Saturday, 19 June 2010

Sweet Chance that led my steps Abroad

One of the most wonderful composers of the 20th Century English Art Song was Michael Head. His life and career was full of accolades, academic success and musical achievements. I have always loved his songs, and was deeply 'dunked' in them when I studied with Betty Middleton, as a greenhorn 16 year old mezzo soprano. They are just so poetic, so lyrical and so descriptive, and whilst knowing nothing about his personal life or character, and from simply singing dozens of the songs, I feel sure he was the nicest of men, and a real grandfather figure !

He was a Professor of Piano at the Royal Academy of Music from 1927 to 1975 ! How many times did he walk up the same stairs as I did, and eat in the (in fairness) less than haute cuisine canteen in the basement, and is it possible in my 18 years there that I even taught in a room which at some point he may have used?! That could be 410, 417, 415, et al! Anyhow my indifferent maths tells me that he worked there for 48 years - what a trooper!

It is only when put in such 'normal' terms I think what a privilege it was to work there and to be a miniscule part of that vast and glorious institution. Every time I entered the imposing front entrance I thought so much about these musicians, who were merely names in musical history prior to my working there, and not warm blooded, living people with hopes ad dreams. I thought so much about how humbled I felt, and how utterly inadequate I was to tread in their corridors!

I teach Head's songs a great deal. They are great exam fodder, and loved by concert audiences for their delightful melodies, and greatly accessible poetry. He was a man who could even take banal or trite words and weave an exquisitely delicate melody around them and in a nano second the whole would become far greater than the sum of the parts.

Festival song setters adore his songs, they appeal to young and old alike, and in this world of rather complex, clever and gruellingly tricky 20th Century music (note I said 20th not 21st!) they are like the faraway strains of musical angels. He wrote in all 124 songs, and some of the gems are 'The Estuary', 'Foxgloves', 'A Green Cornfield', 'Sweet Chance that led my steps Abroad', 'Ave Maria', the dreamy and yet quixotic song cycle 'Over the Rim of the Moon' and many others. Singers of tomorrow, you neglect him at your peril!

How can anyone not feel moved by these words from 'Sweet Chance....':

'A Rainbow and a Cuckoo's song, may never come together again.
May never come this side the tomb.'

To read all about him go to : (it's worth it!)

At the looming festival for my youngsters there is (very sensibly!!) a Michael Head class, and I was so thrilled today when having a 'real' conversation with 2 born again teenagers about how 'awesome' the song was, and likening it to stuff/books they read, and films the watch. They engaged with such clarity with the words and the musical picture painting, almost as if it were written for them, and not for some antique, sepia tinted and long dead teenager of yesteryear.

a) The secret of immortality maybe ? b) Does it translate into 2010 life ? c) Is it still relevant ? d) Do we still crave beauty ?

Yes to all four questions.

Michael Head - one cool dude.


To hear a moment of Sweet Chance, go to the site below.

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