Duration: 23 min
A programme note from the composer
I have always been interested in the poetry of the Great War. Indeed, one of my earliest songs is a setting of Ivor Gurney’s war sonnet ‘Pain’ composed in 1991. However, as the preparations for the centenary commemorations of the Great War gathered pace in 2013 I began to think about how I might add my own tribute to those many creative projects that were being planned. As ever, the impetus to compose came from a number of oblique sources. Firstly, I live close to Ghelluvelt Park, where there is a memorial to the Worcestershire Regiment. It was this regiment’s self-sacrifice that prevented the German army from breaking through the allied lines in the early months of the war. According, to Sir Winston Churchill, this momentous act of bravery changed the whole course of the conflict. So, first and foremost, I wanted to dedicate this new work to their memory. Secondly, I have had a long and close association with the Royal Grammar School, where I taught for over 20 years. In 1914, it was the City’s principal grammar school and by the end of the war ninety boys had died. They too were uppermost in my mind. Finally, there was the commission itself from the Limoges Trust whose generous support helped to bring this work to fruition.
Once I had decided upon the cycle’s instrumentation for voice, viola and piano, the usually enjoyable task of finding suitable texts began. I say, usually enjoyable, because the more war poetry I read the more I realised how challenging writing such a work might be. The main difficulty is that the vast majority of war poetry is so starkly realistic and uncompromising. Perhaps, this is why there have been few WW1 poems set to music. It is for this reason I began to question whether setting such words to music might be an affront to the poetry itself. Fortunately, these thoughts were soon dispelled when I found several poems that dealt with ‘themes’ that might have resonance for a contemporary audience – one that is looking back on an event that has now passed into history. These ‘themes’ touch upon the universality of loss, love, and personal identity and so lifts the poetry out of the arena of war and brings it within the compass of personal experience.
Musically speaking, there was one essential question to be decided upon and that was how to structure the cycle. For this, I went back to my most recent chamber song cycle ‘The Song of the Severn’ composed in 2013. This work consisted of five settings that focused upon different aspects of the landscape of Worcestershire. Although, I have written song cycles with four songs I found that a cycle of five provided an even wider diversity of moods. Given the bleak subject matter of war poetry I certainly needed as much contrast I could muster! So, I returned to this asymmetrical structure in this new cycle but with one unusual feature that I will come to shortly.
Sometimes, I wonder whether I choose words or whether they choose me! I say this, because when I first read Wilfred Owen’s (1893-1918) poem The Send Off it jumped off the page and hit me with such emotional force that I felt compelled to set it. Indeed, the opening lines, ‘Down the close darkening lanes they sang their way to the siding shed’, contains within it a strong musical rhythm that is highly suggestive of an army on the march! The song is ‘through composed’ and follows closely the poem’s verse structure of four – five line stanzas. In the second stanza, the poet enlists the reader, in an almost voyeuristic manner, as an accomplice in the ‘send-off’ – ‘Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp/ stood staring hard’. This passage’s eerie and intimate atmosphere is further heightened by the viola’s absence. A quasi-recitative follows at the words, ‘We never heard to which front these were sent’ and leads to a vocal climax. Here, the poet expresses his distain at the greeting women who had flowers in their hands – flowers that Owen believed would be exchanged for ‘wreath and spray’. The music’s mock sensuality captures the poem’s underlying irony. In the final stanza, beginning at the line ‘Shall they return to beatings of great bells/in wild train loads’ the opening march theme makes an heroic return, accompanied by ‘bell-like’ arabesques in the piano. This section builds to a passionate vocal outpouring on the line, ‘A few, a few, too few for drums and yells’. The song ends with the heroic march rhythm which has been recast as a slow funeral march – a ghostly cortege to accompany those soldiers who –‘May creep back, silent, to still village wells/up half-known roads’
By contrast, the second song, Procrastination provides the cycle with a lyrical interlude. The poem is by an almost unknown war poet, Francis St. Vincent Morris. He was born in 1896 in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, the youngest son of Canon and Mrs Morris. In 1910, he went to Brighton College and subsequently gained a place to study at Oxford in 1915. In that year he joined the army and became a Second Lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. The following year he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. In the spring of 1917, he crossed into France and on April 10th his plane was brought down by a blizzard at Vimy Ridge and he died from his injuries on the 29th April. ‘Procrastination’ addresses the subject of Love: Love sought, felt and then lost. It echoes the tragic circumstances of those who were caught up in the conflict and who like Vincent Morris would be denied such love. The song begins with a brief introduction that evokes the distant sound of a military band. The poet, alone in a sequested wood hears ‘A sweet wind’ that ‘moaned in the shadows above’ and ‘it seemed as the voice of Love’. This tranquil scene is reflected in the music by a gently ‘rocking figure’ heard in the piano accompaniment. At the end of the first stanza there is a lengthy bridge passage in which the piano’s introductory music returns, but now acting as an elegiac commentary upon the poem’s wistful narrative. In the second stanza we are told that after a season, the poet returned to the forest and discovered that the ‘trees were felled and the voices had passed from the whispering wood’. A reprise of the opening ‘rocking figure’ sustains a peaceful mood as the vocal line weaves its way towards its final climax on the words ‘whispering wood’. Here the viola takes up the principal melody from the introduction but it becomes increasingly dominated by an insistent ‘drumming’ rhythm in the piano. Overpowered, the viola intones the same rhythmic figure ending the song on a note of gloom. The third song is a setting of Isaac Rosenberg’s (1890 -1918) final poem written three days before his death on the 31st March 1918. Rosenberg had a desperately unhappy time in the army where anti-semitism was rife. He was persistently bullied for being a Jew and in a letter to his friend, Sydney Schiff he wrote, ‘my being a Jew makes it bad among these wretches’ Despite this, he found solace in his Jewishness and identification with his religion’s long history of persecution.
In Through These Pale Cold Days Rosenberg presents a dream-like narrative; one where he can imagine himself communing with the ghosts of his ancestors. The author, Timothy Kendall has written, ‘Rosenberg, in those pale cold days, is briefly at one with his ghosts; he sees with living eyes for them; they are dead and through him, alive. However, their visit is necessarily short; with new understanding of the future, they turn away to resume their search for the lost Edenic home. The poet is left behind, abandoned even by his own people’.
The song opens with a long slow introduction for viola and piano. The viola’s sorrowful melody is accompanied by a series of syncopated chords in the piano. This threnodic idea contains echoes of Jewish Klezmer music that is intended to evoke the poem’s ‘sense of place’. The voice enters quietly with the opening line ‘Through these pale cold days’ leading to a brief climax on the words, ‘thousand years’. A restatement of the opening vocal melody is now heard in the piano and this begins a new section at the line, ‘And their wild eyes yearn’. Gradually, the music becomes increasingly restless and impassioned as it moves towards the all-important line ‘For the pools of Herbron again’. A dialogue between the voice and viola ensues as both instruments reprise fragments of the Klemzer music heard in the introduction. Following this climax, the music subsides and returns to the song’s plaintive opening in preparation for the final lines, ‘They leave these blond still days/in dust behind their tread’ and the poem’s denouement, ‘They see with living eyes/how long they have been dead’. On the word ‘long’ the sinuous vocal line elicits a melisma that acts as a musical metaphor for the passing of time. The song ends with short coda for viola and piano. Echoes of melodic ideas from the opening introduction are heard but now punctuated by a succession of discordant and strident chords in the piano, providing one of the bleakest moments in the cycle.
The penultimate song – a setting of Siegfried Sassoon’s (1886-1967) poem Suicide in the Trenches – provides the cycle with a mock scherzo movement and adds the much needed musical contrast I alluded to earlier. However, the subject matter of the poem does not bring any relief to the stark realism of the cycle’s overall narrative. Indeed, this was the most difficult and emotionally wrought poem I have ever set to music. Sassoon deals with one of the most horrific aspects of the War – the needless destruction of a young soldier, who suffering from severe psychological distress, depression and fear, is driven to suicide by the harsh conditions in the trenches. For the army’s leaders, however, suicide was viewed as a cowardly act and Sassoon’s poem was attacked for its anti-war and unpatriotic stance. The poem relates the story of a youthful but naïve recruit, who like so many others were totally inexperienced to deal with the harshness of trench warfare. The song closely follows the poem’s Ballad-like contours with correspondingly energetic and spirited rhythms and provides a rustic backdrop to the simple and carefree Folk-like vocal melody on the words, ‘I knew a simple soldier boy who grinned at life in empty joy’. The optimistic key of D major sustains the cheerful mood of this stanza but ‘Spring’s’ lightness is suddenly obliterated by the ‘Winter’ darkness of the second verse. Here, we are plunged into the horrors of the trenches – the devastation and exploding bombs (‘crumps’) the ‘lice’ and ‘lack of rum’. Then we are told that Sassoon’s young soldier ‘put a bullet through his brain/no one spoke of him again’. For this harrowing stanza, the music descends into a minor key with the underlying rhythms now becoming more insistent and the viola adding a menacing tone with the use of a col legno (tapping the wood of the bow against the instrument’s strings. The trenchant vocal line, beginning at the words ‘In winter trenches’ becomes more agitated and angry as it reaches a violent climax on the words, ‘through his brain’. This powerfully expressive moment is sustained through to the line, ‘no one spoke of him again’. Here, the piano thunders down the keyboard arriving on two cataclysmic chords. On the second chord, marked sffffz the pianist is directed to maintain the sound until it dies away to the point of temporal uneasiness. Following this, the opening piano introduction is reprised, initially heard quietly and at a slower tempo, but quickly moving to a faster tempo for the last verse. The song’s jaunty vocal melody makes a brief appearance before being scythed by final line, ‘the hell where youth an laughter go’ – at which point the violent music from the central stanza returns and the song ends abruptly with a repeat of the earlier cataclysmic chords, however this time, there are three – the final one functioning as a bridge that links the song with the final poem of remembrance. This is the cycle’s ‘unusual’ feature I mentioned earlier. When I was composing Suicide in the trenches I felt that I could not end it with the usual musical full stop; the poem’s emotional effect was simply too overwhelming. The music required space but not silence. To achieve this, the music segues without a break into the final song; a setting of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert-Kennedy’s (1883-1929) poem If You Forget.
Studdert-Kennedy, or ‘Woodbine Willie’ as he was affectionately nicknamed, was the vicar of St Paul’s Church, Worcester. At the outbreak of the war he volunteered as an Army chaplain and became attached to a bayonet-training service. Studdert-Kennedy became one of the best-known figures on the Western Front for giving Woodbine cigarettes and spiritual comfort to the soldiers. He was loved and respected by his comrades for his bravery under fire and he received the Military Cross in 1917 at Messines Ridge for running into No-Mans-Land to rescue the injured. After the war, he became closely involved in the Christian Socialist and the Pacifist movements, touring the country giving public lectures. He died suddenly in 1929, whilst on tour in Liverpool. A crowd of over 2,000 people turned out for his funeral procession, lining the streets from Worcester Cathedral to St Paul’s Church. They threw packets of Woodbines onto the passing cortege. Studdert-Kennedy’s collected verse was published in 1927 under the title The Unutterable Beauty.
If You Forget opens with a tolling bell-like figure heard in the piano in a slowly paced 4/4 rhythm. The voice intones an anguished and yearning lament on the words, ‘Let me forget/let me forget’ and leads to the principal vocal melody on the words, ‘I am weary of remembrance/and my brow is ever wet/with the tears of my remembrance’. This disconsolate melody is underpinned by an elegiac piano accompaniment. Following a brief moment of intense reflection on the words, ‘Let me forget’ the tolling bell figure returns and the final stanza begins with a reprise of the song’s opening lament but this time the personal pronoun has been changed to ‘If You Forget’. On the final lines ‘Then your children must remember/ and their brow be ever wet, with the tears of their remembrance/with the tears and bloody sweat’ the voice and piano are joined by the viola as they move towards the song’s contemplative conclusion. At the last moment the poet makes an impassioned appeal to posterity. By reiterating the words, ‘If You Forget’, we are forced us to reflect not only upon the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for the world we have inherited, but also to remember what is at stake if future generations fail in their duty of remembrance. The bleakness and unsettling nature of the cycle’s final bars seek to mirror the unresolved tension that underlies all acts of remembrance. I would like to conclude on a personal note of thanks. Firstly, to the Limoges Trust for commissioning the work. Secondly, to those who have given me such support and encouragement over the past few years. This long list includes; the Mayor of Worcester, Councillor Paul Denham, his predecessor, Councillor Roger Knight who kindly helped to promote this event, former Mayor, Councillor Pat Agar and Councillor Alan Amos who, as Mayor of Worcester in 2015 endorsed this work on behalf of the City. I would like to say a big thank you to the AOOE’s for their generous financial assistance, to the staff at The Royal Grammar School and especially to John Pitt, the Headmaster whose great vision made this evening possible. Last, but not least to the Director of music, Mike Hamilton for all his help and support.
A Review of the concert:
Down the close darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined to the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men’s are, dead.
Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the Upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked at the guard.
So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent;
Nor there if they yet mock what woman meant
Who gave them flowers.
Shall they return to beating of great bells
In wild train-loads?
At few, and a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, two village wells,
Up half-known roads.
A sweet wind passed in the forest
And moaned in the shadows above,
And he heard it sigh through the branches,
And it seemed as the voice of Love.
And he went his way for a season,
And came when he deemed it good:
But the trees were felled-and the voices
Had passed from the whispering Wood.
Francis St.Vincent Morris (November 22nd 1916)
[Through these pale cold days]
Through these pale cold days
What dark faces burn
Out of three thousand years,
And their wild eyes yearn,
While underneath their brows
Like waifs their spirits grope
For the pools of Hebron again-
For Lebanon’s summer slope.
They leave these blonde still days
In dust behind their tread
They see with living eyes
How long they have been dead.
Suicide in the Trenches
I knew a simple soldier boy
Who grinned at life in empty joy,
Slept soundly through the lonesome dark,
And whistled early with the lark.
In winter trenches, coward and glum,
With crumps and lice and lack of rum,
He put a bullet through his brain.
No one spoke of him again.
You smug-faced crowds with kindling eye
Who cheer when soldier lads march by,
Sneak home and pray you will never know
The hell were youth and laughter go.
If You Forget
Let me forget-Let me forget,
I am weary of remembrance,
And my brow is ever wet,
With tears of my remembrance,
With the tears and bloody sweat,-
Let me forget
If you forget – if you forget,
Then your children must remember,
And their brow be ever wet,
With the tears of their remembrance,
With the tears and bloody sweat,
If you forget.
Geoffrey Anketell Suddert Kennedy