Few British women composers of the early twentieth century are known today, either by name or by their music. Here is one who should be. Muriel Emily Herbert was born in 1897 in Sheffield and grew up in Liverpool, where her mother led a church choir and much music was made in the family. Her mother told her that while she was giving birth the doctor sat downstairs playing and singing Brahms, Schubert and Schumann, and in this way she was welcomed into the world. She was the youngest child and only daughter, and her eldest brother Percy, a good musician, encouraged her very early to think about music, for which she showed a natural aptitude. She played the piano, sang and began to write down her songs. But Percy was not much at home once he went to Oxford, and then to Africa in the Colonial Service. their father died in 1909, the family was reduced to poverty and her widowed mother struggled against hardship and depression. Her childhood was painful and she rarely spoke of it, except to mention the help and encouragement she had from a literary journalist on the Liverpool Post, Hugh Farrie. He had hopes of making her into a concert pianist, but her interest was always in composition, and she began to study and absorb the songs of Debussy, ravel, Richard Strauss. The earliest of her manuscripts that survive are from 1913, exercises in keyboard writing and complete songs, settings of Herrick, Blake, Christina Rossetti, Byron, Browning, Bridges, and Swinburne. From the start she had a gift for melody - ‘to Daffodils' (Herrick) is particularly striking for an eighteen-year-old.
The crucial event in her life was the winning of the Liverpool scholarship in composition to the royal College of Music in London in 1917. The young women studying at the royal College were given rooms in Queen Alexandra's House in South Kensington, close to the College and to the Albert Hall, and here she immediately made lasting friends. in spite of the war it was a cheerful and hopeful environment. The women made music together, relied on one another and exchanged confidences, and her world opened up as she was invited to visit their families.
Charles Stanford, the Irish composer and founding professor of composition at the College, was to teach her. He was then in his late sixties, and not keen on women students, and he tested her by asking her to play with him, at sight, a Beethoven piano concerto arranged for two pianos, in front of the other students. When she saw it was one she had played with her brother she knew she could get through it well enough, and this impressed her formidable teacher. Under Stanford's tuition her song writing became more accomplished, although my impression is that he did not encourage her to experiment, but rather to stick to the rules as he saw them.
In June 1918 she lost her second father figure when Hugh Farrie died suddenly. The war ended while she was still at college, and when she had completed her time there she decided to stay in London, close to her friends and contacts in the musical world. She did some teaching at Wycombe Abbey School for girls, took private pupils, gave a few recitals, had her voice trained, studied further and composed when she could, just about making a living. But it was a precarious way of life. She lived in lodgings, first with friends and then on her own, in Maida Vale, earls Court, West Hampstead.
In the early twenties she was introduced to roger Quilter, who thought her songs so good that he recommended them to the publisher Augener, took her along and put his signature as witness on the contract. The first five were published in 1922. Four of them are included in this recording, two simple and flawless, ‘Cradle Song' (words by Swinburne) and ‘When Death to either shall come' (Bridges); a luminous ‘loveliest of trees' (A.E. Housman), and a stormy ‘renouncement' (Alice Meynell). The setting of ‘renouncement' was dedicated to Quilter, with whom she had fallen in love. She was too innocent to understand that he was a homosexual, and when he understood what had happened he backed away from any further friendship. This was another painful loss.
But the twenties were her most prolific and successful period as a composer. Another publisher, Robert Elkin, took over from Augener. Because art songs were aimed chiefly at home musicians, she was asked to present her work in easy keys and simplified form, which was not always the best thing for them. But the encouragement to keep writing was very important to her, as was John Barbirolli's inclusion of two of her violin and piano pieces, ‘Giboulée' and ‘Enchanted April', both published by Elkin, in a concert in the 1920s. She was awarded an honorary A.R.C.M. by the royal College. She also gave occasional broadcasts of her own work for the BBC, accompanying herself. These continued until 1938.
In 1925 she met a young French academic, Emile Delavenay, fresh from the École Normale. They married in 1928 and during their honeymoon in Paris they were given an introduction to James Joyce by Emile's friend, the Irish poet Tom McGreevey, for whom Muriel had played and sung her settings of poems by Joyce. They were invited to tea in the Square Robiac, and Joyce asked her to sing ‘I hear an army charging' and ‘Lean out of the window', and to repeat each several times. He listened attentively, then with great charm pronounced, ‘the music is much too good for the words'. Thinking he had said the opposite, Muriel replied modestly, ‘of course, of course', and there was confusion and laughter. Joyce gave her inscribed copies of ‘Chamber Music' and ‘Pomes Pennyeach', and his permission to publish her settings. But even with the great man's blessing they remained unpublished. McGreevey had already written to Yeats, who famously disliked his poems being set to music, urging him to allow her to publish her setting of ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree'. Yeats agreed, and it became her most successful song.
Marriage and motherhood meant she wrote less. She had a daughter in 1929 and another in 1933, although the marriage was already unhappy by then. Still, during the 1930s she set three of Helen Waddell's translations from Medieval Latin Lyrics. They are stylistically different from her earlier work, a new departure, and among her most powerful songs; but again, although she broadcast them, they were not published. The market for art songs was small and diminishing. Still, in 1938 Merry-go-round, a group of songs she wrote for children, with words by a Chiswick neighbour, Ada Harrison, appeared. Another of Harrison's verses, ‘In the Days of November', was set in the early 1940s. I can just remember my mother writing this small song with its elegiac feeling, as though she were saying a farewell. By now there was war again, my father had departed and wanted a divorce. She was profoundly unhappy and left London for good.
She wrote little more, some religious songs, and musical playlets for schools which were published and successful. She taught piano and composition in a private school and at home. She gave a few recitals. I know she continued to think of music but her confidence as a composer was lost. Everything had changed in publishing and in musical taste, and she no longer lived among musicians. At home she played and sang with my sister and me, a privilege I took completely for granted. Her voice was a full and beautiful soprano, she played extremely well, and I carry the memory in my head, and deeply regret that I never thought of recording her. Now I have been able to make up for that in part.
She spoke very little about her early years and she never showed me any of the songs written when she was young. Occasionally people came to ask her about her meeting with Joyce, but nobody asked to see her manuscripts. When she died in 1984 I packed up all the papers she had left, and stored them in folders. But no one was interested, and one musician to whom I showed some of the songs dismissed them with, ‘Everyone's mother wrote songs...'. It was enough to make me feel I could not approach anyone else.
So I was surprised when people began to come to me and ask about her. First Bill Lloyd, who had been taught by her as a boy singer, made a short radio programme about her and recorded some of her songs with Richard Lloyd Morgan. Other musicologists have shown interest, and I owe a special debt to Valerie Langfield for her encouragement and practical help in making copies; but Bill is entirely responsible for this recording. He slowly and persistently encouraged and helped me towards its making and did all the real work, finding incomparably beautiful singers in James Gilchrist and Ailish Tynan, and a masterly accompanist in David Owen Norris. For me it has been an extraordinary experience to hear them perform not only the songs I knew and remembered but so many of the early songs I had never heard. It was as though I was looking into the mind of the young girl who wrote them - someone about whom I knew almost nothing - and who remains in many ways mysterious to me.
She learnt from other composers of course, but she had her own distinctive voice. A passionate melancholy runs through many of the songs, ‘The Lost Nightingale', ‘Autumn', ‘She weeps over Rahoon', ‘David's Lament for Jonathan', ‘Horsemen', with their themes of loss and war. In others there is a lightness and serenity of spirit: in ‘Loveliest of trees', ‘The Lake Isle of Innisfree', ‘How beautiful is night', ‘Goldenhair', ‘Most Holy Night'. And there are high spirits and a sense of fun in ‘On a time', ‘I dare not ask a kiss, ‘Jenny kiss'd me' and the children's songs. Her output was small, but her melodic inventiveness, and the sureness of her response to the poems she chose - many by contemporary writers - have earned her songs a place in the canon of English song writing of the early twentieth century. Her manuscripts are now in the music archives at the British Library.
© Claire Tomalin
Ailish Tynan - soprano
James Gilchrist - tenor
David Owen Norris - piano
Recorded 19-21 May 2008 at Wyastone Studios, Monmouthshire
Produced by Bill Lloyd
Engineered by Matt Parkin
Additional Post-Production by Philip Hobbs & Julia Thomas