The Shepherd's Calendar

Movement details

1 “With’ring and keen the Winter comes” Lento
2 “Come, Queen of Months !” Allegro giocoso
3 “O Love is so deceiving” Largo, sostenuto
4 “Harvest awakes the morning still” Andante – allegro – andante

John Clare and The Shepherd’s Calendar

John Clare was born in Helpstone, Northamptonshire on July 13 1793. His father was a flail-thresher and both parents were noted ballad singers. Singing, recited verse and folk tales were as natural a part of the rhythm of the young Clare’s year as breathing.

Already experimenting with poetry, at the age of thirteen Clare was lent a copy of James Thomson’s The Seasons, a pastoral work of considerable influence and popularity. He walked the five miles to Stamford to buy his own copy. At about this time he formed an intense attachment to a local girl, Mary Joyce, who was above his station but whose presence and memory would exert a deep influence on his life and writing. His poetry developed and was eventually discovered and published by John Taylor, patron of Keats. This was a mixed blessing, since although Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery (1820) caught the public imagination on the tail-end of a vogue for the pastoral, Taylor interfered with work and frequently edited without consultation.

Publication brought fame, London literary acquaintances and a modest income. But there were clouds in Clare’s sky. A growing family (not with Mary Joyce), the pressures of earning a living and rapid changes in rural life – in this turmoil Clare continued to write but the brief spark of fame was flickering away. The public appetite for “ploughboy poetry” was waning and the 1827 publication of The Shepherd’s Calendar was a great disappointment. Clare felt responsibility for this lay with Taylor, who cut more than two-thirds of the lines and demanded a complete rewrite of July. To be fair to the publisher, he did arrange for Clare to receive financial support.

Clare’s mental health began to deteriorate in the late 1830s and he spent four years at an asylum in Epping Forest. In July 1841 he felt the call of home and walked the eighty miles, in search of a Northamptonshire he no longer knew. The walls closed in again and, still writing, he was confined for the rest of his days at St Andrew’s asylum in Northampton. The treatment was enlightened and he had relative freedom to roam but he never regained his full liberty of mind or body. He died on 24 May 1864.

Clare’s poetry, a substantial body of work by any measure, was largely unregarded until the middle of the twentieth century, when accurate and complete editions were produced. The Oxford Companion to English Literature notes his best work as having a complex sensibility, with many pieces read as a lament for lost innocence and the death of rural England as he knew it.

The Shepherd’s Calendar is acknowledged as one of his most significant works, very much more than a misty-eyed lament for a lost rural idyll. A richly detailed pageant of the months and seasons in rural England, Michael Stapleton has described it as “the most accessible of all great English poems”.

Michael Hurd and The Shepherd’s Calendar

As the pioneering biographer of his fellow Gloucestrian Ivor Gurney, Michael Hurd played a major role in restoring the literary reputation of a generally neglected talent. Thus it is no surprise that he felt drawn to the work of another writer of deeply felt lines about a sense of place and the English countryside.

Without stretching the parallels too far it may also be significant that both Gurney and John Clare suffered from frailties of mental health and were confined to institutions for a period. And both took it upon themselves to abscond and walk home to the woods and fields of their childhood.

Hurd began work on The Shepherd’s Calendar in early 1975 in response to a commission from the Southampton Choral Society. The first and very necessary task was to select lines to include; the full work contains 3,382 lines, a complete setting of which would have run some ten hours in performance. The composer eventually extracted just 169 lines and then interposed a separate poem (O Love is so deceiving!) which forms the third section of the completed composition.

Those who come to Michael Hurd’s work through his immensely popular and successful romps for young singers such as Jonah-man Jazz or Hip-Hip Horatio may be surprised at the comparatively restrained and occasionally downbeat tone of this piece. However, those familiar with Dance Diversions (1972) and the Concerto da Camera (1979) will recognize some deft mood painting and elegant if small-scale orchestration that characterise this period of Hurd’s compositions.

Part one (from January) sets a melancholy, pastoral mood from the opening bars, chill strings underpinning a plaintive descending oboe phrase, suggestive of the shepherd’s pipe. Carefully paced writing for the chorus depicts the flight of winter flocks as various workers leave their tasks and head for the fireside. The baritone laments the loss of days gone by, simpler times, with childhood certainties now replaced by adult fears and disillusion. A repeated “Where are they now?” closes the movement, echoing the oboe phrase of the opening bars.

May, Clare’s Queen of Months, gives Hurd rein to celebrate the freedoms and carefree abandon of childhood in a second movement marked allegro giocoso throughout. The section demonstrates the composer’s characteristically sensitive treatment of verse setting, letting the rhythm of the words dictate the musical form, rather than shoehorning phrases into already set musical patterns. The regular shifts in time signature exemplify this approach. After an invocation to the spirit of spring from the soloist, the joyous bounce of this month is infectious but the shadow is never far away, in this case the village churchyard, and “The unconscious dust which lies below” applies a musical brake until the whistling ploughboy restores the jocular mood.

The third and for many the key section to this piece is a poignant solo for baritone. ”O Love is so deceiving!” is a Clare poem from his years in the St Andrew’s asylum at Northampton, unrelated to The Shepherd’s Calendar. The largo opening in Eb, shifting to G, features a similar falling phrase as heard at the opening of the piece, this time led by a flute, with harp accompaniment and a balancing string reply. The writing in this sustained introduction is particularly fine in its effective mood-painting and has led at least one observer to voice regret that Hurd never moved towards a fully symphonic orchestral work.

The setting of the tortured, even embittered, lyric is fluent and heartfelt (“The fairest won’t believe you, The foulest all deceive you”) but listeners should be wary of attributing personal emotion in an artist’s response to any particular stimulus. That caveat aside, this may be one of the few moments in his career where Michael Hurd let his personal feelings speak through his music.

The fourth and last section, from September, chooses lines which evoke the collaborative village toil of harvest. Again, a flute leads the invocation, warm strings moving towards a portrait of a misty harvest morning. An example of the tiny but effective detail of Hurd’s choral writing is the attention given to the last word of the phrase “And toil’s rude joys” – a deceptively simple yet telling moment. The allegro section clatters into the bustle of harvest itself, then cutting through the mirth and jollity comes the despairing solo baritone once more, “O Love is so deceiving!”, a brief coda from the chorus drawing the work to a gentle close.

Michael Sergeant © 2011

Notes as published with the Dutton Epoch recording, conducted by Ronald Corp