|Share page||Visit Us On FB|
SET TO MUSIC.
" O fellow, come, the song we had last night, Mark it, Cesario, it is old and plain ; The spinsters and the knitters in the sun, And the fair maids that weave their thread with bones Do use to chant it."
I HAVE been wondering how to express in words the interesting development which began in the Esperance Girls' Club in September, 1905, and which since then has gone so far beyond the limits of that Club that to-day it is in the best sense of the word national both in scope and in importance. It seems to me that the title which I have chosen for this chapter expresses, in the best way, the movement for the use in daily life of our English folk-music, and gives some indication of its purport and meaning.
Begun in all sincerity and good faith for the greater happiness and well-being of some hundred girls and boys, with no consciousness then that there was more in this folk music than just that, I know to-day that our work, our aims, that all we most care for has in truth been set to music. I know too that folk-music has its roots deep, deep in the rhythm of earth and heaven and sea; that those who spin and weave have no tangled threads, no puckered cloth when the shuttle and the loom go with the rhythm of a song. I know that, as long ago the sailor worked to the sound of the "chanty," so all work as well as play may be set to a song. And so in" our work many a difficulty has melted away, lagging feet have gained new energy, life harmonious and more abundant has filled out the form of social work. A door has been opened away out into a new country, which is yet as old as England itself, and we have learned something of that realm of imagination and beauty, of fear and of a sheltering power which is all around us in our childhood, and which comes again to us from the childhood of the world in the simple folk who may still be found remote from town and city life, dwelling by deep and silent waters, by swiftly running rivers, deep in the woods and in sheltered valleys among the hills.
To bring a little of this serene and joyous life into the hurried, keen, and vivid life of city dwellers, and to return it once more to the new generation of country folk with some of the added charm of this vivid life has been the work of the Esperance Club.
It happened in this way. For many years we had made music and dancing and play-acting some of the features of the Club work. One night a week for several winters we had practised Scotch dances, reels, and strathspeys; one winter we practised Irish jigs, reels, and Irish folk-songs. It is good for boys and girls to dance and sing, and it is good for them to act. I have seen the transformation of a naughty little girl into Saint Elizabeth of Hungary for one night a week work wonders. I have seen the effect of acting the part of a queen or a great lady.add some permanent dignity of character and bearing, and few would have recognised in the stately minuet dancers of one year the mischievous Irish jig dancers of the year before. Every year for some ten years we had performed a cantata at Christmas time, which our friends were kind enough to say they enjoyed, and the learning of which kept the girls happy during the long svinter evenings. But an interview with Mr. Cecil Sharp
in the Morning Post, read by Mr. H. C. Macllwaine, who was then our musical director, on English folk-songs, set us on a new track.
Looking back it seems symbolic that the first English folk-song sung by the Esperance Club should be " The Seeds of Love." In a fortnight from the singing of the first folk-song I could only say that the Club had gone mad, for the girls were perfectly intoxicated with the beauty of the music. Since then I have learnt a good deal about folk-music, and I can better understand what it was that made such instant appeal to these English girls.
Folk music is the creation and the possession of the people. The words and tunes of the songs have come generation after generation from the heart of the English folk. Each generation and each individual who has sung them has added or omitted some little touch, and so to-day in these songs which have been mostly collected from old people eighty and ninety years of age is the very heart and soul of English sentiment.
The folk-songs are full of the love of the land, of the flowers, and of healthy joyous life. There is no sentimentality, only the true sentiment of life and of passion. The decadent verse maker of to-day would not understand the love making of the country side, illustrated as it is by the song of birds, the blossoming of flowers, and the mystery which is only felt by those of simple and childlike mind.
There is plenty of adventure, too, in the folk-songs which tell of pirates and highwaymen, of press-gangs and battles by sea and land.
By the time we had learned some six or eight songs we wanted to find some dances which would fit in with the spirit of the folk-songs, and on enquiry I found that the tradition of morris dancing still lingered in country districts, and I had given to me the names of two men in Oxfordshire who still danced the morris. I went into Oxfordshire and found that these men had had a set of morris dances in their family for five generations directly handed down from father to son. I invited them to London, and set them to teach these dances to the members of my Club. Thus began that revival of morris dancing which is part of the national life to-day.
In two evenings we had learnt six or eight dances, the men telling me that these London girls had learnt more in two evenings than they could teach country lads in six months. We have since learned that the London girl is as quick to teach as to learn, and in one week she has often taught six dances to fifty or sixty children. Lately, in two weeks four hundred elementary school teachers learnt the dances from Miss Warren.
We first sang the songs and danced the dances at our Christmas party in 1905, an historic occasion as it turned out. The result was startling and delightful. One after another came to me and said how beautiful it was, and I was urged to give a more public performance. This we did, and in April a concert was given at the Small Queen's Hall. Every seat was taken, and some fifty people were turned away from the doors. The Daily Chronicle said it was " a little entertainment which may indeed light such a candle in England as will not immediately be put out." This proved a true prophecy, for since then over twenty concerts have been given in the Small Queen's Hall, and we have been all round the