Peter Pope and Landscape

Susan Legg and Ann Martin-Davis’ latest disc is of the previously unheard, unperformed and unrecorded music by a lost composer, Peter Pope. The duo will be touring Pope’s extraordinary song-cycle ‘Five Landscapes’; a setting of the T.S. Eliot poetry of the same title, as part of their latest programme Landscape through 2011 and 2012.

Landscape draws on the lineage of Vaughan Williams, John Ireland, Peter Pope and related British composers. The Landscape is both real and ideological; nostalgia brought on by threatening times - Britain's long slide from international power, the terror of two world wars and with this, a dislocation from a homeland. With vocal settings of Wordsworth, Bridges, Housman and T.S. Eliot, as well as piano works including John Ireland’s 'Equinox', ‘Soliloquy’ and Frank Bridge's ‘The Hour Glass’, Landscape explores these ideas and brings us to the present day, with Philip Martin’s ‘The Rainbow Comes and Goes’ and Gabriel Jackson’s ‘Ruined Land’.
Classical Music Magazine, 23rd October, 2010

Pope sees the light

War and religion did their worst to keep the music of Peter Pope decaying in a loft, until pianist Ann Martin-Davis came to its rescue

Pianist Ann Martin-Davis says some composers’ output slips justifiably into oblivion, but in the case of Peter Pope, he was genuinely lost.

That loss begins to be repaired with the release on Nimbus Alliance of Heaven-Haven - The Songs of Peter Pope, performed by Martin-Davis and the mezzo-soprano Susan Legg.

Like so many musical mysteries, this one began with the discovery of a box of scores in an attic. ‘There were bits and bobs of curious English music, but all the things written by Pope completely stood out,’ Martin-Davis says. ‘We knew this fantastic music had to be recorded.’

Further investigation revealed that the composer and his brothers were educated at Uppingham School and with the help of cellist Judith Mitchell, for whom Pope had written a work, Martin-Davis tracked down Pope’s widow, Noreen, to a nursing home. Noreen, a former piano teacher, invited her visitor to play Ravel duets with her and threw light on the mysterious Mr Pope, who had died in 1991.

The musical career had begun auspiciously enough: studies at the Royal College of Music with John Ireland and then in Paris with Nadia Boulanger - cut short by the Second World War and Pope having to head for Spain on a bicycle as the Germans entered the French capital. After service in the Royal Army Medical Corps in North Africa and Italy, Pope wrote a piano quartet which won him instant acclaim. Augeners offered to publish anything he wrote. But then there was silence.

Martin-Davis discovered that when Pope met Noreen she was a member of a severe Christian sect, the Raven-Taylor Brethren, which regarded the creative arts as sinful. He decided to forsake his career for marriage. He may also have been a believer. ‘You would not give your life up for something unless you were convinced by it,’ Martin-Davis says. ‘It is extraordinary - I can’t understand it.’

‘Suddenly he was erased from public life. There is no music from 1950 until 1968, and when he left the sect in the 1970s it was too late for him to relaunch his career, particularly when you think that the music of that time was Boulez and Stockhausen. This music, which is incredibly attractive, would not have been the thing.’

She regards the songs as at least as strong as Ireland’s. ‘It is in a similar place to Gabriel Jackson’s music. I really do think they are a step on from Ireland.’

Some of the songs will be heard over the next two years in places Pope would not have dreamed of. The duo has devised a programme of bucolic works by composers such as Judith Weir, Philip Martin and Jackson as well as Pope, under the title Landscapes, which will be performed in some of the world’s most extreme locations, including a Norwegian fjord, a live volcano in New Zealand, Los Alamos and the Amazonian city of Manaus. There is talk of a performance at the 2012 Olympics. Centrepiece of the programme is Pope’s settings of TS Eliot’s Landscapes, a work that Martin-Davis describes as ‘musically the most extraordinary set and very challenging’.

She is accustomed to exoticism, having commissioned works devoted to topics as diverse as pregnancy and Nigella Lawson’s recipes, but she will soon return to the more mundane task of sifting through scores and seeking a publisher for Pope’s works.

There is a huge quantity of differing standard. There are big sonatas, pieces for wind groups and cello groups, there is a mass, all sorts of material. ‘The best thing could be that a publisher picks this up so that everybody gets to see it.’

She says of Pope, ‘it’s a hidden life and when you think of how the war disrupted so many lives you wonder how many more boxes like this there must be out there. This is a composer who was lost, not because he was substandard, but because he was truly lost.’

© Phillip Sommerich