Songs of Eternity and Sorrow

First published in the ‘Finzi Friends’ Newsletter: 2003, Vol. 21 No.2

Sometimes the background to a composition can be as interesting and illuminating as any formal musical analysis of the work itself. I feel this particularly so, with a work like a song cycle, because unlike a set of songs gathered together under a single opus number or title, a song cycle implies something more. In the first instance, the composer will have made a specific selection of poems to set. This choice may well have been guided by the desire to weave a narrative thread through the cycle, as in, for example, Arthur Somervell’s A Shropshire Lad, or it may come from some overriding musical consideration for which the chosen poems act as a structural anchor to ground the work thus creating a sense of unity. Whatever the reason, a genuine synthesis of both musical and poetic impulse is rarely found in a song cycle, but when it does occur it can produce a truly great work. Putting my head above the parapet, I would suggest that, from amongst our own composers, Elgar’s Sea Pictures, Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge and Finzi’s Earth, Air and Rain are such examples: although, some may quibble about whether or not the last of these is a true song cycle.

To date, I have written three song cycles. The first, entitled Love’s Voice Op. 22 for tenor and piano, was composed in 1993, and is a setting of four poems by the 19th century poet John Addington Symonds. My approach to composing this cycle was to simply allow myself to respond both emotionally and musically to various manifestations of ‘Love’, as seen through the poet’s eyes. The song cycle’s feeling of unity is therefore achieved by the linking together of poems that have a common theme.

In my second song cycle, entitled Invite, to Eternity Op. 31 for tenor and sting quartet, I chose to set several poems by the Northamptonshire poet John Clare. My principal aim in this work was to mirror musically various aspects of Clare’s life from his early loves, to his rural wanderings, and finally to his confinement in a mental institution. Musically, this cycle was on an altogether more ambitious scale, and from the very outset I deliberately chose poems that could be used to build a structure that was more symphonic in nature. Even the very first poem in the cycle Borne upon An Angel’s Breast was so visually dramatic and contained such diversity of poetic images, that it provided me with enormous scope for musical development.

A setting of the poem An Invite, to Eternity provided the cycle with a second movement that is more lyrical in character, and is in stark contrast to the intensity and drama of the first song. The third movement – a setting of the poem Evening Bells acts as a short and energetic scherzo, which is followed by the last song in the cycle, a setting of Clare’s most famous poem, I am. This lengthy finale is also the work’s slow movement, much in the manner of late romantic symphonic writing. In this song, I bring back and re-work a number of motivic and thematic ideas derived from the first movement. This cyclical device gives the work an additional musically unifying element.

It is to this scheme I returned, when composing my latest song cycle Songs of Eternity and Sorrow Op. 36. Although I have always been a lover of Housman’s poetry, I am rather surprised that it has taken me so long to set any of his poems. Having said that, I do remember looking at one or two of them many years ago but sadly they came to nothing. Of course, this is not unusual with composers, and even Gerald Finzi made a number of attempts to set Housman, but also seemed unable to finish them. Perhaps, one simply has to wait for the right moment. For me, this right moment came in the form of the present commission by the Finzi Friends. When I was first approached with an outline of the commission, I was of course thrilled by the prospect of setting Housman, but soon afterwards came to the frightening realisation that most of his finest poetry had been set already by some of our greatest British composers! This was further accentuated by the actual terms of the commission, which was to compose a work for the same forces that Vaughan Williams had used in On Wenlock Edge – Pressure! What pressure? Fortunately for me, I had recently been given a copy of a list, compiled by Bill Lewis, of all the known musical settings of Housman. Apart from the forty settings of both Loveliest of Trees and When I was one-and-twenty from A Shropshire Lad, there were still a large number of gaps in terms of song settings, especially in More Poems and Last Poems. My attention was drawn to those that were either infrequently set, or had not been set at all. Why, I asked myself had composers avoided these poems? Trying to answer this question was really the starting point to my work and the beginning of the compositional process. Reading through these ‘discarded poems’ it became clear to me why composers had passed over them. A few of them were not really vintage Housman, whilst others seemed to lack musicality or touched upon poetic themes that were not suitable for setting. However, amongst them were a number of poems that may have been ignored for the simple reason that their subject matter was probably too controversial. This is consistent with the fact that many of them were not published until after Housman’s death in 1936. One such poem is ‘Easter Hymn’. It is a powerful evocation of Housman’s religious anxiety and one that questions deeply the most fundamental tenet of Christianity; namely the Resurrection. This two-stanza poem was ideal for setting, not just because of its bold and striking visual imagery, but because of its inherent musical qualities, and its underlying structural inevitability that unfolds towards its dramatic conclusion. It was at this point that I began to think more about the overall shape that the cycle would take. Once again, I was drawn to the approach I took when composing Invite, to Eternity; namely, to compose a set of songs that would be inter-linked by a musical design rather than a narrative one. At this initial stage I had thought of placing Easter Hymn as the last song in the cycle, but was forced to rethink this in the light of the other poems I was also considering. These poems were Oh who is that young sinner and Because I liked you better from Additional Poems and More Poems respectively. How could I weld such diverse emotional worlds together? It was clear that I needed another poem that could provide some contrast to these deep matters. This I found in the short pastoral poem When green buds hang in the elm like dust from More Poems. At last, I had all the elements I needed, but as yet, still no clear view of the final structure the work might take. This would just have to emerge during its composition. I began by setting Because I liked you Better. This sad and hauntingly poignant poem tells the story of unrequited love. Its universality caught my imagination at once and I responded to it in an equally emotional way, composing what ultimately became the cycle’s slow and elegiac finale. This was followed by Easter Hymn and Oh who is that young sinner. In this impassioned poem, Housman narrates a sad tale of prejudice and of the devastating consequences to those who have faced it. This remarkably angry poem is in my opinion, the poet’s cri de coeur. I tried to match these anguished feelings in the music by providing an aggressive and rhythmically unrelenting instrumental accompaniment, throughout the song. I have dedicated it ‘to all those who have suffered prejudice’. After setting these three highly charged poems it was a real joy to compose the song When the green buds hang. In this beautifully crafted lyric, Housman evokes the eternal ‘scholar gipsy’. This theme, combined with the poem’s pastoral imagery, inspired in me a strong need to express some of life’s more affirmative emotions. Once I had written this song, it was now possible to place all the songs in their final order. Easter Hymn thus became the opening song in the cycle, followed by When the green buds hang and Oh who is that young sinner, with Because I liked you better acting as the works slow finale. All that remained now, was for me was to give the work a title.

In many ways this song cycle reveals a less familiar side of Housman’s creative life. It is a nature that has until recently remained in the shadows and as such, unexplored by composers. It is, nevertheless, an aspect of Housman’s creativity that demands a musical response in equal measure to the more ‘acceptable’ face of this ‘scholar poet’.

In his preface to More Poems, Housman wrote:

They say my verse is sad: no wonder;
Its narrow measure spans
Tears of eternity, and sorrow,
Not mine, but man’s.

For me, this metaphor has a deep and personal resonance and one that I felt compelled to express in music. Perhaps, in doing so, I may have unknowingly composed my own songs of eternity, and sorrow.