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Choosing repertoire from Elaine Hugh-Jones' work: a personal journey

On Thursday September 29th, 2022 a concert will be held at St Matthias Church entitled ‘Malvern Talent’. Flattered to be asked to sing under such a banner and amongst many talented musicians, I could not resist the idea of presenting the talent of Malvern composer Elaine Hugh-Jones. The Church is just yards away from her last Malvern home, in which her piano is still played and where Elaine worked on poetry until she was able “to pull the music out of the air” (Lennox Berkeley).

How to choose from such a wealth of music is tricky. Elaine loved poetry, so perhaps picking a favourite poet is a good idea? There has been a great deal of interest recently in the Cornford Songs…. one trio of women (soprano, clarinettist and pianist) have shown a great interest in performing her settings, arranged for this trio, with poetry and composition also by women. As a woman I find strength in this… my own accompanist being male does not interfere with the power of these songs.

Elaine’s own favourite was her setting of ‘Starlight Night’ by Gerard Manley Hopkins. It is certainly beautiful… I heard a young, talented tenor Andrew Irwin sing it at Elaine 90th birthday party and was transported.

At the same event, I was invited to sing for Elaine. I chose one of the numbers I could manage, having started to learn the art of solo singing late in life… ‘Song of the Shadows’. This is accessible partly because the accompaniment if possible for a strong pianist to play. It is one of the easier songs to learn, with plenty of support from the piano and a magical ‘stand alone’ tune… (we have that tune captured inside a music box sitting on Elaine’s piano to this very day). At the time I spent a while reading the poetry for the whole set of Walter de la Mare songs. I was so excited to read ‘The Ride by Nights’ and set out to learn it and to sing it, which I can now do.

Yesterday, for the first time, I was able to sing it with piano accompaniment. This song is entirely different… my accompanist for the concert, Peter Johnson, pointed out before we began that I would have no cue as to pitch or timing and would just have to know where to come in. Luckily I had studied hard and knew to count like crazy as the piano started up it’s flickering, swarming undercurrent of sound, before leaping bravely onto my broom stick on a low c sharp, soaring up via a fifth to the diminished seventh. This incredible vocal ride takes the singer through the strange and crackling, cackling night of Elaine’s witches, soaring above the notes and plunging down on the final descent.

I will definitely be writing about Elaine’s relationship with magic and magical beings in the future, as she clearly existed on the edge of a world that many of us can’t even imagine. That’s for another time.

A passage from ‘Discovering British Song Composer Elaine Hugh-Jones by Joyce Andrews, Associate Professor of Music University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, USA:

English Romantic at heart, Hugh-Jones music is immediately accessible to singers, challenging for pianists, and captivating to the audience. As noted British soprano and contemporary music specialist Jane Manning has heralded, “a superb ear and meticulous craftsmanship combine to produce music that is as pleasurable to sing as it is to listen to”.

I will have the pleasure of singing this incredible song next Thursday. I hope that I can do the song justice, and bring the spooky, raucous and daring witches safely home over the magical prancing of the piano part.

Scores are available through the website

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