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John McCabe

Publisher: Novello & Co

Songs of the Garden (2004)
Commissioned by the John Armitage Memorial Trust
Text Writer
Novello & Co Ltd
Chorus and Orchestra/Ensemble
Year Composed
28 Minutes
soprano, alto, tenor, bass

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Programme Note
John McCabe Songs of the Garden (2004)
From Nature's Hymn to the Deity (John Clare)
The Swallow (John Clare)
To Daffodils (Robert Herrick)
The Lily-white Rose (Anon., c. 1500)
From The Hedge-sparrow (John Clare)
A curse on the Cat (John Skelton)
An August Midnight (Thomas Hardy)
A noiseless patient spider (Walt Whitman)
The Fly (William Blake)
Halcyon Days (Walt Whitman)
From Nature's Hymn to the Deity (John Clare)

The inspiration for Songs of the Garden is a work entitled Picture Book of Selected Insects, a collection of pictures by the great eighteenth-century Japanese artist, Kitagawa Utamaro, of insects, birds, plants and animals to be found in the garden. It was accompanied by short verses by his contemporary, Tsutaya Juzaburo, and between them they produced an enchanting and delightful volume. When I was asked for a substantial piece for soloists, chorus, brass quintet and organ, it seemed a good opportunity to write a collection of numbers with a similar theme.

Accordingly, after much highly enjoyable reading, I selected a group of texts which not only convey, somewhat haphazardly, a calendar of at least half the year (roughly, spring to late summer or autumn), but also give examples of birds, beasts and insects, as well as more generalised "gardeny" topics, the whole framed by two verses from a splendid encomium by John Clare. Apart from the great American poet Walt Whitman, all the poets are English, from an anonymous writer of c.1500 to Thomas Hardy (whose An August Midnight was published at the end of the nineteenth century). There are some clear resonances which emerged during my researches - for example, it seemed a happy coincidence (happy for the cat, that is) when Clare’s The Hedge-sparrow cropped up in close juxtaposition with Skelton’s A curse on the Cat (my setting of which bears an apology to all cats, animals of which I am particularly fond). Similarly, and equally unhappily for one of them, it seemed fortuitous that I should come across Whitman’s spider soon after reading about Blake’s fly.

Another element in the concept of the work, and one which explains the more general texts, is that I wanted at least to indicate that it is worth exploring the relationship of man to nature and, through it, to God - in many minds, the three are inextricably intermingled. Songs of the Garden was written in 2003/04, and was commissioned by The John Armitage Memorial Trust.

© 2004 by John McCabe

  • 16 JUL 2014
    City of London Festival
    St Bride's, London
    Mousai Singers
  • 12 MAR 2005
    Southwark Cathedral
    Onyx Brass, The Chapel Choir of Selwyn College, Cambridge
    Stephen Layton, conductor

    Other Dates:
    19 March - St. Cuthbert’s Church, Edinburgh

He (conductir Adrian Poulenc) took the same care with the evening's premiere, John McCabe's "Songs of the Garden". This was a charming procession of "animal songs", sung by a quarter of excellent soloists and the chorus, topped and tailed by John Clare's poem imagining Nature praising its Creator...There were moments when the music took flight--especially in the seventh song, a setting of Thomas Hardy's poem about being joined in his study by "a long legs, a moth and a dumbledore", during which a drowsy nocturnal magic stole over the music.
Ivan Hewett, Daily Telgraph,17/08/2009
John McCabe's 'Songs of the Garden' sets a personal selection of garden - and wildlife-related poetry for SATB choir and soloists, organ and brass quintet. McCabe here clearly revels in writing unashamedly accessible music to be enjoyed by performers and audience alike. It is hard to avoid making involuntary mental reference to Britten, Walton, Howells, Leighton et al. Yet McCabe has a particular gift for naturally evolving and luminous melody that is very much his own - here nowhere more eveident than in the gorgeous setting of Whitman's 'Halcyon Days' in which all the soloists appear alone before entwining in sinuous white-note heterophony.
Owen Leech, Music Teacher Magazine,01/08/2005
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