This two-disc set, from the Cambria label, comes to me at a very propitious time: next year I’m teaching an art song survey at the University of New Hampshire and was hoping to find some conservative but finely crafted examples from the twentieth century. Well, I’ve found some. Madeleine Dring (1923-1977) studied at the Royal College of Music: violin with W. H. Reed, orchestration with Gordon Jacob, and composition with Herbert Howells and Ralph Vaughan Williams. She married Roger Lord, then principal oboist of the London Symphony Orchestra; according to Wanda Brister—an associate professor of voice at Florida State University, one of the singers on this excellent set, and not least an authority on the composer’s work—Dring wrote music “for the sheer joy of it.” Only four of the songs were published during her lifetime. (Josef Weinberger issued the late Five Betjeman Songs posthumously in 1980, and Thames Publishing Company began issuing collections of the songs in 1982, finishing the project only in 1999.)
These songs bear a superficial resemblance to Roger Quilter with one important difference: they’re much, much better. The text-setting is perfect, the vocal lines eminently singable, and the piano accompaniments eclectic, always harmonious, and traditional-sounding without devolving into kitsch (as Quilter does too often). There are 50-some songs in all, spanning Dring’s short career, and not a bad one in the lot. I will describe two incredible examples from many. In the “Willow Song” from volume 1 (text from Shakespeare’s Othello), successions of third-related minor harmonies alternate with a very deft rehearing of English Renaissance song—Vaughan Williams offers the example, I’m sure, but Dring executes the alchemy with an enviably natural assurance that appeals to the listener more quickly than many songs from her teacher. In “Through the Centuries,” from Four Night Songs (ca. 1976-1977), Dring’s harmonic vocabulary has become even more colorful, but the style of the music shows clear ties to the popular song tradition without simply repeating its tricks and conventions to no purpose: the turns of phrase respond simply and effectively to the various twists of Michael Armstrong’s poignant verse.