Sunday, 22 January 2012

King David by Herbert Howells

"Tell me, thou little bird that singest,
Who taught my grief to thee?"

I was just thinking how time flies. Here I am with only 2 more teaching days to go before I am 'nunning' for 10 days, and 3 weeks 2 days before I leave for my sojourn in the Orient. I feel as if I have so much music to cram in before the deadline!

So many folk have their own musical deadlines, the Festival looms, and all that repertoire needs to be memorised and polished in the next 3 weeks, and for some the said repertoire is tricky stuff. On my way back from visiting Dad in the nursing home 30 miles away I was listening to my favourite playlist when a song came up which I realised I had never taught anybody for about 15 years.

What's going on, I said to myself - this is one of the finest English Art Songs of the last century. Why is nobody singing this for an advanced exam, a Festival class or my own Song School !?

So what is it? King David, by Herbert Howells. A wondrous piece of vocal music, so rich in text and melody and yet subtle and understated. The poem, by Walter de la Mare is magical. It talks about the biblical King David who is full of such melancholy that nothing can lift his spirits. Not the finest musicians in his employ or the finest music of the day can take the sorrow away from his heart. Only when he walks in his garden and hears the nightingale singing innocently in the nearby tree does he feel lifted, and yet this little bird is oblivious to his dark feelings, and presumably simply singing to catch a mate, or for the joy of singing ?! I am sure a birdwatcher will tell me different, but he definitely was not singing to ease the King's sadness!

Howells must have been so inspired by this poem, and his setting is warm, melancholic and wandering. So in keeping with the distracted King. Yet as the heaviness in his heart lifts he gives the singer a simple rise in pitch, and a couple of unaccompanied, and thus uncomplicated bars, free of cloying harmony or fussy piano roulades.

It is one of the greatest songs written, and I MUST use it in the not too distant future.

I have been inspired!

PS Not in the next seriously hectic 3 weeks however, though I may listen again about 25 times and remind myself of it's beauty!


King David was a sorrowful man:
No cause for his sorrow had he;
And he called for the music of a hundred harps,
To ease his melancholy.

They played till they all fell silent:
Played and play sweet did they;
But the sorrow that haunted the heart of King David
They could not charm away.

He rose; and in his garden
Walked by the moon alone,
A nightingale hidden in a cypress tree,
Jargoned on and on.

King David lifted his sad eyes
Into the dark-boughed tree
"Tell me, thou little bird that singest,
Who taught my grief to thee?"

But the bird in no-wise heeded;

And the king in the cool of the moon
Hearkened to the nightingale's sorrowfulness,
Till all his own was gone.

Listen to the marvelous Sarah Connolly singing it. She sings a wrong word in the first verse - see even the greats make mistakes - how comforting!


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Thank you for posting the words. I heard this song tonight for the first time ever.
    It was a recording made by Nimbus with Shura Gehrman, and Adrian Farmer on piano. I have listened to other recordings, the one you posted and three others on Spotify. Sadly the Gehrman is not on Spotify, but maybe you can find still. It is my preferred choice.
    Having the words to read gave the music so much more meaning, and are so very good in their own right, but Howells uses de la Mare's poetry so well that the song is a masterpiece of English song writing. It did greatly render my heart asunder.