• Julian Philips
  • Love Songs for Mary Joyce (2016)

  • Peters Edition Limited (World)
  • T + pf
  • Tenor
  • 20 min

Programme Note

Love Songs for Mary Joyce (2016)
for tenor and piano

1.      Say what is love
2.      Song: The Spring may forget that he reigns in the sky
3.      To Mary: I sleep with thee, and wake with thee
4.      Song: In this cold world without a home
5.      To Mary: It is the evening hour
6.      Song: I’ve wandered many a weary mile

On the 20th July 1841 poet John Clare escaped from High Beach private asylum in Epping Forest and with the help of gypsies, walked over four days back to his roots in rural Northamptonshire. Travelling virtually barefoot, with little more than a crust of bread or even grass to eat, Clare was desperately searching – in part for his lost childhood, but more importantly for his first love, Mary Joyce, the poetic muse of these troubled later years, whose memory inspired Clare to produce a substantial body of lyric poetry, despite his ever deteriorating mental state. 

Clare captured his experience in an extraordinary autobiographical account, Recollections of Journey from Essex, powerful for its unremitting and harrowing honesty. Love Songs for Mary Joyce is the first in a series of creative responses, which renders six of Clare’s Mary poems as a cycle, mapped out against the events of his Journey from Essex, which become an underlying narrative frame. 

Four of the six Clare poems chosen were clearly conceived as words without songs and the approach here has been to suspend them on musical lines, which respect the clear surface patterns of the lyrics while exploring the irregularities that lie beneath. In these ‘songs’ – numbers 2, 3, 4 and 6 – the tenor voice follows his line as Clare followed his road, embedded in musical landscapes that shift and change like the weather. 

Songs 1 and 6 function more as art songs – Say What is Love declaring the cycle’s subject as a kind of preface. Song 5, It is the evening hour, is perhaps the most ‘sophisticated’ of the six poems, and the musical response is closer to German romantic song, haunted by the uncannily close contemporaneity of Clare’s Mary poems with Schumann’s year of song (1840) in which the Heine Liederkreis op 24 was completed. 

Real-time events intrude just once: in song 3, where the three stanzas of I sleep with thee, and wake with thee are broken by two prose fragments from Clare’s ‘Recollections', describing a troubled night of sleep on the 20th July 1841. Here Mary Joyce is referred to as Clare’s ‘first wife’, Clare wrongly imagining that he’d married her. His actual wife, Patty, was to find her husband at the end of his journey on the 23rd July, crippled and scarcely able to walk, taking him back in her cart to their cottage in Northborough. There Clare found no trace of Mary Joyce, unaware that she had perished in a house fire on the 14th July 1838. 

Love Songs for Mary Joyce is dedicated with affection to my dear friends Felicity Edholm and Jeremy Macdonald; it was commissioned for tenor James Gilchrist, by the Wigmore Hall with the support of André Hoffmann, President of the Fondation Hoffmann, a Swiss grant-making foundation.

Julian Philips, 2023