Reconstructions and reclamations of text, declamation and music at the turn of the 20th century

At the turn of the 20th century artists in England, Europe, and the United States were exploring the presentation of text in stylised forms of performance that they distinguished from music. In England, W. B. Yeats, Gilbert Murray, and others developed the practice of 'chanting'; in America music publishers developed 'recitations' for amateurs; in Germany there evolved a rich tradition of 'melodrama'; and in France, composers and poets together transgressed the boundary between poetry and song, speech and performance. Many of these practices have fallen into disuse, but there is growing interest both in revivals and in creative re-conceptions. The present research project, spearheaded by Professor William Brooks, weaves together several strands of work.

First, Brooks has been engaged for several years in creating new works in which W. B. Yeats’s practice is redeployed for artistic as well as research purposes. Research outputs thus far include a half-hour composition, Everlasting Voices; a book chapter', Historical Precedents for Artistic Research in Music: the Case of William Butler Yeats', in Artistic Experimentation in Music: An Anthology (Leuven University Press, 2014); a lecture 'Everlasting Voices: William Butler Yeats and the practice of Chaunting', presented six times to date, in England, Ireland, Belgium, and the United States; and a 'conception', After Yeats, intended to be realised by speakers of languages other than English, playing a stringed instrument and declaiming Yeats in translation.

Second, Brooks’s work on Yeats is heavily dependent on the path-breaking study by Ronald Schuchard, The Last Minstrels: Yeats and the Revival of the Bardic Arts (Oxford University Press, 2008). A related, trans-Atlantic project brings Schuchard (Professor Emeritus, Emory University) together with recent York PhD graduate Robin Bier to recreate performances that were given by Florence Farr in the early twentieth century. Using a replica of the 'psaltery' that Yeats designed, built by Schuchard according to the original drawings and specifications, Bier’s reconstructions draw on the fragmentary evidence in scores and other documents created by Yeats, Farr, Arnold Dolmetsch, and others, as explored in Schuchard’s study. Although Bier will focus initially on Yeats’s texts, there is ample reason to extend the reconstructed practice to other writers of the time, as Farr did.

Third, it is possible to discern a more general Irish focus in much of this work, extending well beyond Yeats. This broader domain is, in part, the subject of Professor Matt Campbell’s (University of York, English Department) recent work, especially as evidenced in Irish Poetry under the Union, 1801–1924 (Cambridge University Press, 2013). Brooks has also moved beyond Yeats, applying declamatory techniques to the writer J. M. Synge in a piece for vocal quartet, Tracce (2013). The text for this is taken from Synge’s highly idiosyncratic translations of Petrarch sonnets, which are rendered into colloquially Irish English—in effect, the idiom used by the characters in Synge’s plays. Poised against text-setting practices of composers like Monteverdi, who commonly drew on Petrarch, a kind of counterpoint of practices results in which the two approaches illuminate and critique each other. Brooks plans additional settings of Synge in future pieces.

Aspects of these three strands were brought together in three events. The first of these was a two-day festival, Words for Music Perhaps, that celebrated the Yeats sesquicentenary at York, July 3 and 4. The third was a day-long series of performances and lectures at the Yeats International Summer School, Sligo, Ireland, on July 29. In between there were two study days held at the Orpheus Institute, Belgium.

Words for Music Perhaps brought together Brooks, Schuchard and Campbell, together with seven performers. Schuchard and Campbell lectured, and they were joined by Brooks in a panel discussion. Bier presented her reconstructions, introduced in dialogue with Schuchard; and three versions of After Yeats were premiered, by Lucia d’Errico (in Italian, accompanied by guitar), Merit Stephanos (in Arabic, accompanied by oud), and Thuy Thanh (in Vietnamese, accompanied by dan tranh). The festival concluded with an evening concert on July 4, part of the York Late Music Festival, by Everlasting Voices. This vocal quintet, comprised of recent York graduates, offered the first performances of five commissioned works setting Yeats’s texts, by William Brooks, Michael Parkin, and three recent York PhDs, Jonathan Brigg, Stef Conner, and Jon Hughes.

In Sligo, Schuchard again talked and introduced Bier’s reconstructed performances. Brooks introduced d’Errico, Stephanos, and Thuy, who again presented After Yeats. However, Sligo also included a full performance of Everlasting Voices, preceded by Brooks’s talk on 'Chaunting.'

The Orpheus study days are more broadly conceived. Schuchard and Brooks presented, as did Bier, d’Errico, Stephanos, and Thuy; but their work was concentrated on the second day. On the first they were joined by Valentin Gloor, a performer who has developed a specific form of the 'Liederabend' into which usually silent materials are integrated such as (original musical and textual) sketches, (recited) texts or contemporary contrafactura. The static form of 'Liederabend' was given up and transformed into a staged and at times interactive performance. These performances were developed on the basis of the concept of association of materials and carried out in an experimental setup. Gloor demonstrated his work and also informally explored the performance practice associated with German 'melodrama' (recitations with accompaniment) in the late nineteenth century. Brooks introduced a related, and possibly derivative American practice of 'recitation' that reached its greatest popularity in the 1910s and 1920s. 

Featured researcher
William Brooks

William Brooks

Professor Brooks is a composer and musicologist. His interest in William Butler Yeats began in response to an Irish Arts Council commission and first resulted in Everlasting Voices, a thirty-minute music-theatre piece for the Irish duo Sound-Weave.

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