Andrew Young and Surrealism
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  Musical Settings
Andrew Young and Music

Andrew Young and Music

Andrew Young’s relationship with music may not seem a very promising subject. Musical associations are few in his poems. ‘The Gramophone’ is a notable but obvious exception. ‘The Last Leaf’ takes us by surprise: a bird by ‘bursting into song’ discloses its true nature; the observer mistook him for a leaf. Then of course there is the cuckoo, reappearing again and again in the poems as a marker of time passing.


Young’s own musicality was not an active one. He did not play an instrument. His biographers state that he never learned to sing in tune. But he encouraged his daughter in her musical interests. He took her to piano recitals by Paderewski, Cortot and Rachmaninov and to operas by Mozart, Verdi and Puccini. He was especially fond of Beethoven’s ‘Fidelio’.

Alison went on to study piano at the Royal College of Music in London and at the University of Edinburgh. Unquestionably the greatest fruits of her musicality are her daughters Pauline and Miriam Lowbury.

Pauline, an acclaimed violinist, was founder member and long-time leader of the Britten Sinfonia. She has recorded the Violin Sonata which Robert Simpson wrote for her.

Miriam, a cellist, has performed as principal in several London based orchestras and pursues a successful career in various chamber groups. A CD with Elizabeth Maconchy’s String Quartets (No. 5-8) with the Bingham Quartet was nominated for a Gramophone Award.



Young preferred music of the romantic era. His early fascination with Wagner and Richard Strauss goes hand in hand with his poetic orientation during those years which was largely centred on Algernon Swinburne. He kept his fondness for both in later years.

The fact that he saw Richard Strauss’s ‘Salome’ five times in 1907 when he lived in Paris does not so much document a musical interest but a fascination with the character of St. John the Baptist.

In 1909 on a holiday in Germany he saw the complete Ring-Cycle by Richard Wagner. But receiving the news of the death of Swinburne left the far greater mark on him.



We have some information about Young’s musical preferences via a notebook he kept during the early nineteen-thirties (TSNI, p. 117 f.). The Youngs were presented with a radio and started to listen regularly and intently to broadcasts of orchestral and piano music.


His likes were often associated with poetic connotations. His favourite composer was Beethoven and the melody he liked most the ‘Shepherd’s Song of Thanksgiving’ in the Finale of the Pastoral Symphony.


Incidental music like Grieg’s ‘Peer Gynt’ or Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Wasps’ offered a double appeal through its strong literary focus. It is interesting to note that Young himself asked Imogen Holst to write music for his play ‘Nicodemus’.


He could warm more easily to pieces with poetic or descriptive titles (Jupiter Symphony, Moonlight Sonata) than to works with generic abstract titles. Delius’ ‘On hearing the first Cuckoo in Spring’ had a special appeal to him. This is probably not surprising, looking at the many cuckoo-poems Young wrote. But where Delius gives us a leisurely impression Young’s cuckoos always point to the passing of time and ultimately to death.


One might assume that oratorios appealed to him by their religious contents. Therefore it is surprising to hear that apart from Handel’s ‘Messiah’ he did not listen to oratorios. Nevertheless he preferred Handel, the master of the oratorio, to Bach.


Young did not enjoy light music or jazz. But it is noteworthy that despite his romantic inclinations he listened to contemporary music occasionally. Only a few pieces appealed to him, however, such as Walton’s ‘Façade’ which he once saw by chance.

His biographers mention that in 1934 while lecturing on modern poets of the nineteen thirties he played a gramophone record of Alexander Mossolov’s ‘Iron Foundry’ (1926-28) and Yuly Meytus’s ‘Dnieper Water Power Station’ (1930). He admitted that music was a better medium to express the spirit of the poems than words could do. This was probably meant as a sardonic act of criticism rather than a sign for real understanding of the poetry. Though he tried to keep in touch with the developments in poetry of his time he was out of sympathy with the school of Auden, Day Lewis and Spender. Nevertheless this little incident shows that Young was up to date in musical matters as well: the Columbia disc LB17 which coupled the two pieces was reviewed in the Musical Times of November 1934!



It is intriguing to consider Young’s collaboration with composers. Intriguing in so far as there is only one instance of direct collaboration. This was the above mentioned mystery play ‘Nicodemus’ (1937) with music by Imogen Holst.


The first play to be staged in a cathedral since the Middle Ages was ‘The Coming of Christ’ (1928) by John Masefield, a poet Young admired. The incidental music then was written by Imogen’s father, Gustav Holst.

‘I finished Nicodemus […] and sent it to someone who may be inspired to write music for it’ he wrote to Gordon Bottomley in January 1936 (TSNI, p.126).

A friend of Young, Lady Pamela McKenna to whom ‘Nicodemus’ was dedicated, had introduced him to Imogen Holst. Imogen, daughter of Gustav Holst and only 28 then, was already firmly established in the musical world. In 1928 she had won the Cobbett Prize for her Phantasy String Quartet. She worked as a school music teacher and arranger for the English Folk Dance and Song Society. Young sent her his books and later invited her to a tea party to play through her music. She remembered him very warmly: ‘sincere, practical (in his collaboration over Nicodemus) and very kind, a perfect, lovely person’. (TSNI, p. 127)


Her score is written for flute, oboe, clarinet, bassoon, horn, trumpet, tenor trombone, timpani, percussion and strings. It was published in a piano reduction as an appendix to the play in 1937. It contains 17 numbers, among them preludes, melodramas and choral songs. One item during the last scene needs special attention: here the poet dramatizes the music. Two constables guard the tomb of Jesus. They are relieved by two others whom they question about the music in the air. The two haven’t heard any music. Later on when Nicodemus orders them to roll back the stone a brass fanfare sounds. A constable describes this as ‘created music, made from nothing’. Right after that the fanfare is expanded and developed into a choral song ‘Ye gates, lift up your heads on high’.


In 1967 Young was invited by the headmaster of a public school to collaborate with Benjamin Britten in writing a hymn for the school. The headmaster intended to name two of the school houses after Young and Britten. Young actually wrote some verses which did not survive. It is unlikely that Britten set the poem. What would Britten have done with the poetry of Andrew Young?


One reason why it is not easy to set Young’s poetry to music is its brevity. Music needs time to create an atmosphere. Young likes to reflect on a certain mood for a few lines only to deflect with an unsuspected point in the last line. Things like that are very difficult to bring off in music. Britten, the master of the witty point, would have been a safe bet for rendering an effective setting. Moreover he had shown an unfailing skill in constructing a successful cycle out of a single poet’s work. Young spoke of his poems as a ‘mosaic of the countryside’ (TSNI, p. 145). This remark encourages cyclic settings. A single song is very likely in danger of getting lost.


An unknown reviewer of the 1936 edition of the ‘Complete Poems’ missed the ‘singing quality’ (TSNI, p. 134).  He was probably mistaken about Young’s intentions but he articulated what many a composer might have felt. Roy Fuller must have felt the same difficulty when he wrote about ‘Speak to the Earth’: ‘He is uncertain with rhythms - not a good ear.’ (So his pencilled comment on the back of an advance review slip, inserted in his own copy). Much of Young’s poetry is not easy-going. The tight one-paragraph miniatures or the irregular line lengths which are so characteristic of his poetry eschew a traditional type of setting. His poetical subjects are traditional but his images are not. A successful setting has to mirror this ambiguity.


Young’s fascination in mortality links him with Hardy, his ‘great poet’ (TSNI, p. 270). But inter-human relationships did not inspire his art to the extent as it did Hardy’s. This may be a reason why composers who set Hardy – like Britten and Finzi – did not turn to Young.


Gerald Finzi is known for his sensitive approach to Hardy’s poems. He knew the poems of Andrew Young; his personal library contained editions ofWinter Harvest’, ‘The White Blackbird’, ‘Speak to the Earth’, ‘The Green Man’ and the ‘Collected Poems’ edition of 1950. However, this is no sign that he contemplated musical settings. Finzi loved poetry for its own sake and spent a lot of money on collecting books. We even cannot be sure that he acquired Young’s books himself for ‘Out of the World and Back’ and the 1960 edition of ‘Collected Poems’, both published after Finzi’s death, were also found among his books. Stephen Banfield suggests that Joy Finzi may have added them after Gerald’s death. I cannot say when Finzi’s interest in Andrew Young started but it is remarkable that the earliest Young-book he owned was his first mature volume of poetry. In 1954 Finzi began a friendship with Leonard Clark, a great admirer of Young’s genius and soon to become his greatest champion. So it is probable that they discussed Young’s virtues and faults.


Another close friend of Finzi, Robin Milford, set two poems from ‘Speak to the Earth’ in 1949, ‘Idleness’ and ‘Christmas Day’. His settings are one of the first, written shortly after the publication of Young’s last book of short nature poems.



By the way, Young, the music-lover, ‘steered clear of songs (and singers)’ as his biographers remark (TSNI, p. 117). But there is no indication that he would have denied the right to set his poems to music. A curious instance is given by his willingness to provide verses for a ballad-type song written by his daughter Alison!






To Shirk No Idleness:

A Critical Biography of the Poet Andrew Young,

by Edward Lowbury and Alison Young

University of Salzburg (1997)
(ISBN 3 7052 0125 5) 

© Mathias Richter, March 2008
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