Mark awarded LRSM – Singing Award in Prison

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After completing his DipABRSM in 2014, Mark took some time to focus on his legal studies before returning to his music in 2023, with support from the Hardman Trust.

I was really lucky to meet some amazing musicians through Vox Holloway Choir and Liberty Choir, who encouraged me to take on the LRSM. With their help, I was able to prepare a 45-minute recital for the exam itself, covering some really technical and challenging material. The programme is quite melancholic and some of the content quite profound, like Fauré’s setting of ‘Prison‘ by Paul Verlaine, but I found it was a really powerful way of expressing some of the complex emotions that come with the experience of incarceration. Immersing myself in the richness of this music and the lives of the composers themselves proved to be a welcome distraction from the stressors and mundanities of prison life. For me, music has been a vital lifeline in the battle to survive prison intact, reconnecting me with a sense of humanity and beauty that prison tends to starve you of”.

‘Bright is the ring of words’, No. 8 from ‘Songs of Travel

A bright tonic chord, spanning five octaves of C, heralds this philosophical reflection on the transcendent nature of music. A seminal departure from his choral and orchestral work, this piece forms part of a song cycle written a year after Ralph Vaughan Williams began touring the countryside to collect British folksong.

Parallel chords and a homophonic accompaniment emphasise the determination with which the protagonist began his travels. A transition to the Neapolitan of C shifts the focus to questions of legacy – a subject of great importance to the composer as he sought to re-establish the nation’s own distinctive musical identity.

Vaughan Williams cleverly alternates between triple and common time to accommodate the poem’s mixed meter, with hemiolas adding to the song’s speech-like quality. As the “embers” – evocative of the ‘Roadside Fire’ – die out, a familiar refrain reminds the “maid” of the man who left her. A final inverted tonic leaves us with a sense of what might have been.

‘Youth and Love’, No. 4 from ‘Songs of Travel

The growing sense that something fundamental was being lost in the wake of the industrial revolution underlies the difficult choice facing the wanderer in ‘Songs of Travel’. On one hand, the call of the road seems irresistible, evoked by an alternating pattern of quavers and triplets, and frequent fanfares referencing ‘The Vagabond’. On the other hand, the call of the fair maid “with lighted lamp” presents its own temptations. Throughout the cycle, Vaughan Williams uses flat keys to signify this more settled, city life – while sharp keys denote nature.

This can be heard in the rapturous textual painting of the night sky, with arpeggiation in the piano redolent of the stars in ‘Let Beauty Awake’. A suspension on the dominant shepherds us towards the inexorable conclusion, as the theme from the ‘Roadside Fire’ rings out seven times in the accompaniment. Yet, once again, with triplets wavering from the tonic and an inversion on the final chord, lingering doubts seem to remain.

‘Prison’, No. 1, Op. 83

Verlaine spent 555 days in a Belgian prison after a drunken altercation in which he shot his lover, Rimbaud. The sense of time slipping through his fingers finds expression here in the relentless clock chimes on the third beat of every third bar in the first half of this chanson. Studying Shakespeare and ‘Don Quixote’ in his prison cell, Verlaine went on to be celebrated as the ‘prince of poets’ in 1894. He died two years later, prompting Gabriel Fauré to publish this setting – the last of sixteen Verlaine poems he worked on.

It was about this time that Fauré began adopting the stylistic approach of the Symbolists, distilling sensory experience into purer forms. In his ‘Art poétique’ Verlaine describes lines “dissolving better into the air… We want shades, not plain colour, nothing but shades!” Fauré translates this musically through tonal ambiguities, diminished chords, and careful rhythmic declamation of a parlando melodic line. Downbeat displacements, for example, reflect the weak first syllable of each line characteristic of French speech.

‘Chanson Épique’, No. 2 from ‘Don Quichotte à Dulcinée

Maurice Ravel celebrates his roots in this, his last ever score. The accompaniment follows the ostinato of a traditional Basque dance called the Zortzico in 5/4 – evocative of his Piano Trio in A minor. The action takes place in Spain, where Ravel’s mother was born. 

The Knight, Don Quichotte, is praying for strength to win the affections of Dulcinée – comparing her to the Virgin Mary as he vows to protect her honour. In ternary form, the A section melody gently undulates along a conjunct recitando line, with the tessitura gradually rising to the heavens. Ravel’s chromaticism and obscured tonalities reveal Fauré’s influence as his teacher, which Ravel would pass on to Vaughan Williams. With the “light” on Don Quichotte’s sword, the B section suddenly switches from Dorian mode into F major, and a more cantabile, disjunctive melody. Thickening chords drive us to the climax of “Ma Dame”, incorporating Ravel’s hallmark sevenths – followed by a return to recitative.

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun’, No. 3 from ‘Let us Garlands Bring’, Op. 18

First performed in 1942 for Vaughan Williams’ seventieth birthday, this was the first song Gerald Finzi composed in this cycle of 5 Shakespearian songs begun almost 13 years earlier. The dirge appears in Act IV, Scene II of ‘Cymbeline’, in which two brothers take it in turns to sing over the body of Fidele. This would have had great meaning to Finzi, who by the age of 17 had lost his father and all 3 brothers. His belief that a composer should be “moved by a poem and wish to identify himself with it” lends intimacy to his work.

Finzi uses a lower tessitura for the lines sung by Guiderius in the first and third stanzas, compared to those delivered by Arviragus in the second stanza and second phrase of the third stanza. The piano mirrors the narrative voices by alternating parts between the left and right hand. “All lovers young… come to dust” anticipates the ‘Lover and his Lass’ that concludes Finzi’s cycle.

‘The rain it raineth every day’, No. 3 from ‘Clown’s Songs from Twelfth Night’, Op. 65

In a song from ‘Twelfth Night’, Feste – the archetypal Fool – muses upon the vicissitudes of life. Stanford omits the colourful fourth stanza, “with tosspots”. Feste’s dry remark that “foolery does walk about the orb like the sun, it shines everywhere” may have more than one meaning, for playing the fool has enabled him to weather the storms of life, bouncing back from each setback – just as the shipwrecked brothers and the imprisoned Malvolio have done.

This matters because Charles Stanford, like Finzi, sees song-writing “as miniature painting… the poem should always remain the principal consideration” (1922). Thus, we hear the unrelenting patter of rain in the accompaniment, falling in quavers from the treble part into the bass, while the harmony modulates as unpredictably as life itself. In the first stanza alone, we journey through D minor; its relative major – F; before inflecting to the supertonic, G minor. The strophic melody meanwhile, skips along in a scherzo-like fashion.

‘Le temps a laissé son Manteau (Rondel I)’, No. 1 from ‘Trois Chansons de France

Charles de Valois was a political prisoner in England for 25 years, so it is perhaps apt for him to write about breaking free from the “cold and rain”. Claude Debussy’s father – like Verlaine – was a Communard, spending a year in prison during 1871. Yet, out of disaster sprung hope, for a fellow prisoner introduced young Debussy to a piano teacher – Antoinette Mauté.

The timing of this piece, however – as his marriage with Lilly was breaking down – may reveal a rather more awkward meaning behind the words. Within two months of its publication in May 1904, Debussy would elope with Emma Bardac, Fauré’s former muse – causing a very public rift between him and Ravel.

Jettisoning standard tonality, Debussy’s fascination with nature and affinity with the Symbolist movement is apparent. “There is no theory”, he said in 1889, “you only have to listen. Pleasure is the law!” The rolling modal chords under “soleil raiant” anticipate his quasi-symphony ‘La Mer’ in their impressionistic evocation of water shimmering in the sunlight. Pairs of repeated bars in the accompaniment, and the long pedal on D from “Portent en livrée” are hallmarks of Debussy’s style.

‘Nocturne’, No. 2, Op. 43

Like Brahms, Gabriel Fauré slipped away for several months each year to a lakeside retreat where he remarked he could find the “calm, space, and anonymity” he needed to write. This mélodie is illustrative of Fauré’s exposure to medieval and renaissance modal music at École Niedermeyer, which he often wove into his work. A recurring tonic pedal on the second beat of the bar weakens the preceding tones, creating its own “great mystery” over the syntactical connections between chords. Indeed, just as there is but “one flower and one star” for our narrator, Fauré chooses this moment to use the only functional dominant in the entire piece.

Fauré uses ties over the bar to accommodate French prosody, and sets Comte’s poem ‘Éblouissement’ in a rounded binary form to convey the dialectic between flowers and stars, love and beauty. Dazzling Phrygian passages in the accompaniment “light up at every moment”, while a shift into Dorian mode – chosen for its symmetrical tone structure in a nod to the Parnassian movement – marks the “sombre” night.

‘Dein Angesicht’, No. 2, Op. 127

Written in 1840, Robert Schumann’s ‘liederjahr’ in which he and Clara would finally wed after a 6-year clandestine courtship – Heine’s barbed wit is gently deployed here in an expression of love and concern for Clara’s wellbeing. Schumann’s letters reveal he hung paintings of her in his home like ‘altar pieces’ (20 March 1838). On 13 April however, a new lithograph of Clara prompted him to say: “one could think you were very pale, even sickly, but you aren’t, are you?… Stay as you are… schön und lieb und englisch”.

Schumann’s shock is emulated in a musical double-take that knocks the melody out of sync with the piano on “und doch so bleich”, until the singer can metaphorically catch their breath. The gently rocking accompaniment nevertheless dives into E major with “schmerzenreich” – a softening of Heine’s mood-breaking “schmerzenbleich”. The inference of F minor and sudden offbeat diminished seventh anticipates the ‘kiss of death’. Schumann’s technique of imprecisely doubling the vocal line in the piano during “Himmelslicht” confirms his anguish.

‘Verrat’, No. 5, Op. 105

Johannes Brahms favoured poems that had never been set to music, freely adapting them to his own composition style – here in a modified ternary and varied strophic form, influenced by the folk tradition. It is one of the few songs Brahms notated in the bass clef, opening with a narrative ballad driven along by offbeat – then parallel – chords. The occasional call and response anticipates the arrival of a second narrative voice, sung in a higher tessitura over E minor, offering us the female perspective in this story of ‘betrayal’. Brahms accommodates the anacruses by starting each phrase on an upbeat, varying the pace of declamation for expressive purposes, for example, during the woman’s breathless invitation.

Caught in the act, the cuckolded man challenges the lover to “make haste” to the heath, accompanied by a polyrhythmic passage of descending triplets. Amidst the high drama, octave leaps on “Liebschaft” and “segnen” suggest the thrusting sword, while horn calls presage the fatal blow, falling on a violent diminished seventh.

‘Wie bist du, meine Königin’, No. 9, Op. 32

Written in 1864 – some 22 years earlier than ‘Verrat’ – this strophic AABA setting embraces pastoral themes typical of German lied. The familiar trope of the wandering traveller, akin to Schubert’s ‘Winterreise’, returns in what is the final lied in a cycle of 9 that combines multiple poets to form a coherent narrative. The use of triplets and flattened sevenths is common in Romantic song, supported here by semiquaver runs evoking wafting fragrances. A crepuscular B section in the third stanza meanders through E major and C# minor. The song climaxes with a colourful Neopolitan phrase.

The words are particularly poignant in light of the attempted suicide of his friend Robert Schumann a decade earlier. Some scholars suggest the song is about Clara Schumann, with whom Johannes Brahms had fallen in love, writing in 1859 that “I am under her spell. Often I must forcibly restrain myself from just quietly putting my arms around her”. In 1887, he urged her to destroy their letters.

Aria: ‘Quoniam tu solus sanctus’, No. 11 from ‘Mass in B Minor’, BWV 232    

Appearing in the penultimate section of the Gloria, this Aria – sung to a polonaise honouring the Polish-born, and newly crowned, Elector of Saxony Augustus III – was presented as part of Bach’s bid to become court composer in 1733. Dresden was renowned for its bassoonists, so J. S. Bach incorporates two here, along with a hunting horn (its only appearance in the entire Mass) in a pared-down orchestration symbolic of the Holy Trinity.

In 2008, the urtext was subjected to x-ray spectrographic analysis, enabling scholars to discern additions made by C.P.E. Bach from the original. This Aria is from the revised Bärenreiter publication that reflects those findings, the most notable of which being the coloratura passage in bars 82 – 83. Phrases are sung in 8-bar groups until the appearance of “Jesu Christe”, when the pattern is arrested. A shift to B minor in bar 77 reminds us of Christ’s suffering in the Kyrie.

Bach completed the Missa tota in 1749, shortly before his death.

Words and Translations

You can find a copy of the words and any translations from Mark’s programme in the pdf below:


Call out the injustice:

What do you think?