Piece of the Week 49 – Stocking and Shirt

It’s been so wet and windy in the last week here in the UK that my song Stocking and Shirt (for upper voices in two parts and piano) flew into my mind. It’s a setting of a poem by James Reeves (1909-78) which describes clothes on a washing-line catching in the wind, ‘dancing together’, and finally being grabbed by the storm and flung over the hedge, while the ‘housewife’ (remember this poem was written several generations ago) screams ‘Stop!!’. The poem is very much of its time, but it portrays an exciting picture which I set to music as part of the cantata that I wrote for the 25th anniversary of the Sing for Pleasure organisation in 1989 (you can read more about Sing for Pleasure, and the cantata, in Piece of the Week 36Autumn).

I shall never forget the voices of the excited children singing this song at the first performance, and one of the choirs that was taking part, the Central Singers of Chichester (director Nikki Bennison) took it into their repertoire and later won the BBC Choir of the Year competition with it!

I set the words to a fast-moving 6/8 melody, mainly in the Lydian mode (G major but with C sharp) which rises and falls in interlocking thirds and seconds – and to accentuate the feeling of windy weather and breathlessness the melody is shared between the two parts, each taking a short phrase and holding on the last note while the next phrase is sung by the other voice:

(voice 1) Stocking and shirt (voice 2) can trip and prance,
(voice 1) Though nobody’s in them (voice 2) to make them dance!
(voice 1) See how they waltz (voice 2) or minuet… (etc.)

Later on I asked the singers to shout the words in capitals:

(v.1) COME!
(v.2) Cries the wind to stocking and shirt! AWAY!
(v.1) Cries the wind to blouse and skirt…. (etc.)

Thankfully, each voice has a chance to recover their singing tone after the shout. Later on they are required to shout STOP! In the same way.

After this excitement the music calms down for a quiet ending, one voice echoing the other as at the beginning:

(v.1) STOP! Cries the housewife (v.2) but all too late,
(v.1) Her clothes have passed (v.2) the furthest gate;
(v.1) They are gone for ever (v.2) in the bright blue sky,
(v.1) And only the handkerchiefs (v.2) wave goodbye…
(v.1) goodbye…..(v.2)goodbye…..

And the piano part climbs and diminuendos into the distance.

A few years after the first performance it was published by Oxford University Press, along with two other songs, to make a set of three separate octavos called ‘At the Turn of the Year’ – the other two movements being Snow and Wisselton, Wasselton.

Here’s a performance of Stocking and Shirt, and the sheet music is available here.  Let’s hope for calmer weather now!