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Good advice: Arthur Somervell's advice

Ged Fox 06 Nov 19 - 05:08 AM
GUEST,Grishka 06 Nov 19 - 10:30 AM
Gordon Jackson 06 Nov 19 - 10:45 AM
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Subject: Good advice
From: Ged Fox
Date: 06 Nov 19 - 05:08 AM

Can Arthur Somervell's advice be bettered?
"To those amateurs who wish to sing National Songs with musical intelligence, and to give pleasure to those who listen, and who cannot go to a really musicianly teacher of singing to learn each song, I should recommend that they should
(1) carefully look at the tune and words, and determine what is the leading idea running through the song. Is it, as in " Scots wha hae," a battle march, or as in "Mary Jamieson," a love lament; or as in "The Tree in the Wood," a mystic, dreamy legend ? Let this leading characteristic dominate the whole rendering of the song.
(2) Get the rhythm well into your head, and play over the song to yourself in such strict time and rhythm, that a village audience could stamp its feet to the tune; and afterwards, never forget this rhythm, even during a rallentando.
(3) Then study carefully what scope is given in the tune and the accompaniment, to express the changes of sentiment of the words.
And finally always think of the song as a whole, and do not exhaust your effects before the final climax, should there be one. Then within the limits of time and rhythm, put into your singing all the expression or feeling you can give.

Remember that the scope for feeling is limited, and that therefore the expression of it is best given by a few delicate, forcible touches.
It is hard to say exactly in what expression consists. It is easier to say that it is not in absence of rhythm, it is not in entire absence of time, it is not in violent emphasis of unimportant notes or words ; in a word, it is not in the vulgarity of extremes."

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Subject: RE: Good advice: Arthur Somervell's advice
From: GUEST,Grishka
Date: 06 Nov 19 - 10:30 AM

No need to better it, but Arthur Somervell (1863-1937) thought of quite a different style of music than most Mudcatters would prefer nowadays. Not all of us have ever heard of "a rallentando", and those who have, may think it has nothing to do with the style now in vogue.

The best advice is the following: Never trust an advice that consists of a few sentences only. Use your own brain to complement anything people telly you, experts or not.

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Subject: RE: Good advice: Arthur Somervell's advice
From: Gordon Jackson
Date: 06 Nov 19 - 10:45 AM

I’m not entirely sure it is good advice. I have a few thoughts on the matter …

For a start, national song is not folk song; the composers of national songs – primarily from a classical or quasi-classical background – had a different agenda to the singers of traditional songs. According to Steve Roud, the English Musical Renaissance movement

“… did not turn to ‘the folk’ for them [national songs] but were content with composed songs of previous generations which had, in their view, stood the test of time through repeated middle-class reprinting. Or they took traditional tunes and wrote new words” (Folk Song in England, p 117).

Examples include The British Grenadiers and Men of Harlech, rather than, say, The Outlandish Knight or Little Musgrave and Lady Barnard. If Somervell’s instruction at (1) means that the singer should know what the song is about, I don’t many would argue with that.

The instruction to keep ‘such strict time and rhythm, that a village audience could stamp its feet to the tune’ (or perhaps march to it?) is, I feel, overstated. Many traditional songs – as sung by traditional singers – do not necessarily keep to a metronomic beat at all. This could be because of pauses – whether for effect or to take a breath – the addition of ornamentation, or to accommodate additional words or syllables. In folk song rhythm is subservient to melody. As Harry Cox said, “You must get the tune first” (spoken on The Bonny Labouring Boy CD).

The instruction at (3) is a little woolly. If he means tune and words are of equal importance, then I would agree. If he is saying the tune is secondary to the words, I would disagree: Child believed the words were poetry and the tunes not really worthy of being recorded; others, e.g. Kidson, Sharp, considered the words pretty much doggerel, and were only really interested in the tunes. Surely, they all missed the point? A song is a gestalt entity: words and music, and a folk song is, more specifically, words and tune – any accompaniment must serve the requirements of the song (i.e. words and tune).

The dictum, ’put into your singing all the expression or feeling you can give’, is not how most of the great traditional singers (or those recent enough to be recorded) sing their songs. Listen to, e.g. Harry Cox, Walter Pardon, Sam Larner, Cyril Poacher, Joe Heaney and, among revivalists, Martin Carthy, Nic Jones, Christy Moore; for the greatest part they are content to let the songs speak for themselves, with the expressiveness contained within the songs, rather than added by the performer. I would have loved to have seen WG Ross’s rendition of ‘Sam Hall’ in a Victorian music hall for its entertainment value, but I wouldn’t have confused it with a genuine folk singer’s singing of ‘Jack Hall’, or Christy’s ‘Little Musgrave’. To be fair, Somervell argues against extremes of expressiveness, presumably because on the one hand that would lead to the music hall approach, and on the other, his warning against a ‘violent emphasis of unimportant notes or words’ suggests he had a prophetic dream of the X Factor!

On the whole, though, Somervell’s strictures may be appropriate for some musics (classical, national etc) but not, I think, for folk.

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