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Harry Plunket Greene

Harry Plunket Greene 150

A programme note by Gavan Ring

Old-HPGHarry Plunket Greene was born on 24 June 1865 in Old Connaught House, Bray, County Wicklow to parents Richard Jonas Greene, a barrister, and Louisa Lilias, fourth daughter of William Conyngham Plunket, Lord Chancellor of Ireland. Greene attended Henry Tilney Bassett’s School in Dublin and after studying at Clifton College in Bristol from 1877-1883, it was hoped that Greene, like his father, would take up a career in law. Reputedly, a sporting accident at Clifton College changed the direction of his life and Greene rejected a traditional university career to pursue vocal training.

Greene made his professional début on the 21 January 1888 singing the bass solos in Handel’s Messiah at the People’s Palace in Stepney; this was followed by a performance of Gounod’s Redemption in March of the same year. Greene’s performances were so successful that he was quickly engaged at numerous London concert venues as an oratorio soloist. Greene made his operatic début at Covent Garden in 1890 as the Commendatore in Mozart’s Don Giovanni, however, it was Greene’s performance of the title role in the première of Hubert Parry’s oratorio Job at the Worcester Three Choirs Festival in 1892 that brought him to prominence with English audiences.

As a zealous supporter of the burgeoning art-song scene in England at the beginning of the twentieth century, Greene became somewhat of an activist in promoting the ‘solo song recital’, an unfamiliar performance format at the time. He struck up a particular partnership with the virtuoso pianist and pupil of Clara Schumann, Leonard Borwick and the duo became famed for giving the London première of Robert Schumann’s Dichterliebe on the 11 January 1895. As an artwork, Dichterliebe was a work which Greene was fascinated by throughout his life, stating in his monograph Interpretation in Song (1912), ‘What more exciting moment could the singer ask than the first step in the study of a great song-cycle such as Schumann’s “Dichterliebe”, the assimilation of each song in turn and its moulding to the general scheme.”

The song-cycle Dichterliebe as we know it today was first published in 1844 but the songs in question were first composed in 1840. A year of extraordinary song composition, Schumann wrote over a third of all the songs he composed in his lifetime in 1840. At this time Schumann was embroiled in an intense dispute with his former piano-teacher Friedrich Wieck, who’s daughter, Clara, he was seeking to marry. The stresses and roadblocks of the thwarted romance led Schumann to turn to the poetry of Heinrich Heine. By June 1840, he had fashioned 20 Lieder und Gesänge on verses from Heine’s Lyrisches Intermezzo which, over the following four years, were reworked and shortened to form Dichterliebe.

Appealing to Schumann’s own conflicted nature, Heine’s texts in Dichterliebe are rooted in riddles, allegories, allusions, dreams and above all ambivalences and contradictions. Heine mixed naked honesty with savage irony, constructed a folk-like simplicity with the keenest artifice and mingled autobiography with fantasy, comedy, tragedy, love and hate. The poems explore the emotions of someone who has just lost a sweetheart and often these conflicting emotions tangle in the same poem. Schumann himself may have expressed it best when he wrote, “At certain points in time, [Heine’s] poetry dons the mask of irony in order to conceal its visage of pain; perhaps for a moment the friendly hand of a genius may lift that mask so that wild tears may be transformed into pearls.”

As well as championing foreign repertoire such as Dichterliebe on the song recital platform, Greene avidly supported the work of indigenous song composers such as Arthur Somervell and Ralph Vaughan Williams. So high was Greene held as an interpretative artist in Vaughan Williams’s esteem that Vaughan Williams’s most iconic song-cycle, Songs of Travel, bears a dedication to Greene.

The history of Songs of Travel is a convoluted one. Vaughan Williams composed ‘Whither must I wander’ in 1901 and this encounter with the work of Robert Louis Stevenson clearly whetted the composer’s appetite. After completing the song-cycle The House of Life, he turned from the hot-house, sensuous verses of Rosetti to the extrovert, open-air song-lyrics of Stevenson and completed a further seven songs set to various texts from Stevenson’s collection Songs of travel and other versers in 1904. However, Vaughan Williams was then persuaded by his publishers to issue the songs in two separate volumes. Volume 1, published in 1904, contains the ‘outdoor’ extrovert songs: ‘The Vagabond’, ‘Bright is the ring of words’ and ‘The roadside fire’; Volume 2, published in 1907, is a more lyrical sequence of love-songs; ‘Let beauty awake’, ‘Youth and love’, ‘In dreams unhappy’ and ‘The infinite shining heavens’. Discovered amongst Vaughan Williams’s manuscripts after his death in 1958 was a ninth Stevenson setting ‘I have trod the upward and the downward slope’, clearly intended as a short epilogue to the cycle. It was not, however, until 1960 that the complete cycle of nine songs was published and performed in the order that we have now come to accept.

Harry Plunket Greene, so like so many great artists, was fascinated by the idea of the traveller or the pioneer; someone who, in his own words ‘carries romance in his very name’ and this evening’s recital brings together two works conceived in the tradition of the romantic questing song-cycle of love and loss whilst being synonomously associated with Greene’s own life and his journey both as an interpretative performer and philosopher.