This collection of English songs by John Jeffreys is not new. It first appeared on another label fully twelve years ago when it was well received by Colin Scott-Sutherland. Its reappearance on the Divine Art label is greatly to be welcomed. Mr Scott-Sutherland is the author of the booklet note that accompanies this disc.
I’m ashamed to say that, despite my enthusiasm for English music in general and for English songs, I don’t believe I’d ever heard any music by John Jeffreys before this disc arrived for review. In case his name is unfamiliar to other readers some brief biographical details, culled from the booklet, may be useful. Born in 1927, he saw service in the armed forces towards the end of the Second World War so his further education was somewhat delayed. It was not until 1948 that he enrolled at Trinity College of Music, London , to study piano and counterpoint. Starting in his childhood he acquired a life-long interest in and love of English literature and one thing that’s evident from this selection of songs is that he has a discerning eye for a text.
During the 1950s and 1960s Jeffreys composed a significant amount of music, including orchestral works, chamber music and many solo songs. But, like several other British composers of his generation, he found that his music was increasingly out of step with what became the prevailing atonal orthodoxy of the times and Jeffreys virtually ceased composing. In the early 1980s he took the drastic step of destroying much of his output to date. Happily, with the encouragement of several musical friends he recovered his muse and began to write again and his published output now includes some 180 songs. Though the dates of composition of the individual songs here recorded are not given, it appears that many of them were written around 1966.
There is no doubt that John Jeffreys is a natural songwriter. Without exception, these songs display a strong melodic impulse. Furthermore they sound to be very well written for the voice, lying well within Ian Partridge’s compass. Jeffreys is firmly and unashamedly in the fine tradition of lyrical English song composers of the twentieth century. Listening to the collection, I think that the predecessors of whom I was most put in mind were Gurney and, to a lesser extent, Warlock.
It will be noticed that Jeffreys has elected to set a number of texts that have been memorably set by earlier composers. But his settings need not fear comparison, not least because his response to texts such as Black Stitchel , Jillian of Berry , ‘ Tis time I think [by Wenlock Town ] and Ha’nacker Mill is distinctive and very much his own.
I didn’t find the original MusicWeb review until after I’d finished my own evaluation but I was interested to find that Colin Scott-Sutherland articulated a reservation that I’d felt while listening to the disc. He wrote: “If one has a criticism of these songs it is that the great majority of them are in a slow tempo – contemplative – deeply influenced by Nature … It is not therefore easy to accumulate a selection of songs yet retain a measure of contrast.” I can only agree, though I don’t know how representative of Jeffreys’ output is this collection.
So, for example, ‘ Tis time I think , a very beautiful song, is slow and pensive with a melancholy air to it. So too is the opening item, Northumberland , which is the first of six consecutive settings of poems by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson. On the other hand That Ever I Saw is a gentle, affectionate song. Simple in design and with a memorable melodic line, this appealing song is one of my favourites in the programme. Yet will I love her is another song in a similar vein and it’s just as attractive. The Little Pretty Nightingale , which follows immediately in the programme, is another charming offering, as is The Little Milkmaid .
At the heart of the programme lies a dark trio of songs, beginning with the extended The Poacher’s Dog . This is a deeply serious elegy for a dog that has died. Ian Partridge creates a really intense atmosphere as he sings the expressive and starkly accompanied vocal line. Then comes the powerful I am the Gilly of Christ , in which Jeffreys distils a somewhat bleak, medieval ambience. The Falcon is a setting of a genuine medieval text and the mournful tone of the vocal line finds an ideal interpreter in Partridge. After these three emotionally demanding songs we hear O my Dere Hert , which readers may also know under the title ‘Balulalow’. The placing of this gentle lullaby at this point in the programme is inspired, for it provides much-needed tranquillity. Partridge is beautifully sensitive in his delivery of the song. That said, we’re immediately back into dark territory with the haunting, Who is at my Window.
As I said earlier, effreys is not afraid to set a text simply because it has already produced a memorable song by another composer. Perhaps the greatest such challenge here lies in Severn Meadows . Who could equal Ivor Gurney’s wonderful setting of his own verse? But that shouldn’t – mustn’t – inhibit composers who feel called to set Gurney’s haunting words and Jeffreys’ setting is a fine and eloquent one. He also demonstrates a similarly eloquent response to Ha’nacker Mill .
There’s great pleasure to be had in listening to these songs. And what a delight it is to have another example of the artistry of Ian Partridge! His timbre is utterly distinctive and I’ve always appreciated his singing. Here the clarity of his diction, the easy, unforced delivery, the vocal control and the evident empathy with both words and music are all consistently evident. His sister and regular recital accompanist, Jennifer Partridge, is no less fine an advocate for these songs. It’s hard to imagine that John Jeffreys’ songs could have been better served. Though the recordings were made over fifteen years ago the sound is fully satisfactory.
I’ve greatly enjoyed making the acquaintance of these songs and I know I’ll return to this disc with pleasure in the future. I’ll go further: I’d like to get hold of the music of some of these songs and try to sing them myself. I urge all lovers of English songs to seek out this very fine disc.