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Political or, more specifically, imperial events undoubtedly had a major influence on the choice of subject matter for Parry’s work. Since October 1899 the second Boer War had been raging and a series of Boer successes, including the sieges of Ladysmith, Kimberley and Mafeking, had severely dented British military confidence. Only with the counter-offensive by Lord Roberts between February and August 1900, which included the raising of the sieges, the victory at Paardeberg and the capture of Pretoria, was the national trauma dispelled. The Soldier’s Tent, written only weeks after the news of Roberts’s sucesses, was one of a number of British musical works (Stanford’s Last Post was another) to reflect upon these turbulent events.
Parry selected his text from Hélène Vacaresco’s The Bard of Dimbovitza: Roumanian folksongs collected from the peasants, translated by Carmen Sylva and Alma Strettell. The collection was published in 1892 and proved so popular that a second volume followed in 1897, rivalling the vogue enjoyed by Edward Fitzgerald’s free translation of The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Carmen Sylva, who was in fact the Queen of Roumania (and counted Vacaresco among her protégées), provided the introduction to the 1892 volume and probably had a hand in the ‘creation’ of the poems as well as their translation. The folksongs, Sylva claimed, ‘are peculiar to a certain district of Roumania [Dimbovitza lies north of Bucharest], and that a district in which the mysterious grandeur of mountains has combined with the melancholy and subtle beauty of vast plains, in influencing its people’. This is very much reflected in the sentiment of the refrain (‘Across the mountains the mist hath drawn A cov’ring of bridal white; The plains afar make lament’) which begins and ends The Soldier’s Tent.
Though called ‘Song’ on the title page of the published vocal score (and referred to as such in Parry’s diary), The Soldier’s Tent is an extended structure, more resembling a multi-sectional scena of operatic proportions, whose dramatic scope is epitomized by the evocative opening material (reminiscent of Wagner’s ‘forest murmurs’ and Mahler’s nature music) of the orchestral prelude. The prelude and refrain (containing some of Parry’s most yearning music) act as a frame for the poem’s formulaic narrative in which a series of spiritual apparitions or dreams tempts the doomed soldier as he slumbers in his tent. Spurred on by sentiments of loyalty and courage, and facing the prospect of death in battle, he rebuffs them one by one with increasing determination. This formula is mirrored in Parry’s musical form where each apparition and retort (using the martial music first heard in the orchestral prelude) grows in seductiveness and intensity reaching a climax (‘I have Death’) powerfully reminiscent of Götterdämmerung, at once reminding us that Parry’s source of influence for this work was Wagner (and not Brahms, with whom he is too often loosely paired). Wagner is also behind the tonally open-ended, enigmatic progressions of the opening bars, but perhaps Parry’s most Wagnerian touch is the ‘redemptive’ shift to the flat submediant immediately prior to the final refrain, symbolizing the soldier’s reconciliation with his fate and the ideals of honour.
from notes by Jeremy Dibble © 1999