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The Lost Nightingale (1939)

The Lost Nightingale

Whoever stole you from that bush of broom,
I think he envied me my happiness,
O little nightingale, for many a time
You lightened my sad heart from its distress,
And flooded my whole soul with melody,
And I would have the other birds all come,
And sing along with me thy threnody.
So brown and dim that little body was,
But none could scorn thy singing. In that throat,
That tiny throat, what depth of harmony,
And all night long, ringing that changing note,
What marvel if the cherubim in heaven
Continually do praise Him, when to thee,
O small and happy, such a grace was given?
from Medieval Latin Lyrics (1929)

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Muriel Herbert (1897-1984) was born in Sheffield and grew up in Liverpool. She showed musical talent at an early age but the death of her father when she was twelve plunged the family into poverty. The Liverpool Scholarship in Composition enabled her to study at the Royal College of Music in London in 1917, where her teachers included Charles Stanford.

Thanks to the encouragement of Roger Quilter, her songs began to be published in the 1920s. She got married in 1925; by the 1940s, as family demands increased and her marriage had broken down, Herbert’s composition declined. She moved to Welwyn Garden City with her children and worked as a music teacher. Herbert’s daughter, the biographer Claire Tomalin, has championed her mother’s musical legacy along with Herbert’s former student Bill Lloyd; her manuscripts are held in the British Library under the collection number MS Mus. 1724.

Herbert left over 100 songs; around a third of these have been recorded and around a fifth are published. These accomplished songs transcend the modest parlour style associated with many English composers of those years; their scale, ambition and expressive power combines well with songs of Richard Strauss, Frederick Delius, Maurice Ravel and Claude Debussy, and any one of her English contemporaries. Her songs can be both appealingly lyrical with graceful, arching melodies and transparent forms, such as ‘Song – I cannot lose thee for a day’, or startlingly expansive and dramatic, such as her Joyce setting ‘I hear an army’. A singer and pianist herself, her writing for both parts is imaginative and rewarding.

Herbert’s tastes in song-poetry are wide-ranging, evincing a keen knowledge of contemporary literature. She favoured high-quality authors including favourites such as A.E Housman and Thomas Hardy; contemporaries such as James Joyce, John Masefield, Ada Harrison and the artist Enid Clay; but also the 8th-century Alcuin of York, Helen Waddell’s translations from Medieval Latin, Robert Herrick, Lord Byron, Christina Rossetti, Robert Southey and Algernon Swinburne. The inclusion of female poets is notable in her output.

Published scores of Herbert’s songs can be bought here

A recording of 36 selected songs can be bought here

© Natasha Loges, 2022


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Alcuin of York – also called Ealhwine, Alhwin or Alchoin – was an English scholar, clergyman, poet and teacher from York, Northumbria.

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