The Pine Boughs Past Music Op. 39

Composed: 2009
Duration: 15 minutes
First Performance:April 15th 2010, St Mary-de-Lode, Gloucester, performed by Roderick Williams (baritone) and Andrew West (pianist)
Second Performance: August 2010, Three Choirs Festival, Gloucester, performed by Roderick Williams and Susie Allan (pianist)
Commissioned: To celebrate the Gloucester Music Society’s 80th anniversary by Christine Talbot-Cooper.
Available: Novello and Company Ltd

A note from the composer

‘The Pine Boughs Past Music’ is a song cycle based upon poetry associated with Gloucester, and was commissioned to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the Gloucester Music Society. Having purposefully sought inspiration from the wide array of Gloucestershire poets, from Henley to Harvey, I finally found inspiration in the poetry of Ivor Gurney, whose work is so saturated with the Gloucestershire landscape. In his poetry I discovered the essential element I needed to bind the cycle together: the eternal backdrop of nature upon which the poet’s thoughts are played out.

The first song, ‘My Heart Makes Songs On Lonely Roads’ is a setting of a poem written at the end of 1917. Its subject is his doomed love affair with a nurse at Edinburgh War Hospital, Annie Nelson Drummond. Most characteristically, Gurney turns his forlorn narrative away from the individual to affirm the collective, to show that in the end it is the experience of love itself that really matters. The song follows closely the poet’s emotional journey, presenting in the first two stanzas a simple vocal line that is contemplative in nature and sustained in mood by a quietly lilting lullaby in the piano accompaniment. In the final stanza the song’s principal melodic ideas are transformed in order to express the poem’s subtle change of emphasis to the universal: ‘But I am glad that love has come / To bind me fast and try my worth / For Love’s a powerful Lord and gives / His friends dominion over the earth’.

‘Soft Rain’ is also one of Gurney’s late poems and it begins evocatively with the line: ‘Soft rain beats upon my windows / Hardly harming’. The wistful and resigned sentiments of the poem are echoed in a vocal line that is enunciated through long-breathed melismatic phrases, supported by a sensuous harmonic wash of sound. The poem’s reflective atmosphere is, however, abruptly disturbed as the poet hears the sound of a gale ‘further off’ and ‘that savage toss of the pine boughs past music’. The music builds in intensity, reaching an almost ecstatic double forte climax on the words ‘And the roar of the elms’ before subsiding into a return of the song’s opening mood, in preparation for the denouement on the words, ‘Here come, in the candle light, soft reminder / Of poetry’s truth, while rain beats as softly here / As sleep, or shelter of farms’. Tragically, the word ‘here’ refers to the ‘here’ of the asylum in which Gurney was incarcerated.

‘The Wind’, is a setting of what is regarded as Gurney’s last poem, written in the Dartford asylum in 1929. Using the wind as an all-embracing metaphor, Gurney captures the bleakness and brevity of human existence in lines of stark despair. For the full force of its existential narrative to be understood when sung, I set the vocal line strophically, underpinned by a piano accompaniment that seeks to engage with the poem’s bleak imagery. After such a sombre opening the second setting in some ways redresses the balance.

It would have been quite easy to conclude the set with another poem by Ivor Gurney. However, it was to Leonard Clark I turned. The title of his summative poem speaks for itself, ‘In Memoriam IBG’ is a haunting elegy that pays tribute to Gurney’s everlasting memory. In this through composed song I have tried to echo the poem’s subtly shifting narrative – a journey that takes us through a multiplicity of moods from loss and mourning to memory and commemoration and finally to affirmation and the transcendental.