Monday, May 11, 2015

Fairies, Hooligans, and Thugs

From p. 4 of the 1928 reprint of Silver Pennies (Macmillan, 1925) for Rose Fyleman's "The fairies have never a penny to spend...but theirs is the earth and the sky" (illus. by Winifred Brumhall).  The illustrators of Andrew Lang's Red, Yellow, etc., Fairy Books, a generation earlier, have fairies with better wings (more like dragonflies'), but I don't have those at hand.
Now, is it only the opera and ballet for "A Midsummer Night's Dream"?
For the little moth-like wings attached to the waists of dancers in the 20th-century ballet "Les Sylphides" are not to be taken too literally.  Indeed, in childhood, long before I'd read any Shakespeare, I had formed the notion that winged creatures in art are to be understood as asomatoi, as supernatural, when monstrous in the literal sense, with oddly assembled parts: pegasoi, griffins, sphinxes, chimaeras, and the rest.  Probably originally Celtic, often scary or tempting, they do not belong to Mediterranean or Near Eastern folklore, though wingedness, as such, is pervasive.

But the fairies of idealized childhood (and, having been children, we all knew better than that) reigned in the cultures of European languages exactly from the generation of Mendelssohn through the first third of the 20th century.  Of course we knew that the Tooth Fairy who left a coin for a tooth under one's pillow, and used the current coinage of our own nation, had to be parental, just as the "secret" of Santa Claus coming down the chimney was realized as something we kept, in league with our parents, from the younger children.  Still, we accepted and loved the fairies in our story books (especially those inherited from the preceding generation).  The fairy folk of the 1960s were of a different kind; they had different agenda.

So I only knew the poems of Rose Fyleman from Silver Pennies, published a decade before I was born.  And when Larry Johnson, sharing a radio program of art songs about flower gardens, first played John McCormack singing Balfe's version of "Come into the garden, Maud" and betrayed having no idea of what sort of poem it was excerpted from (and was surprised it was Tennyson—he might have been more surprised by the Laureate's having written "Sweet and Low"), and then found slightly naughty-seeming hilarity in "There are fairies at the bottom of our garden", I was convinced that he must be at most half my age and that (like my last students) he found it too much trouble to go to Wikipedia: apparently the ease of getting material has become inimical to its actual use.

I'll start with fairies, since I put some as a headpiece here: the fairies called "Victorian", which seem to abound most in Late Victorian and Edwardian contexts.  Shakespeare's Oberon and Titania, in fact, seem different from those intended for children.  Rose Fyleman wrote mostly (and abundantly) for children, but much of the verse and song-settings were as often by males.  Still, when we see that Liza Lehmann retired from the operatic stage precisely because she married, and so turned to composition and musical essays and, as a married woman, Rose Fyleman was not the only one to write for children, I was nonetheless surprised that "There are fairies at the bottom of our garden" was Fyleman's first published verse, and Liza Lehmann must have gotten it directly from Fyleman's work.

When I chose my illustration it was just because I had known it for three quarters of a century and could not locate my copies of the Andrew Lang Fairy Book collections.  Mr. Johnson may have got the notion that the "bottom of the garden" locus for fairies was naughty from Beatrice Lillie (hers is the best comedic version on YouTube) or from the earlier "bushes at the bottom of the garden" ditty that, I think, was from the music hall and certainly was naughty.  What he did NOT know is that the use of "fairy" for a catamite (OED) was only c. 1924 when it was imported from America—not that English hadn't already (see Eric Partridge) plenty of epithets for effeminate manners. Therefore, the Fyleman-Lehmann song referred only to the overgrown weedy, potentially secretive character of the parts of the garden behind or at the back of the potting sheds.  Neither did most of the other songs about fairies that I found.  We must be grateful to Hyperion Records, and to Graham Johnson in particular, for giving us wonderful performances of hundreds of English songs.  In this case, it gave me many evenings of listening to those I had acquired, just because they were Hyperion and had singers like Anthony Rolfe Johnson (of course, all these Johnsons are not related) and Benjamin Luxon, just to name two.  Even so, I missed getting the Somervell songs.  But the CD of songs by woman composers has more of Liza Lehmann than anyone else, and deservedly so.  Generally she chose good poets, too, starting with the Rubbayat of Oman Khayyan.  The famous translation by Edward FitzGerald (1809–1883) had been published in 1859, the same year as Darwin's Origin of Species, as Dick Sullivan points out in The Victorian Web). The label on a red-seal record of the tenor aria, "Oh Moon of my Delight" was where I first knew of Liza Lehmann (it is good to be an inveterate label-reader).  Liza Lehmann's first major work was this, In a Persian Garden (1896).  As always, my grandparents' record collection, most of which has come down to me.  Lehmann's early work shows the facts both of her talent and her training: many woman composers were not so professionally trained.  Another composer that Crooks made memorable, Stephen Foster, was indeed a mere songwriter for want of education.  
In the era of shellac 78rpm 12" red seals costing several dollars apiece, persons merely of innate taste had the most extraordinary breadth of repertory in their collections.  Sometimes I wonder what Foster might have become with a richer environment; many women musicians, not only Americans, in the 19th century wrote pretty drivel simply because they could not avail themselves of more, I think.  It is no crime to write for children, of course; Debussy certainly did, for example.  J. S. Bach, for instance, wrote for his own children—the whole family did so.
Before I turn to Alfred Lord Tennyson, the favorite Fairy record of my childhood, a 10" Brunswick of "The Fairy Pipers" sung by Sigrid Onegin (Clara Butt's version, utterly different but wonderful, too, is likewise on YouTube).  This is neither great poetry nor great music, but, with good reason, it made it onto Nimbus Prima Voce Party, a party record, with its booklet, that I dearly love.  The words are by Weatherly, who churned out lyrics much as Gus Kahn did, but not so cleverly.  It was he who harnessed the Londonderry Air with "Danny Boy".  The music for "The Fairy Pipers" must be by Sir Alfred Brewer of Gloucester (1865–1928) of whom Stanley Sadie says that his works range from cantatas to popular songs.  No one will claim that a good education sufficed for Brewer...  But the song must be heard, and both versions are memorable.  Sigrid Onegin had a wonderful voice and great technique, as she will show you (but the technique rather of an ice skater than of a ballerina).  I think she also was the soprano in Trovatore, with Mario Chamlee, for the opening of the San Francisco Opera.  But just go to YouTube for her.

Now, what led me to Maud?  It wasn't YouTube, though it's there.  It was The Silver Masked Tenor, and I have the very record that, in perfect condition, is on YouTube.  It was an inexpensive (out of a bin of cheapies) mono LP honoring John McCormack, because, as Robert White  explains on the jacket, his father Joseph White, known as The Silver Masked Tenor (and he doesn't explain why), admired and emulated McCormack.  A slew of John McCormack repertory (non-operatic) is on this record, headed, on side two, by "Come into the garden Maud, for the black bat, night, has flown" (music by Balfe, yes of "The Bohemian Girl" from which Sutherland and Horne love encores like "I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls" and "Then you'll remember me"; it was from a book of simple piano selections that I'd met Balfe's name, rather than from record labels—and words by Tennyson).  Now, Robert White was not quite his father, just as his father was not quite McCormack, but I have always enjoyed this record.  It has things that if you hear them at all are spoiled by what I think of as Lawrence Welk treatment, though its own arrangements are not such as I like best.  When one has got one's fill of Weatherly, "black bat night" is wonderfully striking.  But then, having in hand the Norton Tennyson, I had to find it: it is the last poem, XXII, in Part I of Maud.   So, just as the Fairies questions had led to lots of reading, so Maud led me, finally, having bought at a bargain (dog-eared) the Norton Tennyson, fully intending to finally read him.  But the Hyperion English Songs led me to Somervell (now I need to get that CD, having only the Hyperion sampler that includes his Maud setting, and it is not only their recommendation that convinces me that it is more substantial than Balfe's).  I really am ashamed that it took this to get me to Tennyson.  And to Somervell.  May I say that buying books that you may not read for years also is not a bad idea.

Finally, though I still have unused notes and notions, I'll stop here.  I knew this would be difficult to make into a good blog post.  It is always hard to teach or to write essays on material one hasn't mulled over and worked over for years and years.  But I have done my best, and I hope it will inspire you too to learn by free association and checking up on things you'd neglected before.

And about the title that I gave this post.  I'll leave to your imagination the questions of worsened words and of in-group self depredation in the histories of spoken language.