Laurie Lee, best remembered now for Cider with Rosie and autobiographical books about travels in Spain, was a well-known poet of the 1940s and ‘50s. I don’t remember when I first encountered April Rise but this slightly surrealist evocation of springtime always comes back to mind each year to this day, and is still my favourite. It seemed quite natural – many years after I first set it – to quote this song in my 3rd String Quartet of 1976-78 which belongs to the same world.
Other Laurie Lee poems appealed to me in my mid-twenties (I was studying with Iain Hamilton and then, all too briefly, with Mátyás Seiber). Boy in Ice imagines the adult poet gazing in some magic mirror at his list, childhood self. The Edge of Day is a sparkling and ecstatic impression of the sudden arrival of dawn. The Easter Green conjures up something of the mythic ritual which lies behind the season’s religious significance. Town Owl presents, in a dark urban setting, the hunting bird as a figure of uncanny menace. Finally we return to the vernal freshness of April Rise.
This world of nature, youth and the spring matched musical discoveries new to me then which I was happy to try and imitate. Boy in Ice proclaims the innocence of C major, of the triad, and explores the possibilities of diatonic dischord. The Edge of Day has a toccata-like piano part which energetically expands the motoric rhythms I already loved. The Easter Green owes an even more obvious debt to Stravinsky – in particular to the bell-like chiming to be found in Les Noces. Town Owl has prowling ostinati under its owl-like bird calls and an altogether more chromatic vocabulary. This is the only song which needed mending: the ghostly waltz haunting the deserted ballroom wasn’t quite right. April Rise integrates chords and melodies using fourths and major seconds into its basically diatonic texture.
April Rise was published in 1947 in The Bloom of Candles. The other four poems belong to Lee’s third collection My Many-coated Man, which appeared in 1955. My settings were written between 1956 and 1958.