The Songs of Norman Peterkin

In December 1982 my old friend Norman Peterkin passed away in his sleep at the age of almost 96 in a Guildford hospital. For so many years he had seemed immortal that I could scarcely believe the news. At first the grief was personal, but later I realised that he had been making a significant contribution to many different aspects of British music for over sixty years and so the loss was thus more widespread. Latterly he had been known in two roles: as a “grandad” figure for the Music Department of Oxford University Press and as the composer of the song, “I heard a piper piping”. He had outlived most of the contemporaries who might have remembered other facets of his life, e.g. his contributions to musical life in far flung parts of the old Empire, and his work in the 1920s with the composers’ circle in Liverpool.

To begin with his own compositions were written in a style similar to that of Grieg, but he was open to all the contemporary influences in music and literature – to Debussy and Delius and to Yeats and Maeterlinck. Another significant influence was the music of Cyril Scott, whose First Piano Sonata of 1909 made a great impression on the young Peterkin and was to remain a favourite with him.

History will give Norman Peterkin an unusual position in the hierarchy of twentieth century British music and musicians. For some of his songs he will be known as a subtle, imaginative composer of considerable distinction. As a publisher he will always be associated with Hubert Foss, but as one who was known as a poet in music and a musician in publishing he will have a niche all his own. Alastair Chisholm



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The songs include the vogue for musical Chinoiserie and Japanese influence, Irish ballads, parlour settings, and the folkloric. There is limited evidence of Debussian influence – but there is some – and chromaticism was certainly a component of what are presumably the earlier Scott-influenced settings. The taut Five Poems from the Japanese and The Chaste Wife’s Reply allude briefly to Japanese or Chinese music as appropriate. O Men from the Fields! has a charming lilt to it whilst Little Red Hen has a complement of folklore that encourages a more pugnacious vocal contribution from Charlotte de Rothschild. The itinerant musician is brought to life in The Fiddler. The undulating severity evoked in Walter de la Mare’s Never More, Sailor is deftly done. Some settings have charm but not much depth, albeit charm is he only intent, as in A Cradle Song.

De la Mare - something of a Peterkin favourite - inspires the composer to greater harmonic complexity in the impressionistically flecked Song of the Water Maiden through strangely Byron’s So, We’ll Go No More A-Roving is never touching enough. Peterkin’s best-known song, possibly his only well-known one, is I Heard a Piper Piping, a brief, chaste and delightful light song. Settings like Rune of the Burden of the Tide and The Tide Rises, The Tide Falls share more than a word in common: they draw from Peterkin a more charged intent, a more declamatory self. The Rhymers’ Club favourite, Ernest Dowson, also seems to unlock something more than the commonplace in Beata Solitudo with its twilit piano writing and love desire.

Peterkin is at his best when he responds most passionately, drawing on impressionist, on chromatic models. He’s at his most anodyne when treading the threadbare post-Edwardian carpet. Charlotte de Rothschild and Adrian Farmer perform with excellent ensemble. … she characterises well, even in the silly The Bees’ Song. Despite caveats this is a worthwhile and quietly rewarding selection of songs. Jonathan Woolf, MusicWeb

Peterkin spent a good amount of his working life in the music business, firstly for the Liverpool music firm, Rushworth and Dreaper which in those days was sufficiently substantial that it had a Singapore office to where young Peterkin was despatched in 1911. Later, between 1924 and 1947 he was an increasingly important figure in the Music Department of Oxford University Press.

The songs chosen by Charlotte de Rothschild and Adrian Farmer cover the period 1918-1952 though the majority date from the 1920s and only one, A Little Wind Came Blowing, comes from later than the early 1940s. It’s relevant to say a word about the dating of the songs. The songs themselves are attractive and communicate well with the listener. On this evidence Peterkin had a good melodic gift. His piano parts are full of incident which perhaps reflects the fact that he was no mean pianist himself and had something of a reputation as an accompanist.

Looking back over my notes made while listening to the songs I find that the words “attractive” or “appealing” appear quite frequently. Charlotte de Rothschild is a committed advocate for these songs. Throughout the programme Adrian Farmer is a most sympathetic and supportive pianist.

It's good that a selection of Norman Peterkin’s songs have made it on to disc. They deserve a wider audience and I’m glad to have heard them.  John Quinn, MusicWeb-International

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