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Expert Comment: Gerard Manley Hopkins as Composer

Hopkins 150x150 Friday 1 May 2015

To mark this week's Hopkins at Hope event, Dr Laura Hamer, Head of Music, discusses the priest and poet's other creative interest - music composition. 

On Tuesday 28 April, the Departments of Music and English joined together to celebrate Gerard Manley Hopkins’ time in Liverpool. Although, Hopkins is best known as a poet, he was also a composer, believing that he had invented a ‘new style’. He came to composition late, only starting to compose at the age of 36. Curiously, this late flowering in composition coincided with Hopkins’ time in Liverpool, and his work as a Jesuit priest at St Francis Xavier’s Church, now based at our own Creative Campus.

Hopkins arrived in Liverpool in late 1879, and stayed until 1881. He found his pastoral and liturgical duties onerous, and his time spent in the city was difficult. Intriguingly – especially given that he wrote very little poetry whilst in Liverpool – he began to compose in earnest in 1880. He wrote to Robert Bridges in April 1881 that: ‘Every impulse and spring of art seems to have died in me, except for music, and that I pursue under almost an impossibility of getting on’.1

Nevertheless, Hopkins pursued composition until the end of his short life in 1889. He left 27 compositions, of which only 15 are still extant. The vast majority of his works are unaccompanied vocal melodies. Although all of his works are settings of poetry, he only set 4 of his own poems: ‘Spring and Fall’, ‘Hurrahing in Harvest’, ‘Morning Midday and Evening’, and ‘What shall I do for the land’; of which only ‘What shall I do for the land’ is still extant.

In general, commentators have not looked upon Hopkins’ music sympathetically. The early Hopkins scholar Humphrey House, for example, has described it as ‘elementary work’ and ‘showing no marked talent’. We should be very wary of judging Hopkins’ music too harshly, however. He was a novice composer, with a limited technical training, and very limited time to his hone his skills.

An examination of Hopkins’ extant scores and his writings on music, however, reveal that he clearly wanted to create something completely different to the standard music of his day. Expressing himself deeply frustrated with the musical ‘rules’ of harmony and counterpoint, he experimented with irregular rhythms – searching for a musical equivalent of his ‘sprung rhythm’ in poetry – modality, and quarter-tones. He was highly influenced by English folksong, plainchant, and the music of Ancient Greece.

Many of Hopkins’ musical aesthetics – particularly the search for new rhythms and melodic materials, and experiments with modality – actually foreshadow the innovations of musical Modernism. The English composer and former organist and choirmaster of Magdalen College, Oxford, Haldane Stewart, has actually commented that Hopkins’s ‘treatment of Gregorian melody was more adventurous than purists would have approved, as if he were jumping a generation and anticipating the modern modal style’. This is an intriguingly perspective comment. As with the literary innovations evident in his poetry, Hopkins was striving to reach forwards into the realms of Modernism. Although the evidence of his extant compositions suggest that he lacked the technical abilities to achieve his artistic goals in his musical works, who knows what he might have gone on to produce had he not died so young.


1 Hopkins to Robert Bridges (April 1881); cited in John F. Waterhouse, ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins and Music’, Music & Letters, Vol. 18, No. 3 (July 1937), 228.

2 Humphry House on Hopkins; cited in Claude Colleer Abbott (ed.), The Correspondence of Gerard Manley Hopkins and Richard Watson Dixon (London: Oxford University Press, 1935), 169.

3 Haldane Stewart on Hopkins; cited in ibid., 168.

Music at Liverpool Hope University

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