Wednesday, November 29, 2023

'29 Songs' by David Power, with settings of Visiak and de la Mare

Some years ago, the National Centre for Early Music in York, situated in the converted church of St Margaret, ran a series of concerts under the heading ‘Late Music’, offering work by contemporary composers. At a performance of songs for solo voice and piano accompaniment, I was surprised and delighted to find there were several pieces setting verses by E H Visiak.

Visiak (1878-1972) was an early champion of David Lindsay (whom he befriended), the author of the fantastical seafaring romance Medusa (1929), and of other very strange fiction, and an eminent Milton scholar. But his early work was as a poet. He published five main volumes: Buccaneer Ballads (1910); Flints and Flashes (1911); The Phantom Ship (1912); The Battle Fiends (1916); and Brief Poems (1919).

The composer of the pieces I had heard was David Power, also a notable Lindsay scholar, and I am pleased to report that a selection of his work has now been issued on the Prima Facie label, entitled 29 Songs, 1985-2016, performed by Robert Rice (baritone) and William Vann (piano). They include not only five pieces based on Visiak poems, but others setting work by Walter de la Mare, Robert Louis Stevenson and Ronald Duncan. 

It was also a pleasure to see three songs from pieces by the late Paul Newman, editor of the journal Abraxas, biographer of Frank Baker, authority on White Horse hill figures and lost gods, Wormwood contributor, and much else besides. There are also works by other contemporary poets. Each of the pieces is brief, a few minutes at most, but achieve an admirable concentration of character.

In the accompanying booklet, David Power records that he first discovered Visiak through Colin Wilson’s book Eagle and Earwig, then greatly enjoyed Visiak’s autobiography Life’s Morning Hour. He agreed with Wilson that Visiak ‘had a gift of writing about things as if seeing them for the first time and brought an almost visionary freshness to ordinary things.’ This inspired him to set some of his poems to music.

The Visiak songs here include ‘An Old Song’, with Satie like piano and a delicate, wistful melody; ‘Passion’, with the urgency and tumult suited to its theme; and ‘The Shipwreck’, grave, slow, elegiac. The setting of Ronald Duncan’s ‘Remember Me’ has a gentle, haunting melody, while the four de la Mare pieces capture the uncanny, nursery-rhyme oddity of his verses (from Peacock Pie), especially in the terse, tripping melody of ‘Five Eyes’. Paul Newman’s humorous ‘In my More Thoughtful Moments’ (‘I can feel sorry/For the Four Horsemen/Who never halt/ At an inn’) has a jaunty treatment capturing its tone.

In their commitment to mystery and their angular individuality, the songs seem to me to have an affinity with the piano works of Charles-Valentin Alkan. The album is  thoroughly engrossing, offering unusual selections and achieving an aura of the singular and strange. 

(Mark Valentine)

Tuesday, November 28, 2023

Through the Golden Valley to the Dark Tower

On a damp late-November morning we went on pilgrimage to the Dark Tower, the three of us, Valentine, Howard and Gale, keen book-collectors all. We went from our digs in Abbey Dore, hard by the Abbey itself, through the Golden Valley until we came to Peterchurch, whose church has a slim, needle-point, pale spire, an aerial of elegance.

From here, a narrow, steeply climbing road is the way to Urishay. As we neared the summit, making way for an approaching vehicle, our wheels slithered in the roadside slime, as if to impose upon us a slow, respectful approach. Through the autumnal trees, the last vestiges of gold glowing on their gaunt branches, we could see the high ruinous towers. Here, a Norman baronial stronghold had become over the centuries a ramshackle farmhouse, until finally its owners had been obliged to give up the struggle to keep it intact: its once roaring fireplaces now stood exposed in their walls, dank hollows.

Before its desolation, a traveller, seeking gratefully its lights through a storm, arrived one night, and asked for shelter, and was welcomed by its eccentric castellan: they talked long together by one of those fireplaces, in the marvellously evocative opening scene of Francis Brett Young’s The Dark Tower (1915). In a preface to a later edition, the author says: ‘this early, imperfect book has a deeper claim on my own affections than any other I have written.’

It was bound up with his discovery of ‘that mass of Old Red Sandstone called the Black Mountain, whose sombrely suggestive name and bold outline, filmed by distance’ had haunted him for years. When Brett Young had visited ‘the lonely outpost’ it was ‘still inhabited, through the declining storms of centuries, by the family whose forebears had first held it: a race named Delahay. Now, at last, the Delahays are gone and Urishay a stark ruin . . .’ 

It had been ‘his romantic privilege in those days to know the last of them: a young man, half-squire, half small farmer, who clung to its stones like the last leaf of a dying oak’, and the story of his lineage and the story of the place, had enthralled him. Moreover, he had written the book as a relief from his work as a local doctor, himself convalescent, during the fiercely busy days of an influenza epidemic in 1914: ‘The composition of The Dark Tower, an urgent spiritual necessity, was the only escape a harassed mind and ailing body found at that time’.

All that remains with a roof here is part of the medieval chapel, with whitewashed walls, bare beams, clear, gridded glass, in solemn silence, carefully preserved by The Friends of Friendless Churches. We paid our respects here and then, from the bank on which the chapel stood, I gathered from among the leaf-mulch a pocket-full of fallen, half-formed sweet chestnuts, seized by the wind before they could grow to full fruit. 

We descended to the valley and continued on our way to Hay, passing a sign by a scarlet post-box at the house of Crossway which pointed to Arthur’s Stone. As we journeyed, our talk turned to another early Francis Brett Young book, written with his younger brother Eric: Undergrowth, notable because the older author freely confessed it was a homage to Arthur Machen: ‘the Machen-ery was obvious’, he quipped. Notable too for being hard to find, unlike the volumes of the Severn Edition of the author’s books, with their royal blue bindings and gilt decorations, which are still to be seen at the far end of shelves. So rare was it that I wrote a story, also called 'Undergrowth’, about a young collector’s quest for it.

A few copies have come my way over the years, one of them in the damp shed at the back of an antique shop in Presteigne which mostly sold china dogs. And on a recent sojourn, Mr Howard had found one too, in a cupboard in a bookshop in Brecon. So, said I to John Gale in jest, it is your turn now: you too must find a copy, to join the select sect of Undergrowthers, thinking this was no easy quest.

At the Old Cinema Bookshop in Hay we had already plundered the day before the trays outside where every book is a pound, and we had conducted a first reconnaissance of the shelves of vintage hardback fiction. Here there was a copy of Sax Rohmer’s The Yellow Claw with a pleasing inscription: in the top corner of the front free endpaper, in narrow, childish letters, was an ownership signature: D M Watson, or some similar plain name. But then in bold capitals across the page another, or her own later, hand had proclaimed: THE FIENDISH MISS WATSON’S BOOK. One would rather have liked to know this reader.

And then, as we browsed on, Mr Gale came to us with a look of triumph, mingled with bewilderment. A sign had guided him to a bookcase in a remote corner of the room, for Pocket Editions. Here might be found the red bindings of Nelson’s Classics, a few Cape Travellers’ Library volumes in their deep blue, fewer still of the New Adelphi Library in bottle-green: a Compton Mackenzie, a Norman Douglas. And here too Mr Gale’s gaze had alighted with wonderment on the word ‘Undergrowth’, and underneath the word ‘Young’: a compact edition in berry-red covers. He could scarcely believe it as he drew out the book, like Arthur withdrawing Excalibur from its stone. But there it was, sure enough, overlooked by others, waiting for him.

Afterwards, we wondered about those sweet chestnuts from Urishay: magical talismans? Ought we to wish for another book? Better not, we decided: just accept gratefully the gift of the spirits that haunt the Dark Tower.

(Mark Valentine)


The Ruins of Urishay © John Gale; The Doorway of the Chapel © John Howard; The Sign to Arthur’s Stone © John Gale; The Sweet Chestnuts of Urishay © John Gale.