Musical Notes

Country Dancing 1914 and 1986

August 7, 2014

Our plans to reopen The Other Place in 2016 remind me of many happy shows in the old tin hut, which stood on the site of the Courtyard Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Energetic Country Dancing in black and whiteA TOP show that I loved was Nigel Williams's Country Dancing, which I saw in the Pit on its transfer to London, in 1987. The late, great Gerard Murphy was in the cast (right, with Amanda Harris), and the play was narrated by Richard Easton, who played Cecil Sharp.

Country Dancing tells the story of Sharp collecting songs and dances from villagers and in particular of a fiddler called Ted who will not play a tune for Sharp due to connections to a dark episode in the history of the village.

Cecil SharpCollecting songs
Sharp himself  (left) was a fascinating, and real, figure; he was the founder, along with the composer George Butterworth, of the English Folk Dance and Song Society.

Around the turn of the last century, many musicians feared that indigenous music might be lost if it wasn't written down and preserved. Vaughan Williams went on walking tours and transcribed folk songs from anyone who he met, and Bela Bartok did the same thing in Hungary.

A sense of nationalism became a part of the musical scene. This approach informed Vaughan Williams's use of traditional melodies in his music for us in 1913-14.

Country dancing in Stratford
Cecil Sharp approached the director Sir Frank Benson in 1911 to see if there could be any common ground between the Benson Company in Stratford and the Folk Dance Society.

As a result, folk dancing festivals took place in Stratford, in parallel with the seasons that Benson put on.

Many of Benson's actors became fascinated by the different art form, Harry Caine in particular, and immersed themselves in the dance classes that were given by Sharp, Maud Karpeles, who became Sharp's biographer, Douglas Kennedy and George Butterworth.

This YouTube video uses 1912 silent footage of Butterworth and Sharp.

I was delighted to find in the accounts some evidence of this interplay between the theatre and the Folk Dance Society; there is an inventory of payments in the archive ledgers – Sharpe is the only one allowed his initials, and Kennedy got 10/6, whilst Butterworth received 11 shillings.

Copy of the 1914 ledger

Two years later, George Butterworth died, like so many artists, on the Somme in the Great War that was to so shatter the world.

by Richard Sandland  |  3 comments

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Aug 9, 3:45pm
Comfrey the Bunny

What a delightful blog! Enchanted by the video footage of those carefree dancers, with hindsight especially poignant too.

Aug 15, 11:59pm
Sylvia Morris

Thanks for this post - I too remember Country Dancing very fondly, and for the link to the folk festivals in Stratford. The dancing in the play was much less genteel than what is shown in the film, but what a gem it is!

Aug 24, 12:48pm
Richard Sandland

I know it's the height of navel-gazing to comment on your own blog......but I'm going to do it anyway.....just to say though, that George Butterworth's songs from A Shropshire Lad were sung in a new orchestration at the Proms last Sunday 17th August; the singer was Roderick Williams, who incidentally sings some Anthony Bernard archive songs on our Two Gentlemen of Verona CD. It all fits, folks!

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