When I wrote my first opera Medea I had written nothing for the human voice, nothing for orchestra and nothing, for that matter for the stage. In the circumstances it was perhaps a rash decision to accept the commission but I looked for inspiration and guidance to certain compositional models and the chief of these was Percy Grainger. Although there is nothing for the stage in his output (apart from the curious conjectured staging of The Warriors) in terms of a feeling for the human voice and of an ear for the most precise orchestration there are few composers to equal him.
His folk-song settings are without question extraordinarily fine with their great respect for text (including details on pronunciation in, for example, Sprig of Thyme), for the nuances retained from the original transcribed performances, and ultimately an awareness of the absolutely right setting for them. There is little point in finding an exquisite precious stone if the jeweller cuts it badly and sets it in a ring that only draws attention to the metal surround. And Grainger’s folk-songs are jewels and his settings give them new and brilliant life.
For me Shallow Brown is one of the most stunningly original of Grainger’s folk-song settings and is, perhaps, a little unusual in his output in that he seems to have found the one way of setting this piece rather than creating several different treatments. True he offers various options for the combination of voice and chorus, and true he has a minimum orchestration to which can be added various optional extras. But this is not really an example of ‘elastic scoring’ but rather the practical musician’s recognition of what is essential and what other variants are possible, and even desirable.
I did, in fact, conduct Shallow Brown on several occasions – there are still guitars, each strung with 6 identical strings in the university’s instrument store cupboard – and I got to know the piece very well. Its structure is, on the surface, remarkably simple. There are 6 short verses with each verse having four lines (A,B,A,B) using the same combination of solo voice (A), followed by choral response (B). The piece stays in the same key (B flat major) throughout, with each verse having exactly the same broad harmonic pattern with chorus singing what appears to be the same cadential figure. The first cadence is always to C minor and the second back to the home key of B flat. Such a scheme sounds, from this outline, simplistic to a fault, yet Grainger, by following the progressive narrative, injects into each of these cadences an increasing anguish so that they are never the same, a device which bears comparison with, say, Schubert’s equivalent technique in Der Erlkönig. The tension increases verse by verse, reaching its height in the fifth verse (“For your return my heart is burning”) and then, with consummate skill, Grainger allows a spatial calm to return to the last verse which, for the text at least, is the same as the first, adding a richly chromatic coda of a mere 6 bars.
In addition to these exquisite harmonic nuances he plays wonderful games with shifting musical time values. There are seldom more than two consecutive bars with the same time signature and the same words – the choral response “Shaller, Shaller Brown” – uses a bewildering variety of rhythms but which always sound to the listener perfectly natural. The dynamics too are extremely precise and very extreme: the first bar, for example, has a single chord, played tremolando (or rather “woggled”) which has a crescendo and diminuendo from ppp to fff and back to pp. Throughout the music seldom stays on one dynamic plane, playing with the natural rise and fall associated with the marine context. As Grainger says in his short programme note he aimed “to convey a suggestion of wafted, wind-borne, surging sounds heard at sea”.
And then there is the astonishing orchestration, which should be required study for any aspiring composer (along with the orchestral songs of Strauss). The minimum ensemble is quite small – 13 players including his beloved harmonium. But the extra instruments add immensely to the subtle colours and, eventually, to the drama of the piece. It is a stroke of genius to keep until the climax at the end of the fifth verse a huge arpeggio, lasting just over one beat, played by the optional piccolo and flute, doubling the obligatory clarinet, which cover the entire range of the instrument, played fff with the instruction “brillante possibile”. Throughout there are poignant solo phrases from individual wind instruments, notably euphonium, bassoon and horn, and Grainger recognises the family similarities with this group but also their individual differences.
Finally, the question arises of which vocal combination is the best one from the choices that Grainger offers. Although I used a variant of number 3 (mezzo-soprano voice and male chorus) on each occasion, I have the greatest admiration for the performance conducted by Benjamin Britten with soloist John Shirley-Quirk which chooses version 4 (male solo voice and unison male chorus) which is pretty well as definitive as anything can ever be in Grainger’s music…..