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Texts and music exploring the colour green, with readings by Niamh McGrady and Sean Barrett. Includes Chaucer, Shakespeare and Wilfred Owen, plus Schubert and Maxwell Davies.

Has any colour attracted a wider range of associations than green? This Words and Music programme explores its resonance - from emeralds to vegetables and frogs to leprechauns, the greenhorn and the green-ey'd monster, Irish republicanism and international environmentalism - in poetry and prose from Chaucer and Shakespeare to Wilfred Owen, Dylan Thomas and PG Wodehouse; and music from Schubert to Maxwell Davies.

Readings: Niamh McGrady and Sean Barrett.

First broadcast 09/09/2012.

1 hour, 15 minutes

Last on

Sun 31 May 2015 17:30

Music Played

Timings (where shown) are from the start of the programme in hours and minutes

  • John Clare

    Meet Me in the Green Glen, reader Niamh McGrady

  • 00:00

    George Butterworth

    The Banks of Green Willow [excerpt]

    Performer: London Philharmonic Orchestra, Adrian Boult (conductor)

    • Lyrita SRCD 245.
  • Anon

    A Little Geste of Robin Hood [excerpt], reader Sean Barrett

  • 00:02

    Roger Quilter

    Under the Greenwood Tree [No. 2 of Five Shakespeare Songs, Op. 23]

    Performer: John Mark Ainsley (tenor), Malcolm Martineau (piano)

    • Hyperion CDA 66878.
  • 00:03

    Ray Davies

    The Village Green Preservation Society

    Performer: The Kinks

    • Essential ESMCD 481.
  • P G Wodehouse

    The Heart of a Goof (excerpt), reader Niamh McGrady

  • 00:07

    Ralph Vaughan Williams

    Fantasia on Greensleeves

    Performer: Academy of St Martin-in-the-Fields, Neville Marriner (conductor)

    • London 421 392-2.
  • Juan Ramón Jiménez, translated by David Gallagher

    The Little Green Girl, reader Sean Barrett

  • 00:09

    Franz Schubert

    Das Lied im Grünen [Song in the Green Countryside]

    Performer: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Gerald Moore (piano)

    • Deutsche Grammophon 437 226-2.
  • Dylan Thomas

    Fern Hill, reader Niamh McGrady

  • 00:17

    George Frideric Handel

    Verdi prati [Green Fields, from opera Alcina]

    Performer: Della Jones (mezzo-soprano), City of London Baroque Sinfonia, Richard Hickox (conductor)

    • EMI CDS 749 773-2.
  • Cuthbert Bede

    The Adventures of Mr Verdant Green [excerpt], reader Sean Barrett

  • 00:23

    Michael Torke


    Performer: Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, David Zinman (conductor)

    • Argo 433 071-2.
  • Shakespeare

    Othello, Act 3 Scene 3 [excerpt], reader Sean Barrett

  • 00:27

    Giuseppe Verdi

    Otello, Act 2 [excerpt]

    Performer: Aldo Protti (bass – Iago), Mario del Monaco (tenor – Otello) Performer: Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, Herbert von Karajan (conductor)

    • Decca 411 620-2.
  • Geoffrey Chaucer

    The Friar’s Tale, from The Canterbury Tales [excerpt, modernised], reader Niamh McGrady

  • 00:30

    Franz Schubert

    Die liebe Farbe [The Beloved Colour, No. 16 of Die Schöne Müllerin]

    Performer: Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau (baritone), Gerald Moore (piano)

    • Deutsche Grammophon 437 236-2.
  • Dan Pagis, translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell

    Twelve Faces of the Emerald, reader Sean Barrett

  • 00:36

    Peter Schickele

    All In Green Went My Love Riding

    Performer: Joan Baez

    • Vanguard VMD 79275-2.
  • 00:40

    Edvard Grieg

    Peer Gynt and the Woman in Green [from Peer Gynt; excerpt from complete incidental music]

    Performer: Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Bjarte Engeset (conductor)

    • Naxos 8.570871.
  • 00:40

    Irish traditional, arr. Herbert Hughes

    The Leprehaun [first verse]

    Performer: Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)

    • Helios CDH 55210.
  • William Allingham

    The Fairies – A Child’s Song [excerpt], reader Niamh McGrady

  • 00:40

    Irish traditional, arr. Herbert Hughes

    The Leprehaun [second and third verses]

    Performer: Ann Murray (mezzo-soprano), Graham Johnson (piano)

    • Helios CDH 55210.
  • 00:41

    Edvard Grieg

    Peer Gynt and the Woman in Green [from Peer Gynt; excerpt from complete incidental music]

    Performer: Malmö Symphony Orchestra, Bjarte Engeset (conductor)

    • Naxos 8.570871.
  • 00:42

    Sir Harrison Birtwistle

    Gawain [excerpt]

    Performer: Omar Ebrahim (baritone – The Fool), Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Elgar Howarth (conductor)

    • Collins Classics 70412.
  • Anon, translated from the Middle English by Simon Armitage

    Sir Gawain and the Green Knight [excerpt], reader Sean Barrett

  • 00:44

    Sir Harrison Birtwistle

    Gawain [excerpts]

    Performer: Orchestra of the Royal Opera House, Elgar Howarth (conductor)

    • Collins Classics 70412.
  • L. Frank Baum

    The Wizard of Oz [excerpt), reader Niamh McGrady

  • 00:46

    Mario Castelnuovo‐Tedesco

    Il raggio verde [The Green Ray; excerpt]

    Performer: Mariaclara Monetti (piano)

    • ASV CD DCA 1034.
  • Wallace Stevens

    The Candle a Saint, reader Sean Barrett

  • 00:49

    Charles Hubert Parry, reorch. Edward Elgar


    Performer: BBC Singers, BBC Symphony Chorus and Orchestra, Leonard Slatkin (conductor) Performer: with participation of Royal Albert Hall audience on the Last Night of the Proms 2004

    • Warner Classics 2564 61956-2.
  • Wilfred Owen

    Dulce et Decorum Est, reader Sean Barrett

  • 00:53

    Ralph Vaughan Williams

    Pastoral Symphony [Symphony no. 3], fourth movement [excerpt]

    Performer: London Symphony Orchestra, André Previn (conductor)

    • RCA RD 89827.
  • Anon, c. 1798

    The Wearin' o' the Green, reader Niamh McGrady

  • 00:56

    Mohammad Reza Shajarian and Majid Derakhshani

    Language of Fire

    Performer: Mohammad Reza Shajarian

    • n/a.
  • Richard Llewellyn

    How Green Was My Valley [excerpt], reader Niamh McGrady

  • 01:01

    Curly Putman

    Green, Green Grass of Home

    Performer: Tom Jones

    • Deram 820 182-2.
  • John Christopher

    The Death of Grass [excerpt], reader Sean Barrett

  • 01:05

    Peter Maxwell Davies

    Farewell to Stromness [from The Yellow Cake Revue]

    Performer: Peter Maxwell Davies (piano)

    • Unicorn-Kanchana DKP CD 9070.
  • Tawara Machi

    ‘Only the green…’ [tanka], reader Niamh McGrady

  • 01:10

    Toru Takemitsu


    Performer: London Sinfonietta, Oliver Knussen (conductor)

    • London Sinfonietta SINF CD3-2006.
  • Tu Fu [Du Fu]

    ‘Jade-green river…’ [wu-chüeh], reader Sean Barrett

  • 01:11

    Joe Raposo

    Bein' Green

    Performer: Kermit the Frog

    • Walt Disney 358693-2.

Producer's Note

It wasn’t till I was most of the way through making this programme that I realised something about the colour green.  I already knew that despite its apparently very positive associations with nature, with spring, youth and growth, it had a mysterious, enigmatic, *super*natural side too.  But the more reading and listening I did, the more worms I found in the apple: practically every affirmative connotation also held the seeds of its own destruction.  Even green traffic lights are no use without red ones.  Or maybe that’s just my perspective – after all, as the Wizard of Oz so profoundly points out, ‘when you wear green spectacles, why of course everything you see looks green to you’.

We’re invited into the green glen by Niamh Grady with one of the loveliest poems by the man who loved and understood the green ways of the English countryside best, John Clare.  George Butterworth called his orchestral piece ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ an ‘idyll’ – but the passion of its climax reminds us that the two folksongs we hear in it (‘Green Bushes’ as well as ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ itself) encompass not just love, but loss, betrayal, death in childbirth, even infanticide.  Even in the company of Sean Barrett and his merry men, our image of dallying in the greenwood may be as idealised and nostalgic as John Major’s – or the Kinks’ – Village Green. 

PG Wodehouse guys golfers, his heroine Barbara Medway cleverly exploiting their sexism to get the rub of the green in her love match.  Lovely Joan turned the tables on her would-be seducer – ‘she’s robbed him of his horse and ring, and left him to rage in the meadows green’; her tune features alongside the (very likely unwarranted) aspersions on the virtue of ‘my lady Greensleeves’ in Vaughan Williams’s ‘Fantasia on Greensleeves’.  The programme features two pieces of music each by both VW and Schubert: in each case, the first expressing the light of green, the second the dark.

I’ve also included two poems that I find haunting despite not fully understanding them.  Wallace Stevens’s ‘The Candle a Saint’ is one; the other is ‘The Little Green Girl’ by Spanish poet Juan Ramón Jiménez – who was apparently fixated on the colour green; I’d love to hear from anyone who knows why!

Schubert and Dylan Thomas sing the miraculous joy of green youth.  (I’ve always loved Thomas’s ‘Fern Hill’, but I don’t feel his own reading caught its essence; fortunately Niamh McGrady wanted to do it very differently.)  Green youth doomed to inevitable loss, like the ‘verdi prati’, the ‘green fields’, of Alcina’s paradise island.

Mr Verdant Green, a gullible greenhorn of nineteenth-century Oxford undergraduacy, pairs up with a luxuriant orchestral piece whose composer Michael Torke originally called it ‘Verdant Music’, then purely ‘Green’: he says that ‘suggests a quality that is simple or unseasoned’; yet to me the music sounds a more ominous note.   

And from here the programme begins to take a more sinister turn.  Shakespeare’s Othello succumbs to the green-ey’d monster, jealousy – though when Joe Green (the Italian Giuseppe Verdi) made it into an opera, his lyricist made ‘gelosia’ curiously colourless.  The devil himself wears green – in the shape of the cheery chap who greets Chaucer’s summoner with a friendly ‘thou’ (rather than the more formal ‘you’ the unsuspicious summoner employs in his replies).  Why green?  The theory goes that Chaucer’s devil is a hunter, with bow and arrows – and huntsmen wear green.  As Schubert’s miller lad finds to his cost: he’s besotted with the miller’s beautiful daughter, whose love for the colour green follows her feelings for the handsome huntsman who wears it. 

Dan Pagis’s eerie emerald poem – chillingly translated from the Hebrew by Stephen Mitchell, chillingly read by Sean Barrett – and Peter Schickele and Joan Baez’s eldritch take one e cummings draw us deep into the supernatural.  The gorgeous woman in green who tempts Grieg and Ibsen’s Peer Gynt is a troll princess; and not even a legion of Irishwomen can turn the tables on the tricksy little men in green jackets.  The Green Knight of Arthurian legend, in Simon Armitage’s brilliant modern English rendering and Harrison Birtwistle’s terrifying operatic music, is no jolly green giant: Gawain gives him the chop, but he doesn’t lose his head, and announces his intention to back with a vengeance next year.  And for all the comforting delights of Yellow Brick Road, courageous Cowardly Lion and empathetic Tin-Man-without-a-heart, the Wizard of Oz conceals a decidedly un-magical political message behind the spectacles of his Emerald City.

Politics comes to the fore as day turns to night with Wallace Stevens, via Mario Castelnuovo-Tedesco’s evocation of ‘Il raggio verde’, the fugitive last ‘green ray’ of sunset. It was already hard enough to fathom the meaning of William Blake’s Christo-mystical poem ‘Jerusalem’ before it accrued ever more complex layers of cultural associations through Parry’s tune – commissioned by strident supporters of the First World War but rapidly adopted (to Parry’s delight) by Suffragettes – then Elgar’s huge orchestration and the flag-waving Last Night of Proms.  The green gas of Wilfred Owen’s searing anti-nationalistic indictment would have been all too familiar to Vaughan Williams, whose experiences as a WW1 ambulance driver on the blackened fields of Flanders underpin his version of Pastoral.  Green remains a potent political symbol in Ireland; and has recently become one in Iran, when the 2009 presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi adopted it as his campaign colour (probably at least partly because of its importance in Shia Islam): in the wake of his controversial defeat, the revered Persian traditional musician Mohammad Reza Shajarian and his colleague Majid Derakhshani released their impassioned protest song ‘Language of Fire’ free of charge ‘as a gift to the struggles of Iranian people’: ‘Lay down your gun… The gun speaks the language of fire and iron, but I have nothing but the language of the heart.’

Tom Jones adds an ironic twist to Richard Llewellyn’s yearning vision of a Welsh mining childhood, as we turn to the ‘other’ Green movement.  The Lord-of-the-Flies-for-grown-ups fable of ‘The Death of Grass’ by Samuel Youd (writing as John Christopher) grew from an environmental insight as prescient as it is remarkable for its early date (1956).  Just over two decades later, the threat of open-cast uranium mining in Orkney drew a defiant twofold creative response from composer Peter Maxwell Davies (who’d made his home there): the enormous, intense ‘Black Pentecost’ for orchestra and solo singers with words from Greenvoe, the first novel by his friend George Mackay Brown, was counterpointed by the subversive cabaret ‘The Yellow Cake Review’ (‘yellow cake’ being uranium ore) – which included perhaps the most beautiful piece he ever wrote, a lament for the town of Stromness.

To end, three enigmatic, epigrammatic green views from the Far East, and a final word from the Frog-Prince who really gets under the skin of greenness.

Producer: David Gallagher


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