Housman – A Life and Landscape in Words and Music

United KingdomUnited Kingdom Oxford Lieder Festival – Various Composers, A Shropshire Lad: Simon Callow (narrator), Robert Murray (tenor), Joshua Ellicott (tenor), Mark Stone (baritone), Graham Johnson (piano), Jonathan Stone (violin): Holywell Music Room, Oxford 29.10.2015. (MH)

A.E. Housman: Settings of a Shropshire Lad

1887 – Reading
Loveliest of Trees  – Butterworth
The Recruit- Reading
Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers – Orr
When the lad for longing sighs – Butterworth
‘When smoke stood up from Ludlow’ – Reading
March & The Hearts Desire – Ireland
‘On your midnight pallet lying’ – Reading
When I watch the living meet – Orr
When I was one-and-twenty – Butterworth
‘There pass the careless people’ – Reading
Look not in my eyes – Butterworth
‘It nods and curtseys and recovers’ – Reading
Goal and Wicket- Ireland
Oh, when I was in love with you – Vaughan Williams
To an Athlete Dying young – Reading
Oh fair enough are sky and plain –  Moeran
Bredon Hill – Butterworth
The Encounter – Ireland
The lads in their hundreds – Butterworth
‘Say, lad, have you things to do?’ – Reading
This time of year – Orr
Along the Fields – Vaughan Williams
Is my team ploughing – Butterworth
The Lent Lily – Ireland
‘Others, I am not the first’ – Reading
‘On Wenlock Edge the wood’s in trouble’ –  Reading
From far, from eve and morning – Vaughan Williams
The Vain Desire – Ireland
On the idle hill of summer – Butterworth
White in the moon the long road lies’ – Reading
The winds out of the west land blow’ – Reading
Hawthorn Time –       Ireland
Into my heart and air that kills  – Orr
‘Into my own shire, if I was sad’ – Reading
‘Shot? so quick, so clean an ending –  Reading
‘If it chance your eye offend you’ – Reading
Think no more lad, laugh, be jolly – Butterworth
Clunton and Clunbury – Reading
‘Loitering with a vacant eye’- Reading
Far in a western brookland – Gurney
With rue my heart is laden: Barber
The Day of Battle      – Reading
Epilogue – Ireland
‘When I came last to Ludlow’          – Reading
The Isle of Portland – Orr
‘Now hollow fires burn out to black’ – Reading
Hughley Steeple       – Orr
‘Terence, this is stupid stuff’- Reading
In Boyhood – Ireland


This was a rare opportunity to hear the words of Homan and associated musical settings of his words in an innovative programme – A Shropshire Lad.

The poems set out a Shropshire landscape that Housman seldom visited, the transient joys of youthful love and its loss with age, which he described as a ‘morbid secretion’. Appropriately, Housman was a student at Oxford in the 1880s and published his poems in 1896.  His words were found to be admirably suitable for setting to music by the several composers of the early 20th Century who were seeking to mirror the combination of Heine and Schumann.

In this evening the songs and poems were presented ‘in the poet’s own ordering with some omissions where there was no musical setting, in order to make the programme length manageable’. There was also an extended supper interval following setting 27. To comment on every item would become somewhat lengthy, but highlights follow.

Two tenors and a baritone on the platform with a renowned accompanist and Simon Callow narrating was a fascinating line-up for another unique musical evening. Callow used both Housman’s poems and diaries to link, at intervals, the ensuing musical settings. His skill in delivery and clever way with words brought out both the humour and emotional content of the narrative.

An amusing introduction to the evening by Graham Johnson  opened the presentation.

The first singer – Robert Murray (tenor) opened the music with  Loveliest of trees. He was able to delicately express the emotion with mellifluous tone and an unforced fullness of voice when required. The first Vaughan Williams setting, Oh when I was in Love with you, made a touching change in style, to be followed by Moeran’s Oh fair enough are sky and plain where Murray was able to change convincingly to folk song style with a pleasing wistful ending.  Notable towards the end of the first half was Along the Fields – where the vocal line was in concert with solo violin played beautifully and sympathetically by  Jonathan Stone of the Doric String Quartet. This added a suitable melancholic undertone to the emotion of the singer and song.

The second singer to perform was  Mark Stone who immediately impressed with his rich baritone voice and clean diction in Oh see how thick the goldcup flowers in the setting by Orr.

Perhaps the highlight of the first part was Bredon Hill – In summertime on Bredon…, an all time favourite for tenor, but sung with alternating bright and then dark baritone by Stone. The contrast between the happiness of verses 1 to 4 with the sadness of winter and the grave from verse 5 was appropriately characterful. There were Traces here of Stone’s opera experience. The lads in their hundreds was also a delight with its memorable melodious line and the linking piano interludes. Number 25, Is my team ploughing? – enabled Stone to show off his character voices in the repartee between the living and the dead. The partnership of singer and accompanist – Graham Johnson, produced wonderful colour making the ghostly imagery contrast with the happiness of life. True homage to both poet and composer.

Joshua Ellicott was the second tenor to perform in the evening. His expressive, slightly metallic tenor suited  the folk song style of When the lad for longing sighs and When I was one-and- twenty. His diction and expressive tone was skillfully used in When the lad for longing sighs contrasting with the ability to sing firstly on the breath and then employ a biting tone in Goal and wicket – John Ireland.

Following the interval, the evening continued with equal artistry. Each poem and song never failing to please with a rare opportunity to hear Barber, Orr and Gurney – Far in a western brookland in live performance.

Each artist was sensitively supported by the keyboard expertise of world renowned accompanist Graham Johnson. His amusing interjections between items also added both entertaining and interesting information.

A capacity audience enjoyed this unique canvas of colour and emotion from musicians, narrator, composers and poet; fulfilling the Festival promise of “Singing Words: Poets and their Songs”.

Martyn Harrison


Ed: We apologise for the delay in publishing this review.


Leave a Comment