Piece of the week: ‘When I am dead, my dearest’

I wrote this song in 1967, when I was a student at the Royal College of Music.

The author of the poem, Christina Rossetti, was a nineteenth-century poet who grew up in an artistic family (her brother was the painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti) and many of her poems relate to her profound Christian belief and to the charitable work she undertook for much of her life. Among her most famous poems are ‘Love came down at Christmas’ and ‘In the bleak midwinter’ – but the poem ‘When I am dead, my dearest’ is less overtly Christian in nature, although it does dwell on the afterlife, telling of hope and sorrow, and the inevitability of death and the effect on those left behind. A rather morbid subject for a 19-year old to set to music – but it inspired me to write the first of my songs that I’d still be happy to hear today.

In a way, my youthful setting feels as if it might have been written in a different era, and for a time in which song recitals were far more usual than they are now. At that time I had fallen in love with the early twentieth century English song tradition – composers such as Quilter, Finzi, Warlock, Gurney, and Howells, the composer of the wonderful ‘King David’ and ‘Come Sing and Dance’.

And it was Herbert Howells, then in his seventies, who turned out to be my composition teacher at the Royal College of Music, and of all the songs of mine that I showed him, this was the one over which we felt an immediate rapport. In fact I remember him sitting at his piano with the music on his desk, eraser and pencil (and cigarette…) hovering over my manuscript, suggesting changes and tweaks to the piano part in particular.  I don’t think I adopted all of them, but certainly one or two: and looking at the song again now, I can detect the occasional chord which might have a Howells flavour!  Howells wrote most of his solo songs when he was a young man too, and I like to think that he perhaps was dreaming of the past as he studied and tried out my song.

I am very happy that this song is on the list for the ABRSM singing exams, perhaps performed by young singers who enjoy creating the same feeling of dreamy sorrow that I felt more than fifty years ago.

More details of the song here.