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  • Three Byron Concerts
  • Emily Paterson-Morgan

One of the most striking things about Byron, and one which I am coming to appreciate more and more as Director of The Byron Society, is just how much he means to so many people. Within academic circles he is the roguish rebel of the canonical six, a diffident dissident, a romantic melancholic, and one of England’s greatest comic poets. Others view him as the true celebrity, the bizarre archive collection of women’s hair (sent, given and—occasionally—unwillingly received) offering a slightly creepy precedent for the ladies’ underwear tossed at heartthrob crooner Tom Jones in the 1960s. Byron’s popular appeal remains as strong as ever, something I am frequently reminded of when contacted by poets, artists, writers, and musicians—all of whom have been inspired by Byron’s life and works, his brilliance stimulating the creativeness in others.

This is by no means a new development. Byron has been a source of inspiration since Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage Cantos I and II first hit the shop shelves in March of 1812. The affective power of his poetry is visible in the rash of opulent oriental tales and ham-fisted dramatic adaptations which clogged the literary marketplace, the glorious and mysterious paintings by Eugene Delacroix, Thomas Mann, William Turner, and other, less successful, artists, and—most amusingly perhaps—in the sartorial posturing of a host of young men seeking to emulate the Corsair’s deliberate dishevelment. But arguably the greatest area of influence is traceable in the musical sphere—as I realised after attending three concerts in 2018 based on Byron’s life and poetry. All very different, these three concerts showcased the complex ways in which Byron’s writings have inspired, and been transformed into, some truly beautiful music.

The first of these was on 24 July, when The Byron Society sponsored a lunchtime concert that formed part of the St Marylebone Parish Church Festival. Held in the church where Byron was baptised, the hour-long concert offered a whistle-stop tour of his early poetry, both readings and song settings. These ranged from Charles Hone’s musical setting of ‘Hills of Annesley’ (a poem from Byron’s first published collection Hours of Idleness), to musical settings of passages from Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and Hebrew Melodies by Charles Gounod, Hugo Wolf and Robert Schumann. It was a lovely way to spend a summer’s afternoon, with Amanda Pitt singing and Gavin Roberts on the piano, and before this event I hadn’t fully appreciated how influential Byron’s poetry had been in the musical sphere. [End Page 73]

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Figure 1.

Natalie Speir at the Cadogan Hall concert, October 2018.

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Figure 2.

Rob Heaps as Lord Byron in Byron: Angel & Outcast, October 2018. Photograph courtesy of Alex Brenner

Obviously, the same couldn’t be said about my second Byron concert. As some of you might have seen from our blog All Things Byron, in October 2018 we were lucky enough to have the opportunity to be involved with Byron: Angel & Outcast, a dramatised concert of Byron’s life and works held at Cadogan Hall to raise money for prostate cancer. The Society became involved after I met the woman behind the event, its founder and writer Natalie Speir (Figure 1). We were thrilled to sponsor this concert as it was not only raising money for a good cause, but doing so by promoting Byron— the cause nearest and dearest to our hearts!

It was a great night. Simon Russel Beale’s sonorous narration of Byron’s life was interspersed with Rob Heaps’s declamation of Byron’s letters and poems. Heaps, rather dashing in skin-tight white breeches and Byron’s trademark puffy-sleeved ‘poet’ shirt (Figure 2), louchely sprawling on a chaise-longue or swathed in a black velvet cloak scribbling at his desk, produced a delightfully vivid re-rendering of some of the poet’s most brilliant and provocative writings. Meanwhile, cleverly woven into the fabric of the performance, was the sound of the piano. Music by Chopin, Schubert, Schumann, Beethoven...


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