Wednesday, 6 November 2013

Robert Bloomfield set to music

The formal composition of settings of a poet provides an interesting measure of the reputation of a poet and the reception history of his oeuvre.  It does not seem to link in a simple manner to qualities of musicality or melodiousness in the verse being set.  Indeed, the example of Schubert (despite his Goethe, Schiller and Heine settings, Schubert concentrated largely on the dilettante or minor verse of his closest friends), shows how poetry of an indifferent, and even trite, calibre can been made into great songs.  Perhaps great words can prove a hindrance to the composer, because they have too much life of their own and refuse to take a humble second place to the music.  In the words of Boris Ford,  “What suffices, as far as the composer is concerned, is that the words provide a theme, a drama, a sentiment, which lend themselves to being transformed into the finished song” (xi).  Nevertheless, it is often a pleasure to find composers setting good poetry as in the settings of Bloomfield listed here.

Bloomfield’s work was granted musical setting almost from publication.  In contrast, his near contemporary, William Blake, had to wait until 1876 for the first known composed setting of his words (On Another’s Sorrow, for voice and piano by Doyne Courtenay Bell).  There were a couple more Blake songs in the 1890s, and then a flood of compositions from 1900 onwards that still shows no sign of stopping.  Today, Blake has probably overtaken Burns as the most set English-language poet after Shakespeare, whereas Bloomfield’s (and John Clare’s) settings remain few.

This first search for musical settings of Bloomfield’s verse turns up just over two dozen compositions.  Composers, too, are influenced by literary fashion (or Rezeptionsgeschichte as academics call it) and the fashion for Bloomfield was transitory, though intense enough while it lasted.  For whatever reason, great or even significant composers seem to have avoided his work.  The settings are almost entirely by minor, or amateur, composers—some, I think, stemming from personal acquaintanceship with the poet.  The majority of these compositions were written within Bloomfield’s lifetime.

There seem to be very few twentieth-century settings of Bloomfield.  Works by Enfield, Huss, Jones, and Selby are all I can trace.  The great exponents of English song: Gurney, Ireland, Vaughan Williams, etc., seem to have passed him by.   Even Benjamin Britten, who one thought might have responded to a Suffolk poet like Bloomfield as he did to George Crabbe, failed to set any of his poetry.

Robert Bloomfield was himself a capable amateur musician who wrote with music in mind.  Thus, “The Woodland Hall√≥” is subtitled “(perhaps) adapted for music”.  I have found two separate settings of these words.  Stephen Banfield points out that “words for music”, the poet having in mind a hypothetical or real melody as he writes his text, are an important traditional concept in Britain, accounting for many Elizabethan texts, and for much of the poetry of Burns and Moore.  Amongst Bloomfield’s contemporaries, one might also note Byron’s “Stanzas for music” and Shelley’s “The Indian serenade” (first published as “Songs written for an Indian air”).  In a letter to his brother George (8 September 1799), Bloomfield wrote, “You know that I have naturally (in common with the rest of the family) an inclination for music, and that I was formerly a beginner in the practice of it”.  The first published musical setting of Bloomfield is a song to the words of “Rosy Hanna” by his brother Isaac.

Isaac Bloomfield had some pretensions as a composer though lacking formal training.  Robert sought the help of William Shield, Master of the King’s Musicians, in correcting Isaac’s songs for publication: “I showed him the songs, and left them with him; he says they want some trifling amendment in the bass, which he will do.  Then asking if the three which I gave him were all Isaac had composed, I produced the sketch of ‘The Highland Drover.’  ... I left them all, and shall hear from him soon” (letter to George Bloomfield, 23 June 1802).  These songs are now lost.  Isaac’s only other published work is a group of Six Anthems for the use of choirs where there is no organ (London, 1805?).  Did Robert sponsor its publication?  The sale catalogue of his library includes multiple copies, lots 172 to 179, of “Six Anthems, composed by Mr. Bloomfield’s brother Isaac”.  There is a score in the British Library at G.517.a.(2.). 

Still missing are any settings by William Shield.  Writing to George Bloomfield (23 June 1802), Robert comments, “I have seen Mr. Shield; he is a man simple and unaffected in his manners to a striking degree, and ready to assist where he can. ... Mr. Shield was so pleased with my ‘Poll Rayner,’ that he has set it long ago, and has it by him (perhaps unfinished)”.  Bloomfield’s publishers later proposed that Shield set the ballads included in Bloomfield’s The Banks of Wye (1811).  In a letter to John Davy (10 July 1811) he writes, “A poem of mine, of considerable length, is now on the point of publication.  It contains four incidental songs well adapted for music.  The booksellers, who are half proprietors, fixed on Mr. Shield to furnish tunes, and he either will not, or cannot, do it.  It is now left to me to seek a friend who will do it; not gratuitously, for your terms will be attended to. The music is intended to be printed with the book, and therefore will have an immediate and wide circulation.  I remember your former attentions, and request to know if any such proposal can be listened to on your part, for you are highly capable of doing credit to the work”.  The plan foundered when Davy, the Devon-born, London-based composer of popular songs, asked for a fashionable thirty-five guineas to set them.  Like the majority of Isaac Bloomfield’s songs and Shield’s “Poll Rayner”, these ballad-settings by Davy, if they ever existed, are now long lost.

The settings by Crotch, Firth, and Raper are described as “glees”.  The Anglo-Saxon term “glee” referred to almost any type of secular part-song other than the often-bawdy canonic catch.  From the mid-eighteenth century, and over the next century or so, the “glee club”, devoted to convivial part-singing, became a national institution.  It grew out of the venerable tradition of male-only tavern music, which was becoming more wide-ranging towards the end of the eighteenth century—and more respectable, some of the clubs going so far as to admit female singers.  The glee-singing world was musical, sociable and epicurean, yet in some ways extraordinarily isolated from the great developments of European music.

In Bloomfield’s lifetime, the glee thrived as dilettante music, as did the light music of the pleasure gardens.  The most notable composer to have set Bloomfield’s verse is James Hook.  Hook was born in Norwich in 1746, and came to London in the early 1760s, quickly becoming a prolific and successful composer.  For nearly fifty years, he was organist at Vauxhall, writing over 2,000 songs, and knew a good commercial proposition when he saw it—setting a newly fashionable poet. He composed no fewer than five settings of Bloomfield’s poems between 1805 and 1810.  Hook was also a successful music teacher, and Bloomfield clearly knew his Guida da musica instruction manuals, inventing words to some of Hook’s tunes (see The Remains of Robert Bloomfield, vol. I, pp. 51-56).  For some reason, almost certainly financial, Hook left London in 1820 without notice.  The manager at Vauxhall kept his place open for a whole season, but he never returned.  James Hook died at Boulogne in 1827.

The use of traditional tunes by poets, or the invention of their own melodies by poets, provides valuable insight into the musicality of a poet, how the lyric impulse is manifested, and the process of composition itself.  Robert Bloomfield belongs with William Blake and John Clare, all poets known to have sung their own work, marking a return to the days of Thomas Campion and John Dowland, when musician and poet were the same person.  By using traditional melodies as well as ones of the poet’s own composition, Bloomfield, like Clare, is not, as some allege, simply demonstrating continuity with an oral, predominantly labouring-class, tradition.  He was writing at a time when European fashion for folk-song (and imitation folk-song) reached a peak as witnessed by the arrangements of traditional English, Scottish and Welsh songs by Haydn and Beethoven.

Blake sang his verse to tunes of his own invention, now lost; Bloomfield to his own tunes and to traditional melodies.  Bloomfield’s Selected Poems, edited by John Goodridge and John Lucas, includes the music of “Ligoran Cosh”, to which Bloomfield’s Song “The man in the moon look’d down one night” is set.  This tune is also mentioned by Walter Scott in Chapter 24 of The Bride of Lammermoor; its title is a poor transliteration of a Gaelic original.  (Unfortunately, the editors chose to offer a late version of the tune, collected in Chicago in the early twentieth century, which leaves unanswered the question of what Bloomfield’s source might have been.)  On 17 May 1803, Bloomfield was a guest at Dr Jenner’s 53rd birthday party, singing a song of his own composition in honour of the occasion.  The music has not survived.  For his sole venture into the theatre, Hazelwood-Hall: A village drama. In three acts (London: pr. for Baldwin, Cradock & Joy, 1823), Bloomfield composed songs, ballads, and glees.  Alas all lost.

Sources and Further Reading
Banfield, Stephen.
Sensibility and English Song: Critical Studies of the early 20th Century (Cambridge: The University Press, 1985)
Bloomfield, Robert.
The remains of Robert Bloomfield ... in two volumes (London: Printed by Thomas Davison ... for the exclusive benefit of the family of Mr. Bloomfield, and published by Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy, 1824)
“... it is proposed to publish by Subscription a Collection of his best Songs, set to Music, some by himself, some by his brother Isaac, and some by celebrated living composers. ... As soon as 100 copies are subscribed for, the Selection will be printed by Messrs. Goulding and Co. Soho Square, London, who will receive Subscriptions.” (Vol. I, pp.191-92.)
Gooch 1952.
Bloomfield, Robert.
Selected poems.  Revised and enlarged edition.  Edited by John Goodridge and John Lucas, with an introduction by John Lucas (Nottingham: Trent Editions, 2007)
Contains the tune for “Ligoran Cosh”.
Bloomfield, Robert.
Selections from the correspondence of Robert Bloomfield, the Suffolk poet; edited by W. H. Hart (London, Printed by Spottiswoode, 1870)
Fairchild, B. H.
Such Holy Song: Music as Idea, Form and Image in the Poetry of William Blake (Kent OH: Kent State University Press, 1980)
Fitch, Donald.
Blake set to music : a bibliography of musical settings of the poems and prose of William Blake. University of California publications. v. 5 Catalogs and bibliographies (Berkeley : University of California Press, c1990)
Lists 1,412 settings of Blake.
Ford, Boris, ed.
Benjamin Britten’s poets: the poetry he set to music. Revised ed. (Manchester: Carcanet, 1996)
Munby, A. N. L.
Poets and men of letters. Sale catalogues of libraries of eminent persons, 1-2 (London: Mansell, 1971)
The Bloomfield sale, vol. I, pages 67-84: “This rare locally printed catalogue of the sale of the contents of his house is unusually informative and apart from its literary interest is a social document of some value, because men of Bloomfield’s class rarely had their possessions itemised in such detail.  The first day’s sale, containing the poet’s books, shows the degree to which his friends and admirers had helped to build up his small library. ...  In the second day’s sale are to be found the simple furnishings of the small three-bedroomed house, with its dripping pan, cheese-toaster, bootjack and other bygones”.
Wickett, William.
The Farmer’s Boy. The story of a Suffolk poet, Robert Bloomfield, his life and poems, 1766-1823. By William Wickett and Nicholas Duval (Lavenham: Terence Dalton, 1971)


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