Morfydd Owen: Portrait of a Lost Icon 

TCR014

★★★★★ BBC Music Magazine 

Elin Manahan Thomas (soprano) and Brian Ellsbury (piano) perform the music of Morfydd Owen (1891-1918). Including songs Gweddi y Pechadur, and To Our Lady of Sorrows as well the first recordings of some of her piano works. As heard on BBC World Service, BBC Radio 3, Radio Cymru, and S4C.

1. Spring


Words by William Blake Sound the Flute!
Now it’s mute.
Birds delight
Day and Night.
Nightingale
In the dale
Lark in Sky
Merrily Merrily to welcome in the Year Little Boy
Full of joy.
Little Girl
Sweet and small.
Cock does crow
So do you.
Merry voice
Infant noise
Merrily Merrily to welcome in the Year Little Lamb
Here I am,
Come and lick
My white neck.
Let me pull
Your soft Wool.
Let me kiss
Your soft face.
Merrily Merrily we welcome in the Year




2. A Mother's Lullaby


Words by Morfydd Owen Sleep, my baby, on my breast:
Come to mother for your rest;
For there is no-one who can soothe you
Like your mother. Tell, my baby, all your woes:
Let me fight for you all your foes;
For there is no-one who can win them
Like your mother. Grow, my baby, grow up high;
Stretch out long whenever you lie;
For there is no-one who can rock you
Like your mother. Love, my baby, love me well:
Love me more than you ever can tell;
For there is no-one who can prize you
Like your mother. Talk, my baby, your own little way:
Come to mother and talk all day;
For there is no-one who understands you
Like your mother. Tired, my baby? Eyelids fall?
Ev’rything passive, fingers and all?
Come let mother watch you, for no-one she loves,
Like her baby.




3. The Lamb


Words by William Blake Little Lamb who made thee
Dost thou know who made thee
Gave thee life & bid thee feed.
By the stream & o'er the mead;
Gave thee clothing of delight,
Softest clothing wooly bright;
Gave thee such a tender voice,
Making all the vales rejoice!
Little Lamb I'll tell thee,
He is called by thy name,
For he calls himself a Lamb:
He is meek & he is mild,
He became a little child:
I a child & thou a lamb,
We are called by his name.
Little Lamb God bless thee.




4. Rhapsody in C sharp minor


Piano only (c. 1911)




5. La Tristesse


Words by Alfred de Musset J’ai perdu ma force et ma vie,
Et mes amis et ma gaîté ;
J’ai perdu jusqu’à la fierté
Qui faisait croire à mon génie. Quand j’ai connu la Vérité, J’ai cru que c’était une amie ;
Quand je l’ai comprise et sentie,
J’en étais déjà dégoûté. Et pourtant elle est éternelle,
Et ceux qui se sont passés d’elle
Ici-bas ont tout ignoré. Dieu parle, il faut qu’on lui réponde.
— Le seul bien qui me reste au monde
Est d’avoir quelquefois pleuré.




6. Maida Vale


Piano only (untitled but dated 1912)




7. Tal y Llyn


Piano only (c. 1916)




8. Little Eric


Piano only (c. 1915)




9. Glantaf


Piano only (1914)




10. To Our Lady of Sorrows


Mary who bore upon thy breast
The babe that God had given thee,
See how I beat my bosom so distrest,
And pity me.
For thou didst see thy babe become a man,
Bearing thy sorrows and the world's beside
But mine is dead in such a little span;
And thine they crucified. Well was it for thee though they crucified Him and thy heart,
Thy labour was not in vain;
But vain my hope, and vain this bitter smart,
My babe is dead.




11. Prelude in E minor


Piano only (1914)




12. Four Flower Songs: Speedwell


Words by Atwyth Eversley Speedwell, speedwell what is your dream
Of sorrow and joy by your murmuring stream?
I dream that beyond this veil of despair
Someone who knows is watching there. Speedwell, what is the bitter strife,
The crimson pools on the path of life?
This I can tell: whatever befall.
Somebody knows about it all. What can you tell of the suffering child, The stricken hope by a sin defiled?
Dark is the veil of this mystery
And little of light comes through to me. Speedwell, what of the grey distress
Of the sores that weep for their loneliness?
This I can tell of those pilgrim bands:
Somebody knows and understands. Speedwell, what of the river of night,
The wearied heart and the fading light?
This I know: there glimmers afar
The gentle light of the morning star. Speedwell, speedwell what is your dream
Of sorrow and joy by your murmuring stream?
I dream that beyond this veil of despair
Someone who knows is watching there.




13. Four Flower Songs: Daisy's Song


Words by John Keats The sun, with his great eye,
Sees not so much as I;
And the moon, all silver-proud,
Might as well be in a cloud. And O the spring- the spring
I lead the life of a king!
Couch'd in the teeming grass,
I spy each pretty lass. I look where no one dares,
And I stare where no one stares,
And when the night is nigh,
Lambs bleat my lullaby.




14. Four Flower Songs: To Violets


Words by Robert Herrick Welcome, maids of honour,
You do bring
In the Spring;
And wait upon her. She has virgins many,
Fresh and fair;
Yet you are
More sweet than any. You're the maiden posies;
And so graced,
To be placed
'Fore damask roses. Yet, though thus respected,
By and by
Ye do lie,
Poor girls, neglected.




15. Four Flower Songs: God Made a Lovely Garden


Words by Mabel Spence God made a lovely garden full of roses
And all the sweetness of the world lurked there:
And from its wealth was plucked the choicest posies,
Nor ever shone the sun on scene more fair. So full of wonder were its sunlit spaces,
And ev’ry shadow held such sweet allures!
One day, I learned the secret of its graces,
My soul no longer marvelled – it was yours.




16. Gweddi y Pechadur


Words by Thomas Williams Bethesda , Morgannwg, 1761-1844 O’th flaen o Dduw rwy’n dyfod
Gan sefyll o hir bell,
Pechadur yw fy enw -
Ni feddaf enw gwell. Trugaredd wyf yn geisio,
A cheisio eto wnaf,
Trugaredd imi dyro,
Rwy’n marw oni chaf. Pechadur wyf, mi welaf,
O Dduw nad allaf ddim;
Rwy’n dlawd, rwy’n frwnt, rwy’n euog,
O bydd drugarog im. Rwy’n addef nad oes gennyf
Trwy ‘mywyd hyd fy medd
O hyd on gweiddi ‘pechais,
Nid wyf yn haeddu hedd!’ Mi glywais gynt fod Iesu,
A’i fod e felly nawr
Yn maddau publicanod
A phechaduriaid mawr. O derbyn, Arglwydd, derbyn fi
Hefyd gyda hwy,
A maddau’m holl anwiredd
Heb gofio’m camwedd mwy.




17. Branwen


(undated piano sketch for an orchestral piece written in 1916)




18.-21. Sonata for piano in E minor (Adagio; Allegro vivace; Minuet and trio; Finale)


Piano only (1910)




22. Chorale (from piano quintet)


Piano only (undated)




23. The Land of Hush-a-bye


Words by J J Cadwaladr (Eos Gwalia) The land of Hush-a-bye,
Sweetest spot on Earth,
For no evil dare come nigh,
When in mother’s arms we lie.
Sooth’d the fretting
Pain forgetting
Sweetest spot beneath the sky,
Is the land of Hush-a-bye. The land of Hush-a-bye,
Dream we of it still,
When the sun of life is high,
And the days so gaily fly,
Bells at evening
Softly pealing
Turn our thoughts with tender sigh,
To the land of Hush-a-bye. The land of Hush-a-bye,
Soon again we’ll greet,
When life’s shadows dim our eye,
When for rest the hearth doth cry.
Sunset nearing,
Night appearing,
We shall see, we know not why,
Childhood’s land of Hush-a-bye. Sleeping deep we all shall lie
In the land of Hush-a-bye.





REVIEWS

★★★★★ BBC Music Magazine (February 2017)

 

Morfydd Owen was born om the Welsh valleys in 1891. Like many of her peers she sang and played piano, but it was her precocious talent as a composer – and her beauty – that dazzled audiences in London. Sadly, having met and married within six weeks Freud’s biographer, Ernest Jones, her once-prolific output tapered off, and she died in mysterious circumstances following surgery in 1918, aged just 26.

 

Inevitably, Owen’s tale is ripe for romantic fantasy as well as regret. But leaving aside the odd tautology of its title, on the basis of this sensitively recorded disc from Tŷ Cerdd, a recent resurgence of interest in her music proves justified. Pianist and researcher/editor Brian Ellsbury joins forces with Welsh soprano Elin Manahan Thomas to offer a poignant collection of songs and piano pieces spanning Owen’s tantalisingly promising career.

 

Many of the works have only recently been unearthed, and the E minor Piano Sonata, for example, is patchy juvenilia. However its wild contrasts are honed to quixotic perfection in the songs, which reveal Owen’s expertise in subtly chromatic, sometimes Slavic-tinged vocal miniatures. Best known, but not necessarily most affecting, is the sole Welsh-language example, Gweddi y Pechadur (The Sinner’s Prayer). If Manahan Thomas’s voice is occasionally tremulous, her delivery is passionate, and the combination serves to underscore the paradoxical strength and fragility of Owen herself.

 

PERFORMANCE ****

RECORDING *****

 

BBC Music Magazine February 2017

USA Welsh magazine, Ninnau (March 2017)


This newly released and eagerly awaited CD includes 10 world premiere recordings, 6 piano pieces and 4 songs. In her writing for piano, Morfydd was obviously processing various contemporary influences into her own style. Selections such as ‘Rhapsody in Csharp minor’, ‘Tal y Llyn’, ‘Little Eric’ and ‘Minuet and Trio’ do tend to be in the prevailing style of sentimental Edwardian parlour music, but other pieces show a more adventurous spirit at work.  The influence of Rachmaninov may be distinctly heard in the Allegro Vivace movement of the Piano Sonata (1910) and possibly that of Scriabin in ‘Glantaf’ (1914), which explores bi-tonal harmony. Brian Ellsbury considers ‘Maida Vale’ (1912) to be similar in style to the music of Erik Satie. The early Piano Sonata (1910), written while Morfydd was a student in Cardiff, remains unpublished; but she re-cycled its first 25 measures into the Prelude in E minor ‘Beti Bwt’ which was published in 1924.

It is in her songs that her own musical personality emerges most strongly - from the ineffable tenderness of ‘Mother’s Lullaby’ (1914) to the deeply felt ‘God made a Lovely Garden’ (1917) and the highly chromatic ‘Speedwell’ (1918), recorded here for the first time, as are ‘Violets’ (undated), Daisy’s Song (1911) and ‘The Land of Hushabye’ (1916), all of them lovely. ‘To our lady of Sorrows’ (1912) and ‘Tristesse’ (1915) a French-language setting of  poetry by Alfred de Musset, have an almost unbearable poignancy. Even an apparently simple setting, like ‘The Lamb’ (1914) has a quite extraordinary depth, with complex and subtle chromatic harmonies that seem to be a musical language quite her own. Of course, her most famous piece is here, ‘Gweddi y Pechadur’ (1913). The insertion of the ungrammatical article into the title is Morfydd’s own, and may have been intended to make her setting of this heartfelt sinner’s prayer a particularly personal one. Even in an age less God-fearing than the one it came from, this piece retains its power to be deeply affecting. It’s clear that Morfydd’s genius is in word-setting, whether in Welsh or in English, and that her untimely death at the age of 26,  in circumstances not yet fully explained, is an enduring tragedy. Her orchestral music, yet to be committed to disc, is also powerfully idiomatic. 

These two fine artists had extensive experience of performing Morfydd’s music together before they went into the studio at Tŷ Cerdd to make these recordings. They understand it, and do it supremely well. I can only recommend this CD wholeheartedly to all of you who are reading this review.  The CD can be ordered directly from www.tycerdd.org/


Keith Davies Jones

+44 (0)29 2063 5640 / enquiries@tycerdd.org 

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Tŷ Cerdd – Music Centre Wales yn sefydliad corfforedig elusennol, Rhif Cofrestru 1152853.

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