A recent short exchange of comments with kurtnemes concerning Peter Warlock, got me to thinking about the poetry of W B Yeats, and song settings thereof.
Since I lived in Ireland for much of my youth, Yeats has always meant a great deal to me. I can still recite some of his verses from memory. At school we were often set poems and told to “learn them off”, that is to say, learn them off-by-heart (what a peculiar, but apt expression that is).
One of Yeats’s better known poems (and one that’s fairly easy to “learn off”), also happens to have music at its heart: The Fiddler of Dooney.
When I play on my fiddle in Dooney,
Folk dance like a wave of the sea;
My cousin is priest in Kilvarnet,
My brother in Mocharabuiee.
I passed my brother and cousin:
They read in their books of prayer;
I read in my book of songs
I bought at the Sligo fair.
When we come at the end of time
To Peter sitting in state,
He will smile on the three old spirits,
But call me first through the gate;
For the good are always the merry,
Save by an evil chance,
And the merry love the fiddle,
And the merry love to dance:
And when the folk there spy me,
They will all come up to me,
With ‘Here is the fiddler of Dooney!’
And dance like a wave of the sea.
Read the poem aloud and then ask yourself, why would anyone need to set it to music? The music is there already. I particularly like the phrase “dance like a wave of the sea”. That indefinite article always captures me when I read it. It’s somehow very Irish. I’m sure that an English poet would have said “dance like the waves of the sea” which is fine, but Yeats has the edge; indeed he liked it so much that he used it a second time, at the very end, realising that this workaday, monosyllabic phrase had enough magic in it to hint at eternity. I can think of no line of poetry that is lovelier.
So, to the question: why would anyone want to set it to music? I think we need to leave the question in its rhetorical form. I have no ideological objection to composers setting The Fiddler of Dooney, besides which, since it has been set by, among others, Arnold Bax, Ivor Gurney, Hamilton Harty and Thomas Dunhill (this last as one of four settings from Yeats’s 1899 collection The Wind Among the Reeds) any complaints from me would be pointless. I can’t help thinking, though, that no matter how skilful and engaging the musical setting, I’d always go back to it on the page (though I don’t need even to do that since I’ve learned it off!) and enjoy its inherent music unhindered. This version, which I believe is the Dunhill setting (perhaps someone will correct me if I’m wrong), is engaging. Peter Dawson’s old fashioned style of singing (and the twinkle in his eye) rather suits the verse, and, needless to say, Gerald Moore is the most sympathetic accompanist.
And so to Peter Warlock. The Curlew is Warlock’s setting of four Yeats poems – three from the 1899 collection, The Wind Among The Reeds (in which The Fiddler of Dooney also appears) and one from In The Seven Woods (1904). It is less a song cycle and more a tone poem with voice; the instrumental interludes between the set texts being as important as the sung sections. Warlock has written for an unusual ensemble: cor anglais, flute and string quartet, and this group meditates on the bleakness of the set poems, “building a sorrowful loveliness”. Warlock’s music is wayward and misty, his harmonic language so unsettled (and unsettling) that much of the time it is effectively atonal. Yet, there is beauty in Warlock’s eeriness, and a kind of consolation. Perhaps the most telling moment in the piece is in the final entry of the voice, when it rises, at first listlessly from the drooping, withered instrumental line, and then rises further, unaccompanied, angry and despairing, so that the final lines, “Your breast will not lie by the breast / Of your beloved in sleep”, sound almost like a curse. There is the briefest of instrumental codas and we leave the desolate landscape that Yeats and Warlock have conjured for us.
If you’d like to travel there, you might like to try this version. I particularly like Gareth Hulse’s ghostly cor anglais.
As a short postscript, I’d like to draw attention to Joni Mitchell’s song Slouching Towards Bethlehem, which appeared first on her 1991 album, Night Ride Home, though I slightly prefer the rather portentous version she recorded with orchestra on Travelogue (2002). There are various versions available on youtube. Slouching Towards Bethlehem is described as being “based on a poem by W B Yeats”. The poem in question is The Second Coming from 1921. Mitchell departs significantly from the text; not always to best advantage, but she builds up a declamatory word structure, with Yeats as a starting point, that has an impact. It might, however, leave some lovers of Yeats nonplussed or even resentful.