I’ve been away on holiday so it’s going to be something quick this time – more visual than anything else. Don’t worry – the images are pretty stunning, and well worth a look.
Granville Bantock (1868-1946)
Bantock is a composer with strong links to Birmingham – he was principal of the forerunner to the Royal Birmingham Conservatoire, and he followed Elgar in holding the Peyton Professorship at the University of Birmingham. Unsurprisingly, we hold a lot of his printed scores, as well as some of his manuscripts. This collection is complemented by the one at the University.
Songs of Arabia
These songs were composed and published at the end of the nineteenth century. As such, it’s not difficult to see that Bantock was one of many artists and musicians of that period who were fascinated by the mysterious East. The phenomenon of exoticism , the lure of the ‘otherness’ of far-off places continued in Bantock’s compositions into the next century. The texts of the songs were written by his first wife, Helen.
Songs of Japan
The pretend lacquer work of this cover is excellent (if difficult to photograph). It is the handiwork of an anonymous designer at the publisher, Breitkopf and Hartel . It does feel as though they were so inspired, they tried to fit in everything they could think of. The resulting attempt at Chinoiserie is very attractive, if cluttered.
Looking at the third song, Fan Song, it immediately brings The Mikado to mind. Here’s a sample of the lyrics:
Fluttering her fan, Little maiden of Japan, Sweet O Tatsu San, Fluttering her dainty fan.
The music also has the same gapped scales as The Mikado. An easy way to suggest the music of Japan without the need to have any greater knowledge, perhaps?
Songs of Egypt and Songs of India
[clicking on the images will enlarge them]
The main point of interest for the Egyptian set of songs is the front cover. I love how the designer has tried to convert Bantock’s name into hieroglyphs, even if the ‘c’ looks like a slug. Here’s a performance of the Lament of Isis.
In the Indian set, we’re back to the phenomenon of exoticism. The opening song is The Nautch Girl. These dancers were popular entertainment and their dances were sometimes erotic in tone. This quote from earlier in the nineteenth century gives a flavour of how they were regarded:
“Jealousy and love are hardly ever better portrayed than by the dark flashing eyes, and unrestrained passion, of an Indian natch girl. Very few English admire this exhibition on the first representation, but by repetition it ceases to disgust, and at length, in many cases, comes to form the chief enjoyment of life. It is a fact, however, that whenever this fatal taste is acquired, the moral being of the man becomes more and more enervated, until its healthier European characteristics that are lost in the voluptuous indolence that enthrals the generality of the western Asiatics.”
The English in India, and other sketches, by a traveller (1835)
Helen Bantock’s text is scrubbed clean of any overt sexual tension, yet I wonder what sort of inner pictures listeners might have had.
Songs of Persia
With these songs, another ‘ism’ can be added to the growing list: Orientalism . Here the interest in Persian (Iranian) culture is only looking backwards, or perhaps assuming that the culture hadn’t changed. It’s a facet of Orientalism that Westerners looking in, do so in the belief that Western society is better, more developed.
The first song of the cycle is called Drinking Song: Hafiz to the Sultan Timour. Hafez , or more properly, Khwāja Shams-ud-Dīn Muḥammad Ḥāfeẓ-e Shīrāzī was a poet from the fourteenth-century. His poetic works have had a continuing influence on Iranian writing, and obviously they must have been translated into English for Helen Bantock to know of him and his writing.
This interest in Persian poetry continued into one of Bantock’s largest works, Omar Khayyam. In this, he employed the Fitzgerald reworking of quatrains (rubaiyats) attributed to Omar Khayyam in a three part work for chorus and orchestra.
Songs of China
Bantock also found Chinese influences productive. As well as these songs, he composed several other series of songs using texts taken from Chinese poetry. For these, however, the texts are again by his wife, Helen. It may well be the passage of time and changing tastes, but I find it difficult to read the lyrics without cringing. Here’s a couple of samples:
Ring the music of the bells, Silver, silver sounding bells, Far and wide the echo swells, Ring, ring, ring.
Splendid with cedar-wood, sandal and gold, The palace-courts of the great one behold. The lord of the shining brow, The lord of the house of Chow.
As a taste, here’s a performance of another of Bantock’s songs: Songs from the Chinese 5 – A Feast of Lanterns.
I’ll come back to Bantock and more of his music sometime in the future.