Gerard Manley Hopkins Poems In Musical Adaptations
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Press Release

Sean O'Leary - Bio
Belinda Evans - Bio
The Woodlark
PRESS RELEASE Tuesday 25 July 2006 - For immediate use
Woodlark song raises plight of threatened birds

CD single promotes awareness of RSPB work for ‘red list’ species

Birds have been celebrated in poetry and music for centuries, but a Somerset-based musician and ‘voice of the Rugby World Cup’, Belinda Evans have joined forces to combine the two art forms - in celebration of a rare bird that is being nationally surveyed for the first time in nearly a decade.

Sean O’Leary’s musical adaptation of the Gerard Manley Hopkins poem about the woodlark is also supporting the work of the RSPB, by raising the profile of the problems faced by the species.

Sean recorded an album of Hopkins’ poems, entitled ‘The Alchemist’, with soprano singer Belinda Evans in 2005, but they decided to release The Woodlark as a single to coincide with this year’s national survey of the birds – and on the poet’s birthday 28 July.

Sean said: ‘Gerard Manley Hopkins was an acute observer of the natural world, as poet and priest he saw God reflected in the beauty of his creation and sought to celebrate this through his poems. By setting them to music, I hope to bring them to a new audience and with it promote Hopkins’ passion for nature’

The poem is an onomatopoeic homage to the woodlark, a fact born out by Sean’s use of the birds’ actual song as part of his musical interpretation of the piece. The woodlark’s song was also the most popular track on a British Library sound archive Vanishing Wildlife CD earlier this year.

Woodlarks are a ground-nesting bird that breeds on open heathland and farmland, but they have also adapted to breed in young forestry plantations. They need areas with short grass where they can feed on insects, but in winter will also feed the seeds of grasses and stubbles - the stems of cereal crops left behind after harvesting.

The Government agreed a Biodiversity Action Plan for the species in 1998, which means it backs attempts to conserve the birds and reach certain targets to safeguard its future. The plan for woodlarks includes maintaining a population of at least 1,500 breeding pairs, but with luck increasing their numbers as well as and enlarging their range – both to be achieved by 2008.

Despite a five-fold increase in the population between 1986 and 1997, woodlarks are still ‘red listed’ as a bird of conservation concern because of previous historical declines.

Belinda said: ‘Hopkins would have been concerned about what has happened to the woodlark and that’s one of the reasons we wanted to do something to support the work of the RSPB, which is actively doing something to try to reverse the decline in woodlarks along with many other threatened birds.’

In Gerard Manley Hopkins’ day, woodlarks were common in Wales and England but by the end of the 19th century, the species was in trouble and in some parts of the South West of England had been wiped out, ironically because of their song. So-called ‘bird catchers’ could command a high price for males in good voice.

Numbers of woodlarks increased again from the 1920s, peaking in the mid 1950s but decreasing again from then on, a fact exacerbated by the harsh winter of 1962/3.

Contemporarily, loss and deterioration of dry grassland and heaths has contributed to the birds’ decline across Europe. Intensive farming practices may also have affected the species, by reducing food available to woodlarks.

RSPB farmland conservation adviser, Kevin Rylands, said: ‘There’s a line in the poem about how the skylark is better known than the woodlark and even though woodlark numbers have increased it still holds true today. But we are working with farmers and landowners to provide suitable habitat to benefit woodlarks through the Government’s Environmental Stewardship scheme – which offers grants for environmentally friendly land management.’

He added: ‘Hopefully Sean and Belinda’s song will help spread the word, not just about woodlarks but all the other species that need help, especially if the single becomes popular with farmers!’

The Woodlark CD single is available from 28 July can be ordered, for £2.95, from


J-peg pictures of woodlarks and of Sean O’Leary and Belinda Evans are available for use free of charge (providing they are only used in connection with this story) by e-mailing or contacting her on the number below.

Review copies of The Woodlark CD single and MP3 clips of the track are also available.

Editors’ notes

1. Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844-1889) wrote his poem about the woodlark in 1876. The opening lines of the poem (reproduced below), sung by Belinda Evans, feature as a catchy chorus in the song version of the piece.

“Teevo cheevo cheevio chee:
O where, what can that be?
Weedio-weedio: there again!
So tiny a trickle of song-strain.”

2. Sean O’Leary was born a long time ago in Liverpool. He only recently discovered Hopkins’ work and was moved and inspired to put most of his poems to music. His first collection of these songs, a double album called ‘The Alchemist’, (ISBN 0-9550649-0-2), was published in July 2005. It is available from Hopkins’ poems can also be found on this site.

3. Belinda Evans grew up in Somerset and is best known as the voice of the Rugby World Cup, as she sang the national anthem to millions of viewers at the start of every England game. She first collaborated with Sean whilst studying for her A-levels and the pair have enjoyed music making ever since. A classically trained singer who works regularly in the fields of opera, jazz and musical theatre, Belinda says she loves the improvisation and sense of freedom that Sean's compositions allow.

4. There are approximately 1,000,000 pairs of skylarks compared to around 1,500 pairs of woodlarks in the UK. In 1986, a survey of woodlarks found just 240 pairs, so the bird appears to have made something of a comeback since then. Information about the conservation status of the woodlark and the skylark can be found at

5. A national survey of woodlarks has been carried out this year, the aim of which is to provide up-to-date figures on the species to determine how well the birds are doing in conservation terms. Despite an increase in their numbers uncovered by the last survey in 1996, they are only found in a few places. Breeding birds are found mainly in eastern and southern England - the New Forest, Surrey/Berkshire heaths, Breckland and some Suffolk heaths are the best areas to find them. Birds that remain in winter are usually found in Hampshire, west Surrey and Devon, and in recent years some wintering flocks have been found in East Anglia.


Sean O'Leary was born on 15 September 1953, the third of four children in a working-class family in Liverpool and was baptised at St Mary's Church, Woolton. He attended St..Francis Xavier's College, a Jesuit run school from the age of fourteen. His parents had a passion for opera and loved to sing. Although he received no formal musical education, Sean taught himself to play the piano at a friend's house where he spent much of his time.

Sean began songwriting at the age of fifteen and has been recording his songs for many years since his move to London in his early twenties. He worked for periods in several bands and toured in both Europe and America. He has been living in Somerset since 1987 where he has spent many hours, years recording and producing songs in his studio.

He recently discovered Hopkins' work and was moved & inspired to put most of his poems to music. ‘The Alchemist’ his first collection of these songs, a double album with lyrics booklet in a 2CD set, was published in July 2005. The musical adaptations in ‘The Alchemist’ range in style from ballads to hymns, bluegrass to folk and are the first non-classical settings of Hopkins' verse.

As well as songwriting and musical composition Sean also writes on theology and philosophy.


2002 - Welsh College of Music and Drama:
Postgraduate Vocal Diploma (Distinction in Performance)
2001 - Bath Spa University College:
BA(Hons) Music Degree (First in Performance)

Belinda now studies with Judith Sheridan. She is currently permanent soprano of the Choir of the Guards Chapel, Wellington Barracks. She has just appeared in Kenneth Branagh’s new film adaptation of The Magic Flute.

In 2003 Belinda represented England singing the National Anthem at The Rugby World Cup in Australia, and has since sung at the BBC Sports Personality 50th Programme and at Wembley Arena. Recently she was second prizewinner at both the Great Elm Vocal Awards, adjudicated by Dame Joan Sutherland, and the St. John’s Solo Singing Competition, London.

Belinda has appeared extensively as a soloist, having sung with many Choral Societies across the Westcountry, and has given solo recitals at the Beaminster, Exeter and Frome festivals with engagements taking her abroad to Denmark and South Africa. Equally at home in the contemporary repertoire, she has been the chosen soloist for several newly commissioned works.

Forthcoming engagements include a new chamber opera The Highwayman and Handel’s Messiah in Wells Cathedral.

Belinda is currently a finalist in the BBC One programme
"How do you solve a problem like Maria?" Sats 6.50 & 9.25 pm

The woodlark's sweet song proved the most popular track on a British Library sound archive Vanishing Wildlife CD earlier this year, beating off competition from the capercaillie and sea eagle, among others. Robert Burns also eulogised the bird in poetry and the French Catholic composer Olivier Messian notated musically the repertoire of the alouette loulou.
O’Leary has done what I never thought I would hear: a wonderfully new, electrically charged version of the poet dearest to the heart of many of us.
Paul Mariani Poet & Writer, Chair in English at Boston College former poetry editor for America magazine
currently writing a biography of Hopkins
O'Leary has been compared to Dylan and Johnny Cash. His eclectic sound incorporates chants and hymn-like compositions. A woodlark even sings in Hopkins' onomatopoeic homage to that bird.
The TABLET 13 May 2006
Beautiful renditions of Hopkins's poems that can strike like
lightnings to the heart's core.
Jerome Bump Professor of Literature, Texas University
Printable jpegs of Sean O'Leary & Belinda Evans are available for use free (providing they are used only in connection with this story).
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Gerard Manley Hopkins' poems to music by Sean O'Leary