Hills (blue remembered and other)

On the idle hill of summer,
Sleepy with the flow of streams…


A. E. Housman’s dark rural world in A Shropshire Lad, with its contrasts of pastoral beauty and human tragedy, finds its musical equivalent in the work of George Butterworth; firstly, in Butterworth’s settings of Housman’s verse for voice and piano and then in this, a purely orchestral tone-poem, which uses material from those songs. Poor Butterworth suffered a similar fate to the soldiers mentioned in Housman’s poem On the idle hills of summer, the opening of which I quoted above – “Dear to friends and food for powder, Soldiers marching, all to die” – the composer was killed in the Battle of the Somme (1916) at the age of 31.

George Butterworth: A Shropshire Lad

If you were a denizen of Lieder-land and into hill walking, you wouldn’t be all that surprised, when to got to the top, to find a 21 year old medical student named Alois Isidor Jeitteles sitting there, gazing out at the misty blue landscape and daydreaming about his far-off inamorata. His poems inspired a slightly better known artist – Ludwig van Beethoven – to write what must be the first great song cycle: An die Ferne Geliebte (To the distant beloved).

Another hill, another country and much closer to home. We’re back with Housman, natural beauty and human tragedy; but, in this case, not in Shropshire but in Worcestershire where you’ll find Bredon Hill. Atop it, another young man, but, unlike Jeitteles, this poor soul is grieving and bereft of all hope…

Something to lighten the mood a little. There can be very few pieces of music that have been (reputedly!) inspired by the label on a bottle of wine; in fact, I can only think of one. Whether it was the Italian vino or the hills themselves that moved Debussy to write this PréludeLes collines d’Anacapri (The Hills of Anacapri) (score p.16) – we’ll never know. I particularly like the schmaltzy tune that keeps cropping up that Debussy marks ‘with the freedom of a popular song’.

…and then there’s the patriotic hill – Blaník. This is, to my mind, among the best of the musics designed to stand up, wave flags and cheer to. So the story goes, Jan Hus, the Czech national hero and his Hussite knights wait in Blaník hill to ride forth and rescue the nation in its direst need…

Smetana’s score uses among other material, the Hussite hymn, Ye who are God’s Warriors and, towards the end – rather like the credits in a film – you’ll hear the themes associated with other great Czech landmarks, the river Vltava and the fortress of Vyšehrad.

If you happen to have them with you, throw your hats in the air!!

Don’t look now but here comes Autumn…

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