November 30, 2010


The Peculiar Case of Peter Pope (Jessica Duchen, 11/29/10, Standpoint)

JD: Ann, let's start at the beginning. How did you first come across Peter Pope and his music?

A M-D: A friend of a friend is a maths professor and an amateur singer. His wife was a bit of a collector. They were moving house and had retrieved a box of scores from their attic, which they thought might be of interest to me. In the box were bits of Pope, Madeline Dring and Elaine Hughes-Jones.

I played through a song called 'The Oystercatchers' with my duo partner, mezzo-soprano Susan Legg. We knew in an instant that this exquisite music had to be recorded, but we had no information about Peter Pope.

Google revealed nothing and my friend's wife was vague about her acquisition. There was reference to the Royal College and John Ireland and also to Nadia Boulanger, but I'm afraid I always get the giggles when I hear her name — didn't everyone study at some time with Nadia Boulanger?!

In the end, Uppingham School was a vital link. Records indicated that this was where Peter and his brothers were educated and that Edward, who had played rugby for England, was well into his nineties and was still alive. Through Edward, I learnt that Pope's wife Nornie was still alive and later, through a cellist friend of the composer, Judith Mitchell, I was able to find Nornie's nursing home.

I drove there the next day. Noreen was terrific — such a vibrant personality. She showed me family photographs and we played Ravel duets together.

In total, it had taken two years to trace the family (through phone-books, death certificates, school records, etc) and a further year to sort out probate and register the works with the PRS.

JD: What do you feel is special about his compositions? How significant a find is this in musical terms?

A M-D: The songs are haunting; they have a brutal intimacy to them. They inherit all of the best harmonic traditions of English song, but add more sophisticated French, American and Eastern European colour (I hear Ravel, Copland and even Lutoslawski.)

Call me harsh, but I'm afraid I do find some English song to be flowery and syrupy; a sentimentality naturally born of the dislocation from the homeland and through the crumbling Empire and two world wars. These works aren't like that — they have a clarity and precision to them; a vocabulary that discusses a private, inner world. Pope has a rare understanding of text and chooses complex poetry. To elect to set a cycle with so many hidden metaphors as TS Eliot's Landscapes is a bold move — this is, I think, one of the most brilliant cycles on the disc.

JD: Please tell us more of his story. Who were his chief influences? How deeply do you think his experiences during WWII impacted on him?

A M-D: Peter was born in 1917 and studied at the Royal College of Music with John Ireland. He won a travelling scholarship to study with Nadia Boulanger in Paris and it seems that he was one of Nadia Boulanger's ‘inner circle' — he is mentioned in several books about the pedagogue and he often stayed with her and went to parties (Pope talked of 'pink and white parties' with Stravinsky!). Interestingly, we now have charming letters written from Boulanger to Pope, dating from after he had left the sect.

Pope's studies were cut short by the German invasion of Paris and he narrowly escaped death, by fleeing France on a bicycle to catch one of the last boats to England. The story goes that, as a typical student, he overslept, missing his train. Apparently everyone who boarded that train was shot.

After service in the Royal Army Medical Corps, Pope's piano quartet received a rave review in The Times and Augeners offered to publish anything he wrote, but it was at this time that he met Nornie.

Nornie was Anglican and Pope was Catholic; both were deeply religious. Peter and Noreen married and so that they might worship together and perhaps to find some sort of compromise (and also because of much pressure from so-called 'friends') they joined an exclusive religious sect, the Exclusive Brethren (later known as Raven-Taylor Brethren) which prohibited any involvement with the creative arts. It permitted:


No radio or record player

No theatre or cinema

Screened books only allowed

No social contact with anyone outside religion and that includes family.

No eating out in restaurants.

No higher education

Pope set fire to all of his scores and didn't compose for several years, though the family believe that he did write in secret at a later stage.

-AUDIO INTERVIEW: Pianist Ann Martin-Davis and her duo partner, soprano Susan Legg (BBC Midweek, 11/24/10)
Pianist Ann Martin-Davis and her duo partner, soprano Susan Legg, discovered previously unheard, unperformed and unrecorded music by lost composer, Peter Pope. For the next two years they played musical detective, eventually discovering that Pope gave up his promising composing for love and religion. They've released an album 'Heaven-Haven - The Songs of Peter Pope' (on Nimbus records), and will be touring with Pope's song-cycle 'Five Landscapes'; a setting of the T.S. Eliot poetry of the same name, as part of their latest programme Landscape which they will be performing in extreme locations throughout next year.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at November 30, 2010 6:24 AM
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