From Nature’s Hymn to the Deity
(John Clare)The Swallow
(John Clare)To Daffodils
(Robert Herrick)The Lily-white Rose
(Anon., c. 1500)From The Hedge-sparrow
(John Clare)A curse on the Cat
(John Skelton)An August Midnight
(Thomas Hardy)A noiseless patient spider
(Walt Whitman)The Fly
(William Blake)Halcyon Days
(Walt Whitman)From Nature’s Hymn to the Deity
The inspiration for Songs of the Garden is a work entitled Picture Book of Selected Insects, a collection of pictures by the great 18th century Japanese artist Kitagawa Utamaro of insects, birds, plants and animals to be found in the garden. It was accompanied by short verses by his contemporary, Tsutaya Jūzaburō, and between them they produced an enchanting and delightful volume. When I was asked for a substantial piece for soloists, chorus, brass quintet and organ, it seemed a good opportunity to write a collection of numbers with a similar theme.
Accordingly, after much highly enjoyable reading, I selected a group of texts which not only convey, somewhat haphazardly, a calendar of at least half the year (roughly, spring to late summer or autumn), but also give examples of birds, beasts and insects, as well as more generalised “gardeny” topics, the whole framed by two verses from a splendid encomium by John Clare. Apart from the great American poet Walt Whitman, all the poets are English, from an anonymous writer of c. 1500 to Thomas Hardy (whose An August Midnight was published at the end of the 19th century). There are some clear resonances which emerged during my researches – for example, it seemed a happy coincidence (happy for the cat, that is) when Clare’s The Hedge-sparrow cropped up in close juxtaposition with Skelton’s A curse on the Cat (my setting of which bears an apology to all cats, animals of which I am particularly fond). Similarly, and equally unhappily for one of them, it seemed fortuitous that I should come across Whitman’s spider soon after reading Blake’s fly.
Another element in the concept of the work, and one which explains the more general texts, is that I wanted at least to indicate that it is worth exploring the relationship of man to nature and through it, to God – in many minds the three are inextricably inter-mingled. The original version of Songs of the Garden was written in 2003/04, for soli, choir, brass quintet and organ, and was commissioned by The John Armitage Memorial Trust. This orchestrated version was commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival, Hereford 2009 and written in 2008/09.
Programme Note © Copyright 2009 by John McCabe