Review: Folk Song, Art Song (Radio 4)

A good folk song should hit you in the solar plexus, writes Antonia Quirke.

The celebrated young baritone Christopher Maltman had a permanently lightly amused tone when presenting an amiable programme about English folk songs being sung by classically trained singers (24 April, 11.30am) – taking it as a given that it can sound uncomfortable. A handful of folk musicians piled in to complain. “I have a horror of Kathleen Ferrier singing ‘Blow the Wind Southerly’”; “The manicured operatic voice I find really offensive”; “I don’t understand – why does a person have to trill on an R?” and so on, convulsed with the idea that there is a tier of English society that cannot appreciate folk music, let alone sing it. 

One thing was agreed: that when the general public hears a good folk song “it hits them in the solar plexus” and it is this immediate collision of pathos – this sense of something unlimited and insatiable – that classical singers long to grab. Hence Ian Bostridge giving a concert of Schubert songs invariably ends with an encore of “The Little Turtle Dove”. This, it was lightly suggested, constitutes a form of theft.

On the one hand we were played Peter Pears singing a Percy Grainger setting of a William Taylor, hearing him rather matily not articulating the G on the end of some verbs and yet cut-glassishly syncopating the word commandaah; and on the other a recording of Margaret Barry simply singing “She Walks Through the Fair” in a pub in Camden in the 1950s. One was rather more embarrassing than the other. Cecil Sharpe got it in the neck. “The collectors wanted to purify culture,” someone sniffed and “Sharpe was militant in thinking the folk song ended in 1840” – as though the man had been devoted to little more than a violent superimposition of wistfulness. 

Not nearly enough was made of this whole issue being madly English. Is it the very elaborate privateness of the successful folk lyric that sits so badly with any hint of gentility? No Italian, for example, scoffed when Caruso sang “O Sole Mio” – a Neopolitan folk song. Few Dubliners cringed when John McCormack sang “Danny Boy” – which he was asked for most, rather than display his famous 64 notes on one breath in Mozart’s “Il Mio Tesoro” from Don Giovanni. James Joyce, one suspects, never asked McCormack why he trilled on an R. 

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 30 April 2012 issue of the New Statesman, The puppet master