swinburne mentions Hueffer several times in his letters, as he married Catherine Madox Brown. Ford Madox Ford (the writer of Parade’s End and The Good Soldier, and many other works indeed), who was Francis and Catherine’s son, claims that Swinburne was his godfather. Given Swinburne’s antipathy to Christianity, this seems remarkably unlikely, but who am I to say otherwise?

Of the two pieces of Hueffer’s that I have listened to, this is by far the most successful. The other setting, that to A Match, is perhaps trying to be a little too Wagnerian for its own good and quickly overwhelms itself.

If anyone recognises where the lyrics come from – if they are not Hueffer’s – I would be delighted to know.

More Swinburne music shortly…

(Novello, Ewer & Co, 1880)

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Küss’ ich ihr Haar (1912)

This terrific adaption of Swinburne’s ‘Kissing Her Hair‘ is by Kurt Schindler (1882-1935). Dramatically different to the previous adaption of the poem I shared – the first-ever piece of music to be inspired by Swinburne’s verse – this beautifully textured song is wistful, reflective, and poignant, as if recalling and reliving love and passion and pain from some years hence. It twists and shifts through its various voices and ends in a very different mood to the emotions it started with. The German lyrics are by Schindler himself. I have found another version of this in A Major.

Schindler conducted opera seasons at Stuttgart and Berlin before heading to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

New York: Schirmer, 1912

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Félise, 1878

This strange and slightly drunk waltz by Theophilus Marzials feels apt for the Swinburne poem from which he took the words – ‘Félise’, from Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866). It’s a poem about the ending of an affair, though while the narrator originally loved Félise (and she was not in love with him), he has since fallen out of love, while she has discovered the fondness for him that he once craved. The poem appears to curl around its subject, explaining and examining itself (though perhaps it’s a voice alone), before signing off with a snap. The imagery is, at various times, blasphemous, hot, cold, and erotic.

Marzials has been sympathetic to this movement, although he has taken only two of the 59 verses, which form a song within the poem, composed for (and out of?) the narrator’s ex-lover (‘What was the song I made of you?’). From this poetic fragment Marzials has created a similarly fragmentary song. It has the effect of something heard in passing. It fades in and out. It totters, turns, tiptoes, and swoons back and forth, and doesn’t quite know where it’s going, except round and round. Perhaps it’s affection, but it’s restless and unsatisfied. The words, which blend lips, colours, and months, jump along the notes, sometimes in step, other times not. And it ends arbitrarily, with a sense that it might get up again for another turn. The words, are in any case, odd and transgressive:

O lips that mine have grown into

Like April’s kissing May,

O fervent eyelids letting through

Those eyes the greenest of things blue

The bluest of things grey,


If you were I and I were you,

How could I love you, say?

How could the roseleaf love the rue,

The day love nightfall and her dew.

Though night may love the day?

Marzials’s composition has a decadent sense. Perhaps there’s a whiff of too much drink, or too much chlorodyne, to which Marzials was sometimes addicted. As I mentioned earlier, in the posting of his much more robust and popular Ask Nothing More, Marzials was an eccentric and an aesthete in the truest sense.

This setting shows up the limitations of the software I am using. Although it does a very good job at re-creating the music, the mood – especially from the vocal part – should be much more legato, that is, connected and flowing.

London: Stanley, Lucas & Co, 1878

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A Match, 1880

This is a great rendition of Swinburne’s ‘A Match’ from Poems and Ballads, First Series (1866), by Louis Napoleon Parker (1852-1944). It manages to be sweetly melodic, dramatic and rousing at the same time, with a twist at the line, ‘If you were thrall to sorrow’. The song uses stanzas 1,2,4 & 6 of Swinburne’s poem, with the last mixing metre and phrasing into sado-masochistic concerns, ‘If you were the queen of pleasure, / And I were king of pain’.

Parker, born in France (hence ‘Napoleon’), was a student of the Royal Academy of Music and the organist and director of music at Sherborne. A noted Wagnerian, he was also a hugely successful playwright (The Cardinal, 1903, Disraeli, 1911, Drake, 1912), with many of his plays produced by Sir Herbert Tree at His Majesty’s Theatre in London, and a translator (Ibsen’s Rosmersholm, 1889). His organisation of a huge patriotic and spectacular pageant in Sherborne in 1905 (with a cast of over 900), led to commissions for similar events in Dover, Warwick and York (and other towns and cities), and he went on to organise the historical section of the Lord Mayor’s shows in London.

Music published in London: A Cox, 1880

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Rondel – Kissing her Hair

This was the first piece of music to be inspired by one of Swinburne’s poems. From 1867, Walter Maynard’s Kissing Her Hair takes its name from the first line of Swinburne’s ‘Rondel‘, from Poems and Ballads (1866). Maynard was the pseudonym of Thomas W. Beale (1828-1894), a major Victorian music impresario.

That this piece was published just a year after Swinburne’s Poems and Ballads suggests that Beale was capitalising on the poet’s notoriety.

London: Cramer & Co. Ltd, 1867

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Ask Nothing More

Ask Nothing More, by the unconventional Theophilus Marzials (1850-1920), was a hugely successful song of the 1880s. The lyrics were taken from Swinburne’s ‘The Oblation‘ (Songs Before Sunrise, 1871). Marzials was also a poet, and wrote what has often been claimed as the worst poem ever written, ‘A Tragedy’, from his Gallery of Pigeons and other Poems (1873), which starts, ‘Death! / Plop! / The barges down in the river flop, / Flop, plop, / Above, beneath.’ Another poem in the collection refers to his mistress, whose ‘bosom breathes ambrosial’, and whose garment is ‘as soft music flows, […] It madrigals while she goes.’, etc.

A line in the second verse of this song, ‘Touch you and dream of you, sweet,’ looks like censorship, as the original Swinburne line runs, ‘Touch you and taste of you, sweet,’ (see ‘The Oblation’, The Poems of Algernon Charles Swinburne, 6 vols, London: Chatto & Windus, 1911, II, 221). Given Marzials’s poems, one wonders who decided that the line ought to be changed.

London: Boosey & Co, 1883

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Atalanta in Calydon

This is the overture to the 1906 production of Swinburne’s play Atalanta in Calydon (1865), composed by Muriel Elliot, who published the full score in 1912. Originally performed at the Crystal Palace in South London and the (since demolished) Scala Theatre, it was directed by Elsie Fogerty, and was revived in 1911 at The Lyceum. Fogerty, who went on to train both Gielgud and Olivier, also played the role of Althaea.

No publisher given, 1912.

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