Australian organist and composer Calvin Bowman’s album Real and Right and True was released on Decca earlier this year. We spoke to the art song specialist about the form closest to his heart.
What attracts you to art song as a form?
The human voice is an inherently heartfelt instrument. Good poetry, too, is about affecting the heart. In combination, and with an excellent performance, there are few musical forms which can equal the power of art song in my view.
For you personally, what are the finest examples of the form?
There are so many it’s difficult to say, of course. But I’m always unutterably moved by Schubert’s An die Musik, Gurney’s Sleep, the Butterworth Housman settings, Head’s Foxgloves, and, although it’s not a perfect song, Denis Browne’s To Gratiana dancing and singing.
What governs your choice of text to set in your own art songs?
I must be moved in some way to set a text. It must flow and be lyrical, and contain its own music. Not too much music, however, as that would defeat the purpose of turning it into an art song. I’ve passed over many poems of genius for this reason.
Having written about a hundred songs, how did you choose this selection? Are there any specific ideas you wanted to thread through?
The ideas which thread through the collection are ideas which preoccupy all of us at one time or another. The beauty of nature, the passage of time, romantic love, and death are all common themes as they were for the great composers of the 19th-century. It was difficult to choose which songs to include and which to leave out as I’m very fond of all of my songs, even the earliest ones.
The album is named for your setting of Michael Leunig’s Real and Right and True. What about his poems particularly lend themselves to song?
Michael Leunig is a national treasure. His artwork and cartoons are familiar to thousands of us. And he is also a poet of good humour, parody, and poignancy. He simply has the ability to get to the crux of what’s really important in very few words. And I try to do the same in my music – a few notes here and there, but hopefully the right ones. So I think my music suits Michael’s words in that way.
Calvin Bowman’s Real and Right and True is out now on Decca