2006.12.01 Gramophone diary: The rural reality of life on a Welsh farm

Gramophone, December 2006



Simon Keenlyside

The rural reality of life on a Welsh farm informs the singer’s performance of poetry of a pre-industrial age

The great German singer Dietrich Fischer- Dieskau used to write rather disparagingly about singers who made song programmes consisting solely of texts discoursing on Nature. I’ve made that mistake in the past but I think he’s right. Endless poems about walking in the woods are a bit like talking to yourself and make for a thin gruel for a whole evening’s entertainment. It reminds me of Oscar Wilde’s comment about watching nature too much and living with her too little.

As for real life? Ah well, that’s a different matter altogether. There isn’t time enough in the day for messing about in coats and the arrival of every season has me straining at the leash to get out and find, look-at, listen-to, catch, gather, or sit-in.

I have the privilege of owning a small hill-farm in west Wales. It really isn’t a question of owning the land. Sooner or later it owns you. I’m just the caretaker for the term of my natural lease. It’s my rural lung and I hope to leave it a little better than I found it.

To that end, and with the help of a government grant and a patient wife, I plant trees. Mostly indigenous species: scarlet hawthorn and rowan, for colour, damson to encourage a variety of wildlife – for us, too, if we are able to make it to the crop on time. Otherwise, the bullfinches, like mini exotic parrots, will sweep through in May and raze whole banks of fat buds before the fruit is even formed.

Laburnum I planted in respect to a 19th-century local tradition of using the wood for gateposts. Those stakes sometimes took root. In summer, at the threshold to the fields, they form elegant arches framing my metal-should-havebeen-wooden gates. Birch and oak I plant together, one for its speedy growth, the other for the diversity of wildlife it will one day hold.

In addition to the trees we furiously plant flowers. A few thousand each year. Bluebells, daffodils, red campion, fritillaries, honeysuckle, meadowsweet and foxglove, marsh marigold.

You would think that, after five years of planting, I might have carpets of wild flowers. But summertime reveals only a faint haze of colours to squinting eyes. In time, I suppose, they’ll spread. Squirrels and badgers will raid my work, giving rise to unexpected patches of colour in distant comers I never planted.

I missed the fishing season this year (again!) but at present I am up to the gills with mushrooms. I got married last month. Wonderful! But I am already sorely trying my wife’s patience. The house reeks of old socks as I cut, dry and pickle a variety of wonderful fungi. Ceps, horn-of-plenty, boletus, amethyst deceiver, parasol, chanterelle and so on … names to conjure with.

Apart from that? Right now the autumn flux of migrants are winging their way in from northern Siberia. On our honeymoon in the Outer Hebrides, we watched teeming hoards of barnacle, greylag, pinkfoot and whitefronted geese, jabbering and honking, excited to have completed an epic journey from the Arctic tundra. Spilling air from unstable wings and descending from the cloud-base at an alarming rate, to return to the same patch of marshland that they left last winter. Across a whole continent in one go!

And then? … well, then I must face the music and buckle down to work. A new recording of Don Giovanni, a production of Verdi’s Don Carlos in Vienna, followed by a Wigmore Hall recital. Brought down to earth with a thump harder than a shot goose hitting the ground, but I’m looking forward to that work immensely.

At the risk of sounding glib, does this pantheistic view of Nature inform my music? Undoubtedly it does. When poets talk of the sea, or of the nightingale, of the turtle dove and the lime; when singers sing about the brook trout, deer in the forest, or of the lark ascending, they are talking mostly about a different age. It’s a pre-industrial landscape but not a soppy pastoral idyll. Personally, I don’t think this music much benefits from a moist-eyed portrayal of rural life in tights and a bouffant shirt.

The lives of Schubert and Hugo Wolf, for example, reflected much more the natural scheme and season of things, but as an integral part of their daily lives. Early 19thcentury Vienna was tiny and the vast expanse of the Wiener Wald, the forest, lay right outside the gates of the city. We, in 21st century cities, live very much in spite of the natural world and are in danger of losing contact with it entirely. In my opinion, our descriptive music evoking Nature ought not to be relegated to sentimental pastiche.

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