An Artsong about Christmas, but deffinitely not a Christmas Carol, Michael Head’s “Slumbersong of the Madonna” is an unexpectedly effective portrait of the human side of Mary, a mother tending to her little baby at bedtime. She calls him her baby and her King, and admits not being sure how to handle the balance of both the holy and maternal responsibility for the baby Jesus. The rocking triplets paint a picture of the young mother singing the baby to sleep, while unsettled harmonies reveal her sense of premonition. “Why should my singing so make me to weep” is so touchingly set to music and rhapsodic melismas give voice to a pure motherly love that is very affecting. Perhaps the harmonic language is touched with the sentimental brush and the piano interlude before the second verse doesn’t ring as true as it could have – a parlour-style climax seems to be building, but feels inappropriate within the confines of the text. It is most interesting to play, in that no phrases are repeated identically. Subtle changes of harmonies and rhytmic variation all reveal a composer of some skill and requires singing and playing of some sophistication to show it to its best advantage.
Although originally written for Alto voice, the song works well in transposition for soprano.
Some observations and musical examples:
Slumber Song of the Madonna: Michael Head (28 January 1900 – 24 August 1976), Published 1921 / Text by by Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) , no title, from Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems, in Slumber Songs of the Madonna, published 1907
Sleep, little baby, I love thee;
Sleep, little king, I am bending above thee!
How should I know what to sing
Here in my arms as I sing thee to sleep?
Hushaby low, rockaby so.
Kings may have wonderful jewels to bring,
Mother has only a kiss for her king!
Why should my singing so make me to weep?
Only to know that I love thee, I love thee, Love thee, my little one, sleep.
Buy Sheet Music of Michael Head’s “Slumber Song of the Madonna” HERE.
Download Free Sheet Music of Michael Head Slumber Song of the Madonna in B Flat.
(Available from University of Rochester)
Michael Head was born in Eastbourne, UK to a journalist and barrister father and a mother who was an accomplished amateur singer and pianist. He started music lessons formally at 10 and went on to study Composition and Organ at the Royal Academy of Music. Curiously, given its importance in his subsequent career, he did not study singing any further while there. Head gave his first public recital as a self accompanied singer at Wigmore Hall in 1929. After this debut performance, his fame grew rapidly. He gave several more recitals in the British Isles and in many parts of the world. Additionally he gave several radio recitals, both in Britain and Canada. He became Professor in Piano at the Royal Academy in 1927, a post he held until his retirement in 1975.
Head was appointed as an examiner for the Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music. This position required him to travel to many different countries, including South Africa and Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). At the outbreak of World War II, he returned to London and continued teaching throughout the blitz. During this time, he gave hundreds of concerts in factories and in small towns. Head died in Cape Town whilst examining for the Associated Board in Rhodesia and South Africa, from a sudden and unexpected illness on 24 August 1976. [Bush, N., 1982, Michael Head: Composer, singer and pianist, Kahn & Averill, London. ISBN 978-0-900707-73-5.]
The largest part of Head’s output as a composer was songs. A comprehensive list of his 85 songs, plus texts, can be found in Singer’s Heaven, at Recmusic.org. Given such a large song output, it is not surprising that Christmas Songs would feature.
Other famous examples of Head’s brand of Art Song/Christmas Carol are:
The Little Road to Bethlehem (“As I walked down the road at set of sun”), set to words by Margaret Rose, and
Star Candles (“The sun’s in his cradle”) set to words by Margaret Rose.(READ MORE)
From the romantic ballad to fully fledged artsong, Head’s range is quite impressive.
Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) was born in Wolverhampton, England. The Welsh coast and mountains were an early inspiration to Noyes. In 1898, he left Aberystwyth for Exeter College, Oxford, where he distinguished himself at rowing, but failed to get his degree because, on a crucial day of his finals in 1902, he was meeting his publisher to arrange publication of his first volume of poems, The Loom of Years (1902). His most famous poem, “The Highwayman”, was first published in the August 1906 issue of Blackwood’s Magazine, and included the following year in Forty Singing Seamen and Other Poems. In a nationwide poll conducted by the BBC in 1995 to find Britain’s favourite poem, “The Highwayman” was voted the nation’s 15th favourite poem [Mason, Mark (1999). “Alfred Noyes (1880-1958)”. Literary Heritage: West Midlands]
Noyes is often portrayed by hostile critics as a militarist and jingoist.Actually, he was a pacifist who hated war and lectured against it, but felt that, when threatened by an aggressive and unreasoning enemy, a nation could not but fight. On this principle, he opposed the Boer War, but supported the Allies in both the World Wars. In 1913, when it seemed that war might yet be avoided, he published a long anti-war poem called The Wine Press. One American reviewer wrote that Noyes was “inspired by a fervent hatred of war and all that war means”, and had used “all the resources of his varied art” to depict its “ultimate horror” [Featherstone, Simon. War Poetry: An Introductory Reader. Routledge, 1995, pp. 28, 56-57]
Other Settings of the poem include:
Samuel Barber (1910-1981) , “A slumber song of the Madonna”, published 1925. [voice and organ]
J. Frederick Keel (1871-1954) , “Slumber Song of the Madonna”, published 1913.
Colin Moncrieff Campbell Taylor (1881-1973) , “Sleep little baby”, published 1910. [soprano and SSAA chorus a cappella]
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