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Renouncement (1923)


I must not think of thee; and, tired [yet]1 strong,
I shun the love that lurks in all delight --
The love of thee -- and in the blue heaven's height,
And in the dearest passage of a song.
Oh, just beyond the sweetest thoughts that throng
This breast, the thought of thee waits hidden yet bright;
But it must never, never come in sight;
I must stop short of thee the whole day long.
But when sleep comes to close each difficult day,
When night gives pause to the long watch I keep,
And all my bonds I needs must loose apart,
Must doff my will as raiment laid away, --
With the first dream that comes with the first sleep
I run, I run, I am gather'd to thy heart.

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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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