Notes on the texts for the NCS concert in May 2008

As usual, an idiosyncratic and self-indulgent ramble through the texts, with a view to clarifying meanings and allusions and so on.

Most of this programme's texts are in English, so there's a bit less to be said per item than usual.

Everything in here is fully authoritative, being derived from such infallible sources as Something I Found On The Web and My Hazy Memories of Secondary-School Latin. (Actually, there's no Latin in this particular programme.) In the event of discrepancies between these notes and reality, reality is at fault.

For the items we're singing from M&P, the notes in the back are worth a look.

Weelkes: Thule, the period of cosmography

This and The Andalusian merchant are really a single piece in two halves. I have no idea who wrote the words.

Thule: used by various classical writers to refer to an island in the far north (not necessarily the same one, or indeed a real one, in each case); in Weelkes's day, used variously to mean Iceland, Svalbard and Greenland. Here it definitely means Iceland, where there is a volcano called Hecla (more often, now, Hekla).

period: extremity, limit, termination (compare US English, where “period” means what in the UK is more often called a full stop).

cosmography: map-making. (Literally means something like “world-writing”.)

vaunt: boast.

Hecla: a large and active volcano, one of several on Iceland.

Trinacrian Aetna: Mount Etna, in Sicily (= Trinacria, on account of its three corners).

ascend not higher: actually, Etna is considerably higher than Hekla and also more violent when active. Ah, poetic licence.

freeze ... fry: the combination of heat and cold, as with a volcano on Iceland, is the point. (Forgive me for belabouring the obvious, but I missed it at first.) Presumably the “fear” is of rejection.

The poet Ruth Padel has some thoughts about these madrigals which are well worth reading.

Isaac: Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen

A stiltedly literal translation:

Innsbruck, ich muss dich lassen,Innsbruck, I must leave you,
Ich fahr dahin mein Strassen,I take my road away,
In fremde Land dahin.away to a foreign land.
Mein Freud ist mir genommen,My joy is taken from me,
Die ich nit weiss bekommen,which I do not know how to get back,
Wo ich im Elend bin.since I am wretched.
 
Gross Leid muss ich jetzt tragen,Great sorrow must I now bear,
Das ich allein tu klagenWhich I alone bewail
Dem libsten Buhlen mein.to my dearest beloved.
Ach Lieb, nun lass mich ArmenO my love, now let me, poor me,
Im Herzen dein erbarmen,arouse pity in your heart,
Dass ich muss dannen sein.since I must be away.
 
Mein Trost ob allen Weiben,My comfort above all women,
Dein tu ich ewig bleiben,I remain for ever yours,
Stet treu, der Ehren fromm.always true, pure in honour.
Nun muss dich Gott bewahren,Now God must protect you,
In aller Tugend sparen,and keep you in all virtue,
Bis dass ich wiederkomm.until I return.

The words are of unknown origin.

Innsbruck has as much to do with the writer's sorrow as Jamaica in “Jamaica Farewell” or Tipperary in “It's a long way to Tipperary” or San Francisco in “I left my heart in San Francisco”. (When we first sang through this, I wasn't reading it carefully and thought “Mein Trost ob allen Weiben” was parallel to “still I live in hopes to see old Swansea town once more” in Swansea Town. Nope.)

Correction to the text in M&P: “Nun muss dich Gott bewahren”, not “Nun muss ich Gott bewahren”.

Vaughan Williams: The turtle dove

Supposedly Vaughan Williams heard this from the landlord of a Sussex pub when out collecting folk songs. On the other hand, stanzas 2 and 3 of this are almost identical to stanzas 2 and 3 of Robert Burns's “A red, red, rose”, the principal difference being that Burns's stanza 2 more or less makes sense and RVW's doesn't. (The “ten thousand miles” are found in both, too.) On the other other hand, Burns said that his poem was based on a folk song too. Make of all that what you will.

The third verse has always seemed to me to imply that the singer is patiently waiting for the seas to run dry and the rocks to melt, at which point he will duly Prove False To The Bonny Lass I Love. But maybe that's just me.

Stevens: Ye spotted snakes

The words are from Shakespeare's “A midsummer night's dream”; they are sung by Titania's fairy attendants when she asks for a lullaby. Immediately after this song in which the fairies wish all harmful magic and all disagreeable creatures away from their queen, along comes Oberon to enchant her into falling in love with a disagreeable creature. Ah well, such is life.

double: forked.

Philomel: the nightingale. (A reference to a rather gruesome bit of Greek myth that ends with someone named Philomele being transformed into a nightingale. Though actually it seems likely that “philomele” meant “nightingale” before that myth came along. Literally it means either “lover of song” or “lover of fruit” or “lover of apples”. Yes, “melon” is the Greek for “apple”.)

sing in your sweet lullaby: Shakespeare actually appears to have written “in our sweet lullaby”, which makes much more sense. On the other hand, Stevens really does seem to have thought it was “your”.

Macfarren: Orpheus with his lute

The words are from a song in the play Henry VIII, also called All is true, believed to be by Shakespeare and Fletcher; it isn't known which of them wrote the song.

Orpheus was the son of the muse Calliope and possibly of the god Apollo; he was the inventor of the lyre and a miraculously skilled musician, so much so that even inanimate things were moved by his music. The most famous story about him, which has nothing much to do with this song, is that when his wife Eurydice died he went into the underworld, charmed the gods thereof with his mournful music, and got them to agree to let her out again on condition that he went ahead of her and didn't look back until they were both out; he hadn't the willpower, and she was lost to him for ever. I expect it's a metaphor for something or other.

In the play, the song is sung by one of Queen Katherine (of Aragon)'s attendants to comfort her in her troubles.

To his music plants and flowers ... a lasting spring: the sentence structure is a bit contorted here; it means: “when he played, plants and flowers would keep springing up, as if the sun and rain made it perpetually springtime where he was”.

The last three lines are easy to misconstrue, and it is evident that our composer has done so. “Killing” is an adjective, not a participle (i.e., “killing care” means “care that kills”) and the meaning is: there is such art in sweet music that it lulls to sleep, or even causes to die, care-that-kills and grief themselves.

Arne: Where the bee sucks

From Shakespeare's The tempest; this little song is sung by Ariel, Prospero's attendant spirit, shortly before (at last) Prospero frees him. I take it the song refers to the life Ariel anticipates once freed; hence “merrily, merrily shall I live now”.

Brown: Sunlight on a pale green ocean

The poems are by Henry Marsh. They're pretty straightforward, but worth reading through.

Two coincidences that amused me: 1. I have seen the word “spell-stopped” in exactly two places ever. One is in the second of these poems. The other is thirty lines before “Where the bee sucks” in The Tempest. 2. There is a Hecla on South Uist; whether South Uist, like Thule, doth vaunt of it, I couldn't tell you.

1: Atlantic Beach

the island: Presumably Eriskay, about a mile south of South Uist.

2: Corncrake

spell-stopped: I take it this means “magically prevented from moving and betraying your passing”.

machair flowers: “machair” isn't a kind of flower; it means a fertile low-lying raised beach. (If the sea level drops or the land rises, what used to be a beach can turn into an expanse of sandy land above sea level. Apparently their ecosystems are quite interesting.)

3: Spring South Uist

Persephone: What is it about the Scottish islands and that name? (There's a Persephone in “The kestrel road”.)

4: Evening at Gearraidh Bhailteas

Gearraidh Bhailteas is small village (which is to say, five houses or thereabouts) on South Uist. So far as I know, it's much like the rest of South Uist.

Uist: pronounced “yoo-ist”.

limpid: clear.

burn: stream.

Campion: Never weather-beaten sail

The words are by Campion himself.

tired pilgrim's limbs: presumably “tired” was disyllabic then.

affected: sought. (This meaning is earlier than the modern one of “feigned”.)

deafs: i.e., deafens (obviously).

Glory there the sun outshines: see Revelation 21:23, I guess.

Parry: My soul, there is a country

The text is Henry Vaughan's poem “Peace”. Vaughan (1621-1695) was a Welsh poet of the so-called metaphysical school, acquainted with (and possibly converted by) George Herbert. His best known poem is probably “The World”, which begins “I saw eternity the other night / Like a great ring of pure and endless light”.

There's a minor textual deviation, presumably for the sake of easier word-setting: Vaughan actually wrote “Afar beyond the stars” rather than “Far beyond the stars”.

The constant juxtaposition of martial and pacific themes is presumably deliberate.

“a winged sentry / All skilful in the wars”: the archangel Michael, perhaps? The “beauteous files” are surely the angelic armies of heaven.

“ranges”: wanderings, of the metaphorical sort (away from God, among worldly pleasures, etc.).

Weelkes: The Andalusian merchant

The second half of Thule, the period of cosmography.

Andalusian merchant: Andalusia is the southern part of Spain, containing Seville. In the 16th and 17th centuries Seville had a monopoly on trade with the Spanish territories in the New World.

cochineal: a red dye made from beetles that parasitize southern American cacti. Apparently it was very valuable in Weelkes's day, and did much to make Andalusia rich.

China dishes: that is, dishes from China. I don't think the Spanish themselves engaged in trade with China, but the Portuguese did.

Fogo: either Tierra del Fuego (literally “land of fire” but bizarrely misnamed; it's a group of islands off the southern coast of Southern America, not so far from the Antarctic, and there is nothing fiery about it; the name seems to have come from the man-made fires seen by Magellan when he sailed past) or the volcanic island of Fogo, one of the Cape Verde islands to the west of Africa. (Tierra del Fuego freezes, Fogo fries; neither really does both. Perhaps in Weelkes's day Tierra del Fuego was thought to be hot, or something.)

Mäntyjärvi: Four Shakespeare songs

1: Come away, Death

From Twelfth Night.

away: quickly. That is: “come quickly, death”.

cypress: associated (I don't know why) with Hades in Greek mythology, hence with death by countless poets since.

yew: another symbol of death, perhaps because of its very poisonous berries or the fact that it is commonly planted in churchyards.

greet: lament.

A thousand ... To weep there: In order to avoid a thousand thousand sighs, lay me where no sad true lover will find my grave and weep.

2: Lullaby

Same text as You spotted snakes, above. Mäntyjärvi gets “in our sweet lullaby” correct, unlike Stevens.

3: Double, double toil and trouble

From Macbeth. The witches are preparing for their second encounter with Macbeth, who has killed Duncan and ascended the throne and now seeks to know what happens next.

The details of the ingredients, frankly, don't matter much. I've seen it claimed that they're really all just colourful names for herbs. You can believe that if you want.

brinded: streaky or patchy in colour.

hedge-pig: = hedgehog, of course.

Harpier: = harpy, probably.

fenny snake: a snake that lives in the fens. One of our number suggested at a rehearsal that it might mean “eel”, but I don't think that's very likely.

blind-worm: also called the “slowworm”, a legless lizard.

witches' mummy: maybe this literally means mummified witches' flesh; I suspect not, but don't know.

maw and gulf: of the shark, of course, not the mummy. (So presumably no breath after “gulf”, alas.)

ravined: ravening.

drab: prostitute.

slab: half-solid.

chaudron: guts.

For ingredients for our cauldron: Shakespeare has “for th'ingredience of our cauldron”, which seems to me much preferable albeit less readily comprehensible, but no matter.

By the pricking of my thumbs...: Mäntyjärvi has omitted a chunk of text here. More of the same, basically.

Something wicked this way comes: it's not clear whether this refers to Macbeth (who knocks at the door immediately after this and before the words “Open, locks, whoever knocks”) or to the evil spirits they're about to conjure. I suspect the former.

4: Full fathom five

The words are from The Tempest. They are sung by Ariel (Prospero's attendant spirit, also the singer of Where the bee sucks) to Ferdinand, son of the King of Naples. Ferdinand and his father were on the same ship, which was shipwrecked; both are in fact alive, but each thinks the other drowned.

sea-change: although this is now commonly used to mean a dramatic transformation, here all it means is a change wrought by the sea.

Vaughan Williams: The dark-eyed sailor

Perfectly straightforward, I think.

Vaughan Williams: The springtime of the year

Also perfectly straightforward. I take it the “spray” is from the sea.

Vaughan Williams: Just as the tide was flowing

My heart by you it is betray'd: I don't think there's an actual accusation of infidelity here (more likely the idea is something like “you cause my heart pain just because I am so in love with you”), but I'm not sure.

did sit down together: I suspect a little euphemism here.

Delius: To be sung of a summer night on the water, #1

I am entirely unable to extract any meaning from the words of this one.

Stanford: The blue bird

Entirely straightforward, I think. “At last” is probably there only to rhyme with “passed”. “Blue in blue” means “blue, reflected in something blue”; I regret the poet's obvious ignorance of physics. (The only reason why any water is “blue” is that it reflects the blue sky.)

Holst: Swansea Town

It's not perfectly clear to me whether the sailor wants to see Swansea again only because his girlfriend lives there, or for its own sake. It mostly seems like the latter. That would be pretty tactless, given that he's addressing his girlfriend, but then the last verse is pretty tactless too.

my Nancy: just a girl's name; nothing to do with the French town, despite the sailor's apparent preference for towns over women.

Toch: Geographical fugue

Since the words are nonsense, here are some links.

Trinidad. The big Mississippi. The town Honolulu. The lake Titicaca. Popocatepetl. Canada. Mexico. Malaga. Rimini. Brindisi. Tibet. Nagasaki. Yokohama.

Sherwin arr. Forkgen: A nightingale sang in Berkeley Square

I don't think there's anything much to be said about this. (In my own curmudgeonly opinion, the less said about it the better.)