06 Nov 2019

Soprano Eleanor Dennis performs Beethoven and Schubert at the 2019 Highgate International Chamber Music Festival

When soprano Eleanor Dennis was asked - by Ashok Klouda, one of the founders and co-directors of the Highgate International Chamber Music Festival - to perform some of Beethoven’s Scottish Songs Op.108 at this year’s Festival, as she leafed through the score to make her selection the first thing that struck her was the beauty of the poetry.

Aberdeenshire-born, Eleanor explains that she has a natural feeling for the traditional Scots poetry, which is written in a register with which she is entirely comfortable. “While a beautiful melody may be the thing that immediately draws one’s ear to a particular song, when learning a song I always think about the words first, about the focus of the song. If the poem is ‘special’ then it will always be even more pleasurable to sing.”

Eleanor will perform three of the 25 songs which form Beethoven’s Op.108 set at St Anne’s Church on Sunday 24th November , accompanied by a piano trio comprising Joseph Middleton (piano), Natalie Klouda (violin) and Caroline Dale (cello). At the time when Beethoven was making his arrangements of these traditional Scots melodies and lyrics (the arrangements were essentially intended as drawing-room songs aimed for an audience of well-to-do Scottish amateurs) there was a vogue in Germany for all things Scottish, especially the pseudo-Celtic works of Ossian and the novels of Sir Walter Scott. It should, however, be noted [1] that there was little common ground between poets such as G.A. Bürger and J.W. von Goethe, and musicians such as Reichardt and K.S. von Seckendorff - who, in the 1790s, developed a scholarly interest Scottish antiquity - and composers such as Haydn who at the same time began to make arrangements of songs with a realised bass line and occasional obbligato instruments to fulfil commissions for British Scots song collections.

Haydn made almost 400 such arrangements (mostly of Scottish songs, but also some Irish and Welsh songs) for collections published by William Napier (Original Scots Songs), George Thomson (A Select Collection of Scottish Songs), and William Whyte ( A Collection of Scottish Airs). And, it was Thomson who encouraged Beethoven to compose his own Scots song settings, first contacting him in 1803 to suggest that he might write some sonatas on Scottish tunes and later proposing that Beethoven might contribute to Thomson’s aforementioned collection. However, it was not until Haydn died, in 1809, that Beethoven began; the first of the Scottish tunes which he arranged appeared in volume five of the Select Collection (1818) and it is this volume from which the Op.108 songs are drawn.

Eleanor has chosen three songs which she describes as different in mood but forming a well-balanced trio. The strophic ‘Bonny Laddie, highland Laddie’ is bright and jolly, while ‘Sunset’ is a more melancholy setting of a poem by Walter Scott. ‘Faithfu’ Johnie’ has also been arranged for duet, with male and female voice in dialogue.

In St Anne’s Church later this month, Eleanor will also perform Schubert’s Der Hirt auf dem Felsen (The Shepherd on the Rock, D965), with clarinettist Peter Sparks and pianist Joseph Middleton. Completed in October 1828, this was one of Schubert’s last compositions before his premature death. It originated in a request from the singer Pauline Anna Milder Hauptmann for something that she might sing in her concerts: ‘a more brilliant music for the voice’ and something in which ‘several emotions can be presented’.

Interestingly, Eleanor remarks that one of the (many) challenges of the piece - which she initially learned for an end-of-year undergraduate examination - relates to the structure and diversity of the work. There are seven poetic verses, the first four and last by Wilhelm Müller, and verses five and six by Karl August Varnhagen von Ense. The musical structure divides into three main sections, each with its own demands. There are also repetitions: “The singer needs to find different ways of doing the same thing. And, the slower middle section is very sustained: you need to reflect on the vocal colour and feeling. It’s technically very difficult.” I wonder whether there are particular challenges when performing with obbligato instruments: “Well, an instrumentalist will come at the work from a different perspective, one perhaps less focused on the words and more on melody and harmony; and one needs to listen to the colours that they produce - one can copy, complement and gain inspiration.”

EDChristina Raphaelle2.jpgEleanor Dennis. Photo credit: Christina Raphaelle.

Eleanor regrets that the opportunities for her to perform chamber music are few and far between; she would love to do more and looks back at her student years when she had lieder classes exploring the songs of Schumann and of Strauss, and which, she admits, she probably took for granted at the time. But, she does not lament the wonderful operatic opportunities that have come her way.

Eleanor is a graduate of the Royal College of Music’s International Opera School and a former Harewood Artist at English National Opera. I think it was with the latter company that I first saw her perform on the operatic stage, in Vaughan Williams’ The Pilgrim’s Progress in November 2012, having heard her sing in the Kathleen Ferrier Award final at Wigmore Hall earlier that year. “I’d performed opera in the Britten Theatre at the RCM but my first opportunity to sing at the Coliseum with English National Opera was just amazing. The size of the auditorium, and of the chorus and orchestra. It was awesome.” I remember Eleanor, too, as a ‘poised and imperious’ High Priestess in Phelim McDermott’s season-opening production of Aida in 2017, in which Tom Pye’s designs, Bruno Poet’s lighting and the bevvy of dancers and acrobats seemed to me to have been judged by the creative team to be more important than the score and singing itself - though that made the production no less spectacular and enjoyable. “I’d imagined that I would be singing from off-stage, but in fact I was not only on stage but wearing a nude body suit: it was the right thing at the right time,” Eleanor laughs. It was a case of seeing what evolved on the night, and the singers were in need of a little more structure, whatever the merits of the visual beauty and the kinetic vitality.

Britten’s music has played an important part in Eleanor’s musical and professional development. She has commented elsewhere, “My first operatic memory is being in the Peter Grimes opening chorus, aged about four, and having the time of my life. From then on, opera just became the thing I loved.” In the 2019/20 season Eleanor makes her debut with Opera North as Miss Jessel in The Turn of the Screw , a revival of Alessandro Talevi’s 2010 staging; indeed, she is just about to commence a week of music rehearsal, prior to a further three weeks of work in the theatre in the new year. “This is a big sing, as big as Britten gets; I learned it for my Opera North audition, and this was the first time that I’d really looked closely at the music. It’s intensely dramatic, and really something to get one’s teeth into.” There’s also the challenge of embodying a ghost, something that Eleanor is clearly looking forward to!

2020 also sees Eleanor make her debut for the Grange Festival, as Helena in a new production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Paul Curran’s production, seen in Europe, will be ‘remade’ for The Grange). This has become almost a signature role for Eleanor: she performed the part of the feisty Helena at ENO in 2018 and the year before I saw her performance at the Aldeburgh Festival in Netia Jones’ wonderfully magical visual spectacle. I remark that the latter production was made even more bewitching by Iestyn Davies’ performance as Oberon: “Yes, it’s amazing - even in rehearsals - what he can do with his voice,” Eleanor remarks generously, obviously delighted to have been involved in such a creatively inspiring production.

I ask Eleanor what she finds so rewarding and stimulating about singing Britten’s music: “It’s the way he sets words to music. Britten knows exactly how to ‘colour’ words; and if you just sing what’s on paper - every dynamic marking, accents, every dotted crotchet - then you will communicate.” She finds Helena a particularly interesting comic character to interpret. “At times she is playful - ‘I am your spaniel’ - elsewhere flirtatious or furious.” Eleanor suggests that singers of Britten’s music just need to listen to the orchestral fabric and harmony: there are “crunchy dissonances, and deliciously playful, piquant harmonies” and the orchestral sound embraces the voice.

I conclude with a customary question: what next? Strauss is clearly where Eleanor’s heart lies (casting directors take note!). She is looking to tackle some bigger roles, such as the Marschallin and Arabella, in future; and, also, Wagner. But, then, there will always be room for Mozart, too: for the Countess, Fiordiligi (my Opera Today colleague, Mark Berry, very much enjoyed Eleanor’s performance at Opera Holland Park in 2018 ), the First Lady (“it’s difficult but always fun”), and Donna Elvira.

But, first there come German Romantic interpretations of poetry, both Scottish and German. At the very least, one can be assured that Eleanor will fully inhabit the language with idiomatic nuance and native fellow-feeling!

The Highgate International Chamber Music Festival runs from 23rd to 30th November 2019.

Claire Seymour

[1] As explained by Sarah Clemmens Waltz (2011), ‘Great Expectations: Beethoven's Twenty-Five Scottish Songs, The Beethoven Journal, Vol.26/1:13-25.