The Song of the Severn Op.43
by Ian Venables
First published in Musical Opinion May 2012
During the past decade I have been increasingly drawn to the poetry of Landscape. Perhaps, this is hardly surprising considering I have lived in Worcester for the past twenty-five years. The Cotswolds and Severn Valley are, of course the birthplaces of some of England’s most famous composers, including Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Holst. But the Three Counties can also boast connections with a myriad of poets, many of whom put landscape at the heart of their work. These poets include, A.E Housman, John Masefield, Edward Thomas, Ivor Gurney, F.W.Harvey, and John Drinkwater, to name but a few. As an art song composer, poetry is essential to my creativity and over the years I have set many of the above poets. One of my recent works, ‘The Pine Boughs Past Music’ Op.39 is a song cycle that explores the landscape of Gloucestershire through the poetry of Ivor Gurney and Leonard Clark. This was followed by ‘Remember This’ Op.40 – a large-scale vocal cantata scored for two voices, string quartet and piano. Premiered at the Cheltenham Music Festival in 2011 it is a setting of Andrew Motion’s commemorative poem about the life of Queen Elizabeth, the Queen Mother. Although, written as a memorial poem, its principal narrative deals with the eternal themes of death, birth and renewal set against the backdrops of both urban and rural landscapes.
In 2012, I began work on a chamber song cycle for baritone, string quartet and piano, commissioned by the Malvern Concert Club and the Kay Trust. When I was first approached, I was of course delighted to be asked by such a prestigious concert club, but when I was also suggested that I write a work that would celebrate Worcestershire’s great literary heritage, I jumped at the opportunity. In many ways, this commission brings my musical life full circle. In 1986, I moved from Dorset to live in Worcester and to mark this occasion I composed a short piece for violin and piano called Pastorale. I remember distinctly one of my first walks on the Malvern Hills where, from the top of the Worcestershire Beacon, I looked out across the county and reflected upon its great musical history. Elgar once said ‘…there is music in the air, music all around us, the world is full of it and you simply take as much as you require’. As I became more attuned to this ‘sense of place’ I began to feel that it was Elgar himself who was ‘in the air’, so resonant seemed his presence. It was no wonder that Pastorale has a decidedly Elgarian feel to it. Little did I realise when I accepted this new commission, that Elgar would come to play such an important part.
Flowing through the heart of the Worcestershire landscape is the majestic River Severn. As the main artery and life-blood of the county it has, over the centuries, witnessed the changing scenes of our unfolding human drama. When I began to think about how I might structure the cycle, I decided straight away, that the river itself should tell the story of Worcestershire. Once this artistic decision had been taken my thoughts then turned to the search for suitable texts. Of course, by placing Worcestershire at the centre of the work, I did realise that this might limit my choice of poetry. Although the county could certainly boast of one famous poet, namely A. E. Housman, beyond him, the list begins to tail off. However, I was more concerned with the broader theme of ‘Landscape’ than simply with those poets who happened to have been born in Worcestershire. Indeed, I am reminded of Owen Sheers’ eloquent description of landscape poetry. He said, that poems about landscape, ‘speak about us – the people who live in, look at and remember the places … which have, in turn, remembered us; as individuals, as communities, as history’. In this way landscapes hold so much of us, our past, our associations and our memories. They are just waiting for the poet to discover and so ‘illuminate that which we thought we already knew, and make us see that which we thought we’d already seen’.
With these thoughts in mind I began to read various collections of verse by those poets who were either born in Worcestershire or who were inspired by its landscape. It did not take very long before I found a poem that would ultimately open the cycle: it was John Masefield’s dramatic poem On Malvern Hill. It recalls the early history of Worcestershire and in particular the occupation by the Romans. Masefield relates the famous story of the battle fought between Caractacus – the leader of the ancient Britons – and the Romans. Through Masefield’s eyes we are made witness to a particular moment in the battle for Caractacus’s hill fort. The poem’s first line evokes a windswept scene on the hills – ‘The wind is brushing down the clover / it beats the tossing branches bare’. The music begins in a similar fashion, with a turbulent and ominous sounding group of fast-moving semiquavers, heard low down in the piano and which is followed by the vocal entry. Although, the music that underpins the first two stanzas is essentially strophic in nature, it soon gives way to a dramatic central section. Here, the poet conjures up an image of the Roman Army as they attempt to break through the British lines. Musically, this section is heralded by a quasi trompette fanfare, heard initially on the piano. This strident rhythmic figure descends through the octaves and settles to form the basis of a new texture – one that seeks to convey the oppressive atmosphere of the lines ‘The Roman line, the Roman order / Swayed forwards to the blind assault’.
After a slow build up in both tension and dynamics, a musical climax is reached on the words ‘Spearman and charioteer and bowman / Charged and were scattered into spray’. The music then subsides and becomes ever more subdued as a solo violin cantilena is heard floating high above a soft and shimmering accompaniment. This music of ‘twilight’ attempts to evoke the poignant scene, as the beaten warriors leave the battle ‘Dead on the clansmen’s wicker shields’. In the final stanza, the song’s turbulent opening music makes a returnbefore slowing down in preparation for the final lines, ‘Quiet are clan and chief, and quiet / Centurion and signifer’ ending the song in the gloom of dusk.
By contrast the second song – is a setting of A. E. Housman’s poem ‘How Clear, How Lovely Bright’ from ‘More Poems’. As with many of Housman’s poems what appears at first sight to be a simple lyric often underlies a coded and deeply personal narrative. In this case, the poet tells of his unrequited love for Moses Jackson and how it had a stultifying effect on his life. The poem opens with all the hopefulness of a new day. ‘How clear, how lovely bright,/ How beautiful to sight/ Those beams of morning play’ The music’s buoyant rhythms seek to convey the poem’s sense of anticipation. The song follows closely the poem’s tri-partite structure. In the second stanza, the poet’s earlier optimism gives way to more reflective thoughts. ‘To-day I shall be strong, / No more shall yield to wrong, / Shall squander life no more’ Heralded by a bell-like figure in the piano and sustained by an insistent rhythmic pedal in the ‘cello, the poem and music now chime a note of defiance, ‘Days lost, I know not how / I shall retrieve them now / Now I shall keep the vow / I never kept before’. The final verse brings a restatement of the song’s opening material, but the earlier sanguinity has been replaced by the stark realisation that the vows the poet intended to keep had ‘died into the west away’. On the final line the voice repeats a downward interval of a major third three times on the word ‘falls’, to mirror the darkness and finality of this ‘remorseful day’.
The third, – a setting of John Drinkwater’s poem, Elgar’s Music provides the cycle with a lyrical intermezzo. As I mentioned earlier, Elgar has been an important figure in the background of my musical life. But this fact took on greater significance when I was informed that Elgar was the Malvern Concert Club’s founder. In view of this special association it seemed only fitting that I should try to acknowledge him in some way. My initial thoughts were to simply incorporate a musical quote from one of his works, as a kind of ‘homage’ but I later dismissed this as being rather too obvious and commonplace. Fortunately, I had discovered a poem by John Drinkwater, entitled ‘Elgar’s Music’ written in 1935. In many ways, this sonnet was ideal, but the more I read it the more problematical it became. My main objection to it was that that the second half of this Petrachian sonnet was not really very good poetry. However, the more I read the octet the more I liked it and so eventually decided to set it. Then something quite unforeseen happened. As I began working on the opening lines, ‘How quietly he sleeps upon the hill / That sees the seasons go by Severn tide’, [Ex.5]
I had a sudden rush of inspiration as ideas came quickly. It was only later, once they had been written down, that I realised there was an echo of something, resonating deep within the music. At first, I could not grasp what it was and it took my partner to tell me that it was in fact something by Elgar! But what was it? I was certainly not conscious of making any allusion to Elgar’s music. Eventually, the mist cleared and to my amazement there, concealed within the music, was a reference to Sea Slumber- Song, the first of Elgar’s Sea Pictures Op.37.Once I realised this, I then consciously, but subtly, began to integrate it within the song’s evolving structure. So, strange as it may appear, Elgar did make his presence known and perhaps it is not too fanciful to suggest that his music is indeed in the air.
The fourth song is a setting of John Masefield’s exuberant poem, Laugh, and be merry and acts as the cycle’s lively scherzo. It opens with a spirited rhythm (in the unusual time signature of 7/4) that supports the poet’s effusive commentary. The voice enters with a jaunty melody on the words, ‘Laugh and be merry, remember, better the world with a song / Better the world with a blow in the teeth of a wrong’. Whilst sustaining this energetic pace throughout, the poem’s rapidly changing narrative required subtle variations in both the tone and mood of the music; indeed, this irregular poem was quite a challenge to set. This was especially so in the song’s coda where on the final words ‘and be you merry, my friends’ I use an extended melisma on the word ‘merry’ to bring the work to an exhilarating conclusion.
Sometimes, ending a work can be troublesome. But having decided that the River Severn would play a central part in the cycle, it was time for it to have a voice of its own. In Philip Worner’s poem December on the River, the river represents the unchanging and eternal element in the Worcestershire landscape; one through which the poet’s voice is heard to reflect upon his own mortality. After a short piano introduction the voice sings a long-breathed melody to the words ‘Its peace again the river claims / But now December on it rests’ / Too late for all its battered flowers, / Too late for all its abandoned nests’ which is accompanied by a soft and tranquil accompaniment.
At the poem’s climax, on the line ‘Only God now lights the river’ a new vocal idea is introduced. This broad and elegiac theme is punctuated by forte pizzicato chords in the strings. As the river is flooded with light, the music reaches a passionate climax on the words ‘with the colours of the kingfisher’. In the final stanza, the poet expresses the hope that after his death the river will remember him. The song’s reflective opening mood returns and leads to an extended coda. Here the voice repeats the words ‘Remember me’ seven times in a powerful outpouring of emotion. With each melismatic phrase the voice and instrumental accompaniment gradually fade away a niente. In the final bars we are left hearing only a distant echo of those ‘times long past’ and the image of mist drifting along the river.
The Song of the Severn Op.43 will received its premiere on Thursday 2nd May at the Malvern Concert Club, performed by Roderick Williams, the Carducci String Quartet and pianist Tom Poster.