The journey that led to the CD Songs Now: British Songs of the 21st Century and the forthcoming Late Music lunchtime concert by Alistair Dongahue and Polly Sharpe on Saturday 2nd October 2021 began in 2008 when I won the St Hughs Foundation annual award. This is a generous award made to one creative person each year living and/or working anywhere in Lincolnshire. My award was to enable me to write two new pieces – a song cycle and a string quartet – and to put on a short Festival in Grimsby Minster – which I called the Grimsby St Hughs Festival – that would include the premieres of my new pieces. Additional funding from the Arts Council enabled me to bring The Sixteen to Grimsby to headline the Festival and all went well. Inevitably there was pressure on me to make this an annual event and, perhaps equally inevitably, I succumbed!
In 2009, the NMC label released its quadruple ‘NMC Songbook’ CD comprising specially written songs by just over 100 British composers. Having quite enjoyed earlier song compilations such as Mary Weigold’s Songbook from the 1980s – and myself being a composer for whom song is quite central – I hastened to get a copy of the NMC Songbook. When it arrived I was very impressed. True, it’s a mixed bag as such endeavours are perhaps bound to be, but the best songs on it were very good indeed – and there were a lot of them. There was talk of a revival of British artsong in the media and elsewhere and I could see that this was a very real possibility.
For the 2010 Grimsby St Hughs Festival, I decided to devote a day comprising three concerts and a talk to 20th and 21st century British Song. A number of composers offered recently written or specially written song cycles. I commissioned a new cycle from Emily Hall as she was the composer of my favourite song on the NMC Songbook. The day went very well, was well attended and I was very gratified by how many people bought day passes and came to everything. Audience surveys throughout the day showed that the 21st century songs were every bit as liked as those by composers such as Britten, Gurney, Warlock and Butterworth. The talk on British Song by Peter Reynolds was excellent and we all learned a lot from Peter, as always.
However, for me, it was the 21st century songs and the very favourable audience reactions they elicited that made the strongest impression. I decided to try to make a CD of them. Before doing anything I got excellent advice on how to do this from Dr Jeremy Wells of York University to whom I will always be grateful. Disappointingly – for contractual reasons – Emily’s cycle couldn’t be included on the CD but I think I got the best of the rest.
The recording itself took place over three days at the National Centre for Early Music. Paul Carey Jones was the baritone, Ian Ryan the pianist and Jez Wells recorded and edited the CD. Everything went smoothly in the recording sessions due to everyone’s sheer professionalism but one incident is perhaps worth mentioning. We had agreed a schedule for the three days. However, on the first day Paul announced that he wished to do one section of one of Richard Whalley’s songs the following morning as he would be better able to get the low notes. This, I was told, would be further aided by his consuming a brandy in the evening. Er . . OK. The following morning he got the notes beautifully. Result. I found myself wondering if the cost of the brandy would appear on his invoice! It didn’t.
Now the fun started as I sought a label for the CD. Twelve labels turned it down and I began to get worried. Then the Meridian label accepted it, partly due to the very high quality of Jez’s recording – Meridian prides itself on this – and perhaps also from some behind the scenes help from Peter Reynolds who knew one of the Meridian managers. Anyhow, the CD came out in 2012 and secured some very favourable reviews including a thoughtful and very positive one in Tempo by Timothy Raymond. Talks and performances followed and the CD seemed a success.
However, time passes and it recently struck me that the CD is nearly ten years old now. I felt it was time to give it another push and so I was delighted when Late Music invited me to curate a concert based on the CD. I decided to do eight songs from the CD – one by each of the eight composers on the CD – plus eight songs from the NMC Songbook. This programme – I believe – is a strong advocate for and insight into just how many high quality songs British composers are writing nowadays. I am grateful to Alistair Donahue and Penny Sharpe – neither of whom I have worked with before – for taking on this programme. I hope this concert inspires many more performers and listeners to seek out more of the wonderful songs that are being written nowadays.
David Power – www.davidpowercomposer.co.uk