Roderick Williams: The Great English Songbook

Posted on: March 3, 2016 in: Programmes>2016-17 Season>RE:Imagine>The Great English Songbook

On Wednesday 9 March, renowned baritone Roderick Williams joins us at Southwark Cathedral for a very special concert of English song and string music – including Roderick’s own arrangements of Bach and Butterworth. We caught up with him about what he thinks ‘The Great English Songbook’ is, the early 20th Century folk song revival and how arranging works has shaped his performances.

What do you think ‘The Great English Songbook’ is?

I guess we’re all used to the phrase ‘American Songbook’ and have a vague notion of what does and doesn’t belong in that category.  I’ve only recently become aware of the idea of an ‘English songbook’ and I suppose it to mean the flowering of song-writing in the UK that spans the end of the nineteenth century from Stanford, Parry and Elgar through to the regressive composers still writing tonal music during the second half of the twentieth century.  So that would obviously include the songs of Vaughan Williams, Butterworth, Gurney and Finzi who are represented in the CLS programme, but also John Ireland, Peter Warlock, Roger Quilter, E J Moeran and Benjamin Britten.  I’m not so sure that the Manchester Group for example, (i.e. Maxwell Davies, Goehr and Birtwistle) would fit the bill, although there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.  But I think the term alludes to a certain pastoral, tonal tradition of song setting that inspired amateur and professional singers alike to rejoice once again in singing English repertoire rather than necessarily being in thrall to the German Lied or opera arias.

How important was the collection of English folk melody in developing an English voice in the early part of the twentieth century?

To my mind,the most important aspect of this work was the nurturing of a sense of cultural identity.  The end of the nineteenth century saw this in music from all across Europe and beyond; what composers such as Grieg, Dvořák, Nielsen, Smetana and Sibelius were creating in their own countries was being copied in the UK.  Serious musicologists such as Kodály and Bartók were placing folk traditions centre stage and so those English musicians who followed the lead of Cecil Sharp and his colleagues were no longer seen as eccentric enthusiasts but as a necessary and important part of the mainstream.

I’m sure that in, for example, Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad settings, the template of English folksong is fundamental.  Butterworth matched the outwardly simple nature of Housman’s poems with deliberately simple melody; the profundity is in the subtext in both words and music but the restraint derives from folksong.

We will be performing your arrangement of Butterworth’s Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad. Has arranging them changed the way you think about, and perform, them?

If anything, arranging the songs for strings has been an exercise in making the chamber music experience as close as possible to performing with a pianist.  For example, I was keen that each player should have the vocal line in the instrumental part, as a pianist would, so that they can each take responsibility for accompanying the voice.  I hoped this might also foster a connection with the poetry, so that everyone knows what Butterworth’s accompaniment is designed to illustrate.  In essence, I try to perform the piece exactly as I would with a pianist, wherever practical.

Do you have a favourite out of the Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad? If so, why?

I enjoy them all for different reasons.  I’m sure the final song is a favourite for many people but I also note that this is the song in which I’ve suffered most lapses of concentration in past performances, perhaps because it is the last song, with several, very similar verses.  So I’ve learned to give this song special respect in performance.

Gurney’s and Finzi’s cycles hark back to a bygone age – but they are unmistakably from the twentieth century. How ‘Elizabethan’ are they, how ‘20th Century’ are they?

As in architecture, with the fashion for Elizabethan cladding, so many twentieth century composers liked to re-invent a concept of Elizabethan song.  In a sense it is an attempt to connect one golden age of song with another and there is everything to be gained from learning from past masters.  In the last fifty years or so the whole concept of ‘period performance’ has made some of this faux renaissance feel a little mannered but, on the other hand, it has inspired composers to write some beautiful melodies too.

The concert on 9 March features CLS’s strings in works like Vaughan Williams’ Five Variants of Dives and Lazarus. Is there any parallel between vocal music and string music?

I’m sure many instrumental players will tell how they have been coached to play more ‘vocally’ and, in some cases, singers have been asked to think a little more instrumentally.  Fundamentally the difference is, of course, in the conveying of text.  An instrument can copy articulation in imitation of vocal inflection but it can’t deliver actual text; its language is more abstract.  Then the whole question of breathing in music becomes an issue when comparing vocal to instrumental music, especially for strings as opposed to brass and woodwind.  So parallels may be drawn in order from one to learn from another but those parallels are, essentially, artificial.

We will also be hearing the world première of your arrangement of the Bourée from Bach’s Cello Suite in C, as part of our ‘Bach RE:Imagined’ series. Why did you pick the Bourée – what is it like to rework a piece by a composer such as Bach?

This particular Bourée is one that I remember especially clearly from my cello-playing days as a schoolboy; it is one that I found myself scat singing from time to time, in the knowledge that I could most likely sing it far better than I could ever play it.  It is daunting to be asked to expand on music by Bach as his music is so complete; there is hardly room for any further work by a composer.  In treating the Bourée as I have, I am only really paying homage to an iconic piece for me and adding layers to the original in a personal flight of fancy.

Tickets for The Great English Songbook are available online at