Thursday, September 19, 2013

Michael Head & Robert Farrar Capon

Wikipedia is rapidly catching up on all sorts of information, including biographies of people.  Some of these biographies didn't exist up until relatively recently. Two such are those of the composer Michael Head (1900-1976), and the Episcopalian priest and chef, Robert Farrar Capon - Capon, born in 1925, died earlier this month. 

Michael Head was almost entirely a composer of songs, and I've been accompanying people singing Michael Head songs since I first began this role.  A large number of his songs have survived in the repertoires of singing teachers and their pupils, and as examination works, and so on.  Here's a 'not comprehensive' list of his songs. To my surprise there are far more than I've ever performed, and I'm interested to note that one I heard at the Senior Vocal Competitions the other day, and had never heard before, is actually one of his. When I heard it I said to the person I was sitting beside - that can't be a Michael Head song surely?  I thought this mostly because it was quite different in style and tone to many of those I know.  But there it is: Back to Hilo.

Head was unusual in that he used to present his songs not by accompanying another singer, but as both singer and accompanist simultaneously.  He must be one of the few composers ever to have done this (amongst art song composers, I mean).

I was first introduced to the books of Robert Farrar Capon when I began work at the Otago Church Bookstore. I'd never heard of him before, and was struck by his witty and delightful style, his seeming willingness to go beyond the pale in terms of what might be called orthodox theology (he never went beyond truth, though), and his attempts to surprise us into rethinking parables and stories and Gospel texts we'd heard too many times and had become over-familiar with. I've read most of his books more than once - that is, of the ones I've read once (there are a number I've never got hold of) - and they always bear re-reading. 

Sometimes he overdid the wit, and the surreal approach. Sometimes you have to take what he says with a grain of salt, because he can get a little carried away. Sometimes he was almost so clever that you lost the point of what he was saying, but undeniably he has an important place in teaching people about God's grace to humanity, God's love for humanity, and the importance of the cross. 
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