Song of the Somme – by Gerald Heys

WR Magazine – Autumn/Winter edition 2016

‘The Song of the Somme’

 Composer Ian Venables talks to Gerald Heyes about the marriage of words and music, the simple power of Woodbine Willie and having Elgar breathe down your neck.

We should never forget. But how best to remember? Only a few yards from Ian Venable’s home, Gheluvelt Park stands as a proud memorial to the Worcestershire regiment’s actions in October 1914 (vividly recalled in WR’s winter edition by Alan Cowpe). In his programme notes for Through These Pale Cold Days, Ian writes: ‘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 … So, first and foremost, I wanted to dedicate this new work to their memory.’

Commissioned by the Limoges Trust for the City of Worcester, the song-cycle was premiered at the Worcester Royal Grammar School’s Perrins Hall on 30 June, the centenary of the eve of the Battle of the Somme. In its review, the Birmingham Post said, ‘Ian Venables has long enjoyed a deserved reputation as a renowned composer of English song, but in his latest offering he has surpassed even his own amazingly high benchmark.’ That the Perrins Hall was first opened in 1915 makes it an apt place for such a commemorative work: a piece dedicated not only to those who fought at Gheluvelt but also to the 90 former pupils of the school who died between 1914 and 1918, whose names were read out in tribute at the premiere. Ian stresses how very grateful he is, particularly to headmaster John Pitt, that the school was able to offer the hall as a venue and for all the support they have given him.

Through These Pale Cold Days turns into song five poems from five poets of the Great War: Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg, Francis St Vincent Morris, Siegfried Sassoon and Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy. The last of these, the vicar of St Paul’s in Worcester as the War began, volunteered to be a chaplain at the Western Front and won the MC for bravery and the nickname Woodbine Willie for his habit of giving out free cigarettes to injured and dying soldiers. Studdert Kennedy’s grandson was at the premiere and, Ian says, was ‘thrilled and moved by the experience’. Ian adds how ‘If You Forget’ from The Unutterable Beauty (Studdert Kennedy’s collected works) so jumped out at him when he read it that it simply had to be part of the song-cycle.

Ian – affable and thoughtful, with just a trace of Scouse under the RP – explains how words drive his music. ‘I’m always looking for poetry that I can connect with, engage with, resonate with. But with this cycle it was really quite different. The actual poetry itself is so deep, poignant and powerful, and often brutal and uncompromising, that I wasn’t sure I could even engage with the subject matter itself. ‘However, the more I read, I thought to myself, I’m not going to set poetry about the brutality and horrors. And I don’t want to do anything jingoistic – that’s not in my nature. But I thought I could deal with themes that resonate with me, such as loss. I understand what it means to say goodbye to someone you love … And I could deal with love – even death itself. So I was looking for themes that might resonate with a contemporary audience. And that’s why I chose those particular poems.’

Born and educated in Liverpool, Ian studied music with Professor Richard Arnell at Trinity College London and later with Andrew Downes, John Mayer and John Joubert at the Birmingham Conservatoire of Music. Musical Opinion magazine describes him as ’Britain’s greatest living composer of art songs’.

Art song might best be described as a vocal music composition, usually for a single voice with piano accompaniment, written in the classical tradition. But Ian refines that definition: ‘The connection with music is at a very deep level … [art song] brings words and music together as a marriage – they kind of live off one another – a symbiotic relationship … they end up producing something that’s greater than the sum of its parts. And that’s what’s special about art song – it’s highly condensed, and the emotions are very highly charged.’

His time in Worcestershire has, he believes, contributed to his development as a composer. He emphasises the importance of the landscape: ‘It has become more important in my work as I’ve lived here longer and longer. When I first arrived, the first thing I wrote was a violin piece called Pastorale, sitting up on the Malvern Hills and Elgar breathing down my neck … It’s a very Elgarian as a piece of music … he’s all around us.’

Further performances of Through These Pale Cold Days have been planned for the forthcoming months, including at Gloucester Cathedral Chapter House and the US premiere on the 17th April 2017. And here we speculate on the limitations of commemoration. How, for example, can we hope to imagine what it was like for the thousands who walked to their deaths on the first day of the Somme? Or, indeed, grasp the feelings of men fighting over that same territory more than a hundred days later? Perhaps all we have left is a kind of sympathetic ambivalence. Ian gives the example of the poet Edward Thomas. Thomas hated the anti-German jingoism of the official propaganda and for a long time was undecided about whether to enlist. However, he did eventually join up. When asked why, he picked up a handful of earth from an English field and let it trickle through his fingers, saying, ‘Literally, for this.’

At this distance, it’s sometimes hard to gauge these men and their motives. But to forget them and what they did seems unforgivable.

The First Battle of the Somme (July 1–Nov. 18, 1916)

After a week-long artillery bombardment, the British infantry went ‘over the top’ at 7:30 am on 1 July, but were mown down assaulting the virtually impregnable German positions. There were nearly 60,000 British casualties on the first day, with 20,000 dead. The offensive then deteriorated into a battle of attrition. In September, the British introduced their new weapon, the tank, for the first time, but with little effect. October saw torrential rains turn the battlefield into a sea of mud. By mid-November, the Allies had advanced only 5 miles. The total casualties over the 141 days amounted to roughly 650,000 German, 195,000 French, and 420,000 British. The battle became a metaphor for futile and indiscriminate slaughter. However, by launching the offensive, the Allies managed to relieve German pressure on Verdun, and the fighting did much to wear the German army down.

But even for those commentators who argue that the Allies were on a learning curve that would bring victory in 1918, the numbers make very hard reading.