Snatches of Sunshine
15th March 2022Articles NMC Recordings
Composer Julian Philips on bringing John Clare's fiddle tunes to life in his new album, Melodys of Earth and Sky.
Poet John Clare knew about earth and sky. In every sense a son of the soil, Clare grew up in an agricultural labouring family in East Anglia, so inevitably his poetic work is dominated by a concern for the natural world. Evocations of place and landscape, the cycle of the seasons, the songs and flight paths of birds, or intricate descriptions of animals from a ladybird, to a mouse or badger are threaded throughout his poetry. While his great contemporaries frame nature with classical imagery (Keats) or grand philosophy (Wordsworth), Clare seeks to erase the boundary between humanity and environment, melding together our individual lived experience with the world that envelops us.
But John Clare also knew something about melodys (his spelling). As George Deacon powerfully argues in John Clare and the Folk Tradition, Clare was as much musician as he was poet. He probably picked up fiddle playing from the many bands of iterant gypsies he encountered, and such was its importance that when championed as the 'Peasant Poet' in the 1820s, his publisher James Hessey gifted him a Cremona violin with a "small supply of strings in case of accidents".
Clare seeks to erase the boundary between humanity and environment, melding together our individual lived experience with the world that envelops us.
Clare's love of music informs so much of his writing, from lyrical poems that seem to evoke lost melodys, to the raw sound of his words whose repetitions and assonances create a uniquely musical effect. But Clare was also a researching musician, seeking to capture an oral tradition of folksongs by 'pricking' down "hundreds of...pleasant tunes familiar to the plough and splashing stream". For all the talk of Clare's illiteracy, erratic spelling and grammar or famously difficult handwriting, the two notebooks into which he copied down these 263 fiddle tunes are remarkably evocative - of Clare the musician, but also of a lost oral tradition of rural music-making. You can see the notebooks in the John Clare Cottage Museum in Helpston, and they became the starting-point for this new recording.
I began by allowing Clare's fiddle tunes - or 'snatches of sunshine', as he described them - to capture my creative imagination, aiming to let them sing in a new context, within the harmony, rhythm and texture of my own musical language. Originally they were intended to form one element in a Clare event planned with producer/clarinettist Kate Romano, actor Toby Jones and renowned Clare scholar Simon Kövesi. Unfortunately, the global pandemic rendered that project impossible to realise but it left me with sketches which I decided to repurpose as a sequence of nine duets for clarinet and violin: clarinet because of Kate Romano, and violin, because of Kate's daughter - Livy - a fine young fiddle player. Kate's vivid descriptions of her and Livy playing through their own bespoke version of the Bartok violin duos during lockdown was the spark for this intimate instrumentation, which we were even able to test out with an impromptu play-through of early drafts over zoom.
The two notebooks into which he copied down these 263 fiddle tunes are remarkably evocative - of Clare the musician, but also of a lost oral tradition of rural music-making
Now these Melodys of Earth and Sky are set for wider circulation, interspersed with a selection of Clare texts hauntingly read by actor Toby Jones, and with Ionel Manciu joining Kate as violinist. What would John Clare have made of it all? Our aspiration is that the recording will offer listeners a sense of the wonder he felt about music's evocative, even transcendental power, a wonder that has never felt quite so precious or important as it does now.
This article was originally published in our Friends Newsletter in 2021. Our quarterly Friends Newsletter is packed with behind-the-scenes updates on recordings and education projects, as well as invitations to see our work in action plus opportunities to meet composers and artists; find out more about becoming a Friend here.
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