Polyphony in a Cathedral
In the stone shells
Of the arches, and rings
Their stone bells.
Each cold groove
Of parabolas’ laced
Warp and woof,
And lingers round nodes
Of the ribbed roof.
Their flowers among
The stone flowers; blossom;
Another chanced-upon scrap of biography:
The local Organists and Choirmasters’ Association, whose president is Mr Lloyd Moore, announces a series of lectures by Mr. H. W. Griffiths (‘The Gramaphone’), Mr. G. A. Tessimond (‘The influence of poetry on the development of modern music’), Mr. Walter Bridson (‘Liszt’), and Mr. W. A. Roberts (‘Modern French Organ Music’).
The Musical Times, October 1st 1921
This mention of the poet’s father in a round-up of musical events from Liverpool offers an intriguing insight into the poet’s background. George Tessimond worked as honorary treasurer for the Liverpool Church Choir Association until its close in April 1930. Founded in 1900 by Ralph H. Baker, the Association held a series of fifteen festivals of Church music in the city’s St. George’s Hall and by 1924, once building work had progressed enough, continued them within the unfinished Liverpool Cathedral. The role that this organisation must have played within the city’s musical life at this time cannot be underestimated; it provided the choir when Edward VII laid the foundation stone for the new Cathedral in 1904, and again when George V opened the Gladstone Dock in 1913. The Association ceased work between 1914 and 1921 due to the war and its aftermath, but its highpoint seems to have been the transition of the festivals between the secular St. George’s Hall and the Cathedral:
The experiences of the first Choral Festival in the new Cathedral should hold an incentive to improve on the next occasion. The organ accompaniments, played by Mr. H. Goss Custard, were models of restraint. Of course he was not able to use the Great organ diapasons, which are not yet sounding; but at the next Festival we shall no doubt hear them, as well as the heavy-pressure tubas which are to excel in tone anything previously associated with the master-hand of Willis. To the conductor, Mr. Branscombe, and to the choirmasters concerned, due acknowledgement should be rendered, as also to the Cathedral authorities for the arrangements made for the carrying out of the most imposing and notable choral service yet held at Liverpool.
The Musical Times, November 1st 1924
It must have seemed an exciting time for the Association. Within the city grew a huge building which was to be their home, with an impressive organ at their disposal. As it turned out, Harry Goss Custard was to play at only three more such festivals. It seems somewhat sad that as the Cathedral grew, interest in the Church Choir Association seems to have waned. The 1928 festival was to be their last; cancelled at a late stage after the music books had been printed and learned by the choirs involved. It appears that the Association never really recovered from the toll that the war had taken on it, and the increased burden involved in building the new cathedral meant that the Church could not offer them as much financial support.
That Tessimond's father was actively involved in this world is an interesting fact. That his lecture in 1921 should be titled: ‘The influence of poetry on the development of modern music’, is even more so.
We can see that Tessimond’s poetry is influenced by music in the titles alone: ‘Polyphony in a Cathedral’, ‘Music’, ‘Quickstep’, ‘Song in a Saloon Bar’, ‘Dance Band’, ‘Black Monday Lovesong’, ‘Invitation to the Dance’, ‘Skaters Waltz’, ‘Two Men in a Dance Hall’, ‘Symphony in Red’, ‘The Conductor (Concert Study)’, and so on. The range of this influence is vast, stretching from the popular (poems about the Charleston and Edith Piaf), to sacred and classical works. He is said to have introduced the painter Ceri Richards to Debussy, Ravel and other modern French composers*; and music appears to have been as much a part of the son’s life as it was for his father:
On listening to a piece of music by Purcell
I cast no slur upon the worth
Of modern men and modern ways,
And our no whit declining days –
On modern heaven and modern earth;
Yet in your muse I seem to find
Something our later muse has lost –
A note more sure, less trouble-tossed,
A carelessness and ease of mind –
Relic of times when History’s ink
Had scrawled less wantonly the page,
When man had had less time to think,
Less circumspectly flowed his blood:
Trace of a prelapsarian age,
Echo of days before the flood.
‘Less circumspectly flowed his blood’ is a great line; it echoes what seems to be Tessimond’s belief that once there was a time when life was easier for Mankind, but here temporary hope is offered through music’s ability to transport the listener back to that point. In his poetry, music is something that transcends time and that it brings about dance – ‘rituals as old as springtime’ (from the poem ‘Dancing’) – is proof of this. As we will see more closely tomorrow, it is perhaps language that prevents human communication, but music ‘This shape without space, / This pattern without stuff,’ (‘Music’) allows it to happen.
*Ceri Richards Exhibition Catalogue, (London, Tate: 1981) p.23