Poetry and music co-habit most successfully at St Andrew’s lunchtime concert

St Andrew’s lunchtime concerts
Ingrid Prosser and Colin Decio – a programme featuring piano and poetry
Debussy: La cathédrale engloutie (No 10 of Preludes, book 1)
Tennyson: Poem: The Lady of Shalott
Rachmaninov: Preludes, Op 23, Nos 4 & 5
Ingrid Prosser: Poem: Jehanne la Pucelle
Ravel: Miroirs, No 4 – Alborada del gracioso

St Andrews Church, 30 The Terrace

Wednesday 27 March, 12:15 pm

The world of music has almost totally overwhelmed the world of poetry. That’s not to say that there has ever been a large, ravenous audience for poetry, particularly over the past couple of centuries. There are probably few people today who have poetry anthologies and even volumes of poetry by the likes of Wordsworth, Keats, Tennyson, Kipling, on their shelves; fewer than those with a piano in the house. Most of the population under the age of about 60 have hardly been exposed in school to the huge treasury of poetry in English, let alone in other languages. The time when my own generation heard their teachers and even their parents quoting bits of poetry or reading poems to their pupils or their own children, seems like a completely foreign, vanished era.

The choice of poems and music here was not random. Debussy’s sunken cathedral was an inspired piece to set alongside one of Tennyson’s best-known poems.

La cathédrale engloutie is inspired by a Breton legend about an ancient city, Ys (also the subject of an opera by Lalo, Le roi d’Ys; inter alia, Roberto Alagna sings an aria from it on his CD ‘French arias’), built on reclaimed land surrounded by dykes; there is a gate in the dyke that can be opened at low tide and the king’s daughter steals the key and opens the gate, causing the city to be flooded: thus the cathedral is submerged. On clear mornings the cathedral can be seen, its carillon bells heard. Both the Ys legend and Tennyson’s elusive elaboration of an episode from the Arthurian legends can be seen as products of an overheated Romantic imagination, dealing with the perils of transgressing an unarticulated separation of the real world from that of the creative imagination.

Colin Decio’s playing sounded immediately authoritative with its heavy modal chords, though there was little mystery or other-worldliness. He captured the atmosphere of engulfing waters sensitively with evocative bass notes and a sense of ancient legend.

The Lady of Shallot
Ingrid Prosser picked up the mystical thread of water as an agent of the supernatural, with Tennyson’s Lady of Shallot. It’s a story with its slender origin in Arthurian legend, about Lancelot and the Lady of Shallot, who dies love-stricken, from a mysterious curse, the result of the conflict between the isolated artist and the physical world beyond the isolated island where she lives alone, weaving her magic web.  Hugely popular in its day, it inspired painters like Holman Hunt and Waterhouse whose reproductions are everywhere, including my childhood home, where poem and painting were closely connected.

So the poem had a curious impact for me, as I hadn’t heard it read aloud since my father’s bedside reading (typically of his generation, Tennyson had special meaning for him, and I have his well-thumbed volume, dating from his first year at university, with his initials gold-embossed on the front of the leather binding). There was a good deal more darkness and rhetorical character in his reading than with Prosser’s lighter tone that let the narrative speak clearly. Tennyson’s strict rhythmic and rhyming patterns (four rhymes in short successive lines) are singular and it was a delight to hear it and for light to shine through its strange, enigmatic story, symbolic, ahead of the symbolist movement proper later in the 19th century.

Rachmaninov and Ravel
Colin Decio returned to play two Rachmaninov preludes: the D major and the G minor, from Op 23; the first warm and lyrical that has something of a ‘ballade’ character about it, and the second in the very familiar marching style with its contrasted contemplative section. They were intelligently and musically played – not immaculately perhaps, but with affection and a keen ear to the sometimes unruly acoustic in the church. And his third offering was Ravel’s Alborada del gracioso, more often heard in its brilliant orchestral version: sudden dynamic shifts, even from one note to the next, again with a middle section that imposed a calm on the impulsive frenzy of the outer parts. Slightly marred by slips but a splendid performance nevertheless.

I tried to find narrative or emotional links between these piano pieces and the poem that lay between them, but nothing other than a common military quality in the G minor prelude and Joan of Arc’s story came to mind.

Prosser’s ‘Jehanne la pucelle’
Ingrid Prosser’s narrative poem was inspired by a journey in a part of France: the estuary of the Somme which has a connection with the march of Joan of Arc, ‘Jehanne la pucelle’, to her trial and execution by the English in Rouen. It had the character of a dramatic poem touching on many aspects of Anglo-French history and the ridiculous monarchical conflict, the Hundred Years War.

Just brief background: That war had its origin in the Norman invasion of England (William the Conqueror), which implied English rule over parts of France and tempted the English to extend their rule to the entire country. Joan of Arc entered the scene to revive French determination to rid the country of the English, whose ambitions to conquer more of France, had been re-inspired by Henry V’s victory at Agincourt, in 1415. After Henry V died in 1422, it looked as if the English could prevail, until the emergence of Joan which led to decisive French victory at the siege of Orléans in 1429. But in 1430 she was captured by the Burgundians, English allies, and handed to the English at Rouen which the English had held. There, in 1431, she was tried and burned at the stake. English strength in France then fell apart, and a more centralised France with a professional army soon became the most powerful force in Europe. For the English, defeat on the Continent led indirectly to the Wars of the Roses.

Poetry has changed since the late nineteenth century: regular rhythms and multiple rhymes are unimportant, which leaves poems dependent on the play of ideas and evocative imagery and symbols and suggestive references. Though the details of the story of Joan’s emergence, reviving French determination to regain control of their country, are only known sketchily to most, Ingrid Prosser’s weaving  the names of saints and places into a framework of words and imagery, and events, created a persuasive emotional and even pictorial story. And the spirited, histrionic manner of her delivery held the attention.

There are many styles of poetic recitation, and some with their roots in elocution lessons, imagined ‘English’ theatrical speech and private school education, are today intolerable. Prosser’s style was both poetic and narrative in a natural way and she held audience attention through her mixture of naturalness and conviction.

I hope that this successful recital will inspire further poetic undertakings of similar kinds.


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