Sunday, 3 November 2013

Complicated lives

Robert Coningsby Clarke: Desert Love Songs - song cycle
1) I will await thee  2) My heart's desire  3) The burning hours 
4) The dove  5) The hawk  6) Yellow slippers

Hubert Eisdell - tenor
Unnamed orchestra cond. by Hamilton Harty 

Columbia D1421 & D1422
(69690, 69691 & 69692)
Recorded February/March 1920

Ernest Bristow Farrar: Brittany Op. 21 No. 1
Hubert Eisdell - tenor
Piano accomp. by Hamilton Harty

Columbia D1422
Recorded March 1920

Link to FLAC files (about 37Mb)

My copies of these two discs are a bit worn in places but I have patched them up as best I can. 

Robert Coningsby Langton Clarke has almost sunk without trace as a composer. He was born in 1879 at Old Charlton in Kent, now a suburb engulfed in South-East London.  His father was Col. F.C.H. Clarke, Surveyor General of Ceylon (1842-1894) and a writer of military books etc. Educated first Marlborough, Clark became a pupil of Sir Frederick Bridge at Westminster Abbey in 1898 and then went up to Trinity College, Oxford where I think he studied the organ. As a back up to his musical proclivities he also took a BA in jurisprudence, which may account for his becoming a partner in the Carron Iron Works. He enlisted in 28th County of London Regt. (Artists’ Rifles), in 1914; was Lieut the Worcestershire Regt, 1915; and then with the Salonika Field Force, 1916–17. After the war he continued writing music but really by this time his output started to decline until his death in 1934. A bad year on the whole for British Composers with the death of Elgar, Delius and Holst.

Radclyffe Hall  'John'
As far as I can judge Clarke composed these songs containing the text of Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall's poems because, together with his wife Dolly, they all lived at the same house at No. 1 Swan Walk, Chelsea, opposite Chelsea Physic Gardens. 

No. 1 Swan Walk, Chelsea (too the right with the garden)

Clerke's wife, Dorothy Diehl, was Radclyffe Hall’s Pennsylvanian cousin. Dorothy, or Dolly as she was called, arrived in the UK about 1906 adged 18 and swiftly became Radclyffe-Hall's lesbian lover. However Radclyffe-Hall's affection then turned to Mabel Batten, a well-known amateur lieder singer. It was Batten who introduced Radclyffe-Hall to Coningsby Clarke as a composer to help set some of her poems.Mabel gave Radclyffe-Hall the nickname 'John' a name she was generally known by and so I will use this symbolic re-christening hereafter.

Dolly was dependent on John financially, John had inherited £100,000 from her father so could do pretty well what she liked. When John and Dolly broke up Dolly first returned to the USA but was back by July 1909 and quickly decided to marry Clarke. The marriage took place at St Paul’s Church, Knightsbridge on 19th October 1909 with John as their witness. That they where all living in the same house seems to indicate some sort of interesting arraignment. Who’s Who lists Clarke’s hobbies as croquet, bridge, fishing, reading, sea-bathing, and travelling, maybe he had other interesting hobbies too. Anyway it seems to have been an unconventional life as Dolly occasionally became John's lover from time to time. R. Coningsby Clarke, as he preferred to be called on his musical compositions, also wrote many songs set to poems by John Masefield and W.E. Henley but the only song he is remembered today by is The Blind Ploughman.Something I can't quite fathom is why John continued to pay Dolly after her marriage, she had a couple of children by Clarke and he left some £21,000 on his death so money was not really a problem. Maybe it was a form of control that John wished to maintain over Dolly.This then is the connection between John and Clarke, however there is another

John's mother Mary Jane Hall, after a messy divorce from John's father Radclyffe Radclyffe-Hall (a great lack of imagination by his parents I feel), remarried Alberto Antonio Visetti a singing teacher with a reputation as a ladies' man, he also made indecent advances on John who thereafter referred to him as 'My disgusting old step-father.' He was a founding professor of the Royal College of Music and included among his pupils Louise Kirby-Lunn, Muriel Foster, Keith Faulkner and Agnes Nicholls.  John in her teens used to hang about the room next to Visetti's studio where students met before and after lessons. This room became her hunting ground for lovers. In 1898 the 22 year old Agnes Nicholls became the 18 year old John's lover, not sure who seduced who, but they became an 'item.' This intense relationship lasted until about 1901 by which time Agnes was starting on her professional career. Now in 1904 Agnes married none other than Hamiton Harty the conductor of these records. It is very likely that he would therfore arranged the piano score of the songs for orchestra. Harty and Nicholls marriage was a bit of a failure and they lived apart after about 1928.

Hubert Eisdell
The only other other connection I can find, as if we don't have enough for one recording, is one between Clarke and Eisdell. Eisdell was in some respects a protege of Gervase Elwes and both sang very similar repertoire, He recorded several other of Clarke's songs a number of which may have been dedicated to, or at least first performed by him. I have not been able to find a concert he gave including this particular cycle, indeed the cycle was not given very often, the first two songs featured at the Proms in 1915 and 1916 but do not appear to have been lastingly popular. Eisdell did sing at other proms, in 1913 and from 1921 to 1923, other of Clarke's songs. Hubert Eisdell was well known and rather me write his biography a thoroughly good one can be found here

I’m sorry to say I have yet to locate the full text for the cycle, I did however find a contemporary review published in the The Music Trade Review Vol. LVIII No. 20, p. 50: May 16 1914. when the work was issued in the US.

Desert Love Songs by Clarke. Brilliant Cycle of Six Song by Robert Coningsby Clarke, the Young Composer, Published by Chappell & Co. 

Perhaps when the young composer [actually 34, so there is hope for us all] of these Desert Love Songs gets a little older he may be unable to write music so spring-like and expressive only of youth and the halcyon days of love. His landscape is aglow with budding flowers and the emerald of opening leaves, yet there is a note of plaintiveness in these songs, a tone of longing. Robert Coningsby Clarke, however, is not a musical trifler. His expression is earnest and his style is elevated. Such a song as "My Heart's Desire," for instance, is dignified as well as impassioned. "The Burning Hours" has an Oriental touch and is full of romance. "I will await thee." the first song of the volume, is delightfully tender; and the last song, "Yellow Slippers," is the exuberance of youth at its best. In "The Dove" the composer has an easy and spontaneous melody with a rippling accompaniment suggestive of light wings and airy flight. "The Hawk" has a more insistent rhythm and a melody of stronger character, as befits the predatory nature of that bird that killed the swallow. This album of six songs, with words by Marguerite Radclyffe-Hall and music by Robert Coningsby Clarke, is published by Chappell & Co., New York.

Ernest Bristow Farrar
As a filler Columbia recorded Brittany by Ernest Bristow Farrar (1885-1918) a native of Lewisham in London, I only mention this as I live in thjis neck of the woods, his biography can be found on wikipedia. He managed to produce a fare amount of work before being killed on the Western Front. Farrar is perhaps best remembered as the teacher of Gerald Finzi. 

Coincidentally Gerwase Elwes also recorded this song about June 1917 but this recording was held back until 1921. Columbia was not to know that Elwes would be killed in a tragic accident in January 1921 and so issued his version in March as a sort of tribute. This duplication could not have helped the sale of the Desert Love Songs much.

The words by E.V Lucas formed the third poem in a series on Easy Lessons in Geography that was published as part of the anthology called Another Book of Verses for Children in 1909. A pretty book which a later issue of which can be seen here.

In Brittany the churches
All day are open wide,
That anyone who wishes to
May pray or rest inside.
The priests have rusty cassocks,
The priests have shaven chins.
The poor old bodies go to their.
With lists of little sins.

In Brittany the churches
Are cool and white and quaint,
With here and there a crucifix
And here and there a saint;
And here and there a little shrine,
With candles short or tall
That Bretons light for love of Him
The Lord who loveth all.


  1. Replies
    1. Ta Buster - I just love to dredge muck up from the past


  2. Blimey, it's like daytime TV at its most lurid! (Not that I watch TV during the daytime, you understand, except when I'm ironing.) Thank you for your exhaustive research and fabulous detail, as well as the transfers of course. All the best, Grumpy (but quite jolly today)

  3. That's material for a novel! Great research again, thanks!
    Greetz, Satyr

  4. Probably should be banned for corrupting innocent record collectors


  5. The lives may have been unconventional, but not the music!

    I also enjoyed the Farrar - it seems to me that I have a CD of his music somewhere. Reminiscent of the Vaughan Williams setting of Bredon Hill, is it?

  6. I think you are right and each of these young composers took ideas from the other - I see also they wrote to each other - 2 letters are in Letters of Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1895-1958 edited by Hugh Cobbe which is partly scanned on Google Books. I think it rather a shame that so much of this period in music is yet to have any revival - a time for everything i suppose


  7. Couldn't agree more - most enjoyable.

    I should have mentioned that the transfers are superb! Acoustics are so difficult.

  8. An interesting article on Coningsby Clarke - a piece of whose piano music I have just put on YouTube - thank you for that! Note that he would have studied at Westminster Abbey with Sir Frederick Bridge - not Frank, who would doubtless have turned him in different musical directions!

    1. Thank you for the correction Phillip.

      Might have to resurrect some of Mr Frederick Bridge's recordings to make amends for my failings!

      Best wishes


  9. I am still going through my fathers collection. Robert Coningsby Clarke, Three Sailor Songs? About 1920? Signed by Clarke...:)