Jeremy Huw Williams and Paula Fan Present Clare Cycle

October 30, 2017
6 PM
Ultan Recital Hall, University of Minnesota


Acclaimed Welsh baritone Jeremy Huw Williams (Welsh National Opera) and pianist Paula Fan (University of Arizona) will present a recital of French, Welsh and American music, part of Mondays @ Minnesota, a guest artist series of the University of Minnesota Vocal Arts Community, at 6 PM on October 30, 2017. The program includes Fauré’s song cycle La bonne chanson, Welsh songs and Heard in a Violent Ward, my song cycle based on poems and letters by nineteenth-century English pastoral poet, John Clare (1793-1864).

John Clare portrait

John Clare by William Hilton, 1820

A peasant poet, the son of a Northamptonshire farm laborer, Clare achieved a certain fame through the publication in 1820 of Poems Descriptive of Rural Life and Scenery and The Village Minstrel, which appeared the following year. Bloom and Trilling call him “a genuine visionary of nature,” acknowledging the poet’s narrow range, but pronouncing the work “intense and pure.” “That sweet man, John Clare” as Theodore Roethke called him, entered the Northampton General Lunatic Asylum—the institution now called St. Andrew’s Healthcare that later nursed composer Malcolm Arnold—in 1841. Precisely what Clare’s malady was is hard to determine at this remove, but he had delusions of being a boxer and for a period believed himself to be Lord Byron. He spent his last 23 years there, was treated well and was given freedom to wander round the town and to continue writing until his death.

My title is taken from Roethke’s short poem of the same name:

In heaven, too,
You’d be institutionalized
But that’s all right,—
If they let you eat and swear
With the likes of Blake,
And Christopher Smart,
And that sweet man, John Clare.

Applied to my work, this title is a little misleading, I’ll admit: a person other than Clare inhabits Roethke’s “violent ward.” But at least it sets the tone, provides a container for the scenes of the cycle, and tells you a little about what is to follow. It is not easy listening, though there are moments of relief in the form of a march that accompanies the scene of  Byron’s funeral train, and a folk tune, “Sallie in the Alley.” The bookends are two highly contrasting settings of Clare’s last letter from the asylum. Within are two complete meditative lyrics, one of which is Clare’s best-known poem, the searing “I am.” Two “mad” letters make up the interior.

Heard in a Violent Ward is dedicated to baritone Lawrence Weller, who gave the premiere in May, 1993 in Saint Paul, with John Churchwell at the piano. I am grateful to the smart and gifted musicians Jeremy Huw Williams and Paula Fan for grappling with the many difficulties I’ve posed, and waking the work after a twenty-year slumber.

For more on Clare, visit the John Clare Society.

Ultan Recital Hall is located in Ferguson Hall on the West Bank Campus of the University of Minnesota. For a map, click here.