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Threaded throughout this remarkable recital is the poetry of Housman’s A Shropshire Lad and its themes of life, loss and the transience of youth. In a programme originally devised for the centenary of the outbreak of World War I, this evolved into a wider narrative on the subject of war and the soldier’s fate, the Butterworth and Somervell settings joined by other composers from across the centuries and from opposing sides.
Arthur Somervell was the first English composer to develop the song-cycle. A Shropshire Lad, published in 1904, was first performed by Harry Plunket Greene at the Aeolian Hall on 3 February 1905—we hear four of the ten songs on this CD. On the idle hill of summer juxtaposes the beauty of an English summer landscape with the imminent fate of young men marching to war: ‘food for powder’, as Falstaff describes the ‘pitiful rascals’ about to fight at the Battle of Shrewsbury in Shakespeare’s Henry IV. The final line, ‘Woman bore me, I will rise’, refers tellingly to the Book of Job, xiv.: ‘Man that is born of a woman is of few days, and full of trouble’: the young man of the poem will enlist and die young. White in the moon the long road lies describes a man leaving his love for an unknown destination, presumably the battlefield; Think no more, lad deals with the need to be carefree and irresponsible in life—a common reaction to impending war; Into my heart an air that kills is a poignant and wistful poem in which Housman describes his longing for the innocent land of childhood and the countryside west of Bromsgrove where he would roam happily as a young boy—the land of lost content.
Ivor Gurney fought at the Front in 1916, was wounded on Good Friday 1917, and after a spell at Rouen Hospital was gassed at Passchendaele. He was sent to a number of war hospitals where, deprived of the friendship of his fellow soldiers, he suffered increasing mood swings. He threatened suicide in June 1918, was discharged from the army a month before the Armistice, and returned to Gloucester. His first book of poems, Severn and Somme (1917), published during the war, was followed by War’s Embers (1919). While writing poetry, he continued to compose, and published two Housman cycles, Ludlow and Teme and The Western Playland, in 1919. His mind soon gave way; his family first committed him in 1922 to Barnwood House Asylum and then to the City of London Mental Hospital in Dartford. He died of pulmonary tuberculosis at the City of London Mental Hospital in 1937. Black Stitchel (1920) is the most successful of his nine settings of the poems of Wilfred Gibson, the Northumberland poet who moved to London in 1912, where he rented a room above Harold Monro’s Poetry Bookshop. Each of the four stanzas mentions a different wind: South wind for happiness, West wind for love, North wind for wrath, East wind for pity. The pastoral mood of the first two stanzas turns dark in the third by means of restless, più animato harmonies, and the music of the final lines is perhaps the most plaintive in all Gurney. Frederick William Harvey, the poet of Gurney’s In Flanders, fought during the First World War in the trenches, where he wrote A Gloucestershire Lad at Home and Abroad (1916), which contained ‘In Flanders’. By an extraordinary coincidence, it was also in the trenches that Gurney set his friend’s poem: the manuscript indicates that it was composed at ‘Crucifix Corner, Thiepval; finished 11 January 1917’. Severn Meadows is Gurney’s most celebrated setting of his own words—the manuscript is dated ‘Caulaincourt, March 19 1917’, which makes it likely that both words and music were written in the trenches.
Channel Firing (1940), from Gerald Finzi’s Before and After Summer, was written by Thomas Hardy in April 1914 when British ships were practising gunnery off the South Coast of England. Despite the occasional humorous tone, the theme of the poem is bleak indeed. In Finzi’s setting we hear the thunder of the guns at sea, God’s railing against man’s brutality, which softens exquisitely in the sixth stanza at ‘for you are men’, and the skeletons rattling in their coffins. John Ireland’s In boyhood is one of three pieces called We’ll to the woods no more, dedicated to his friend Arthur George Miller. Ireland wrote ‘In memory of the darkest days’ on the manuscript, and Housman in this poem from Last Poems mourns the friends he lost during the First World War. Ireland’s slow-moving song has no key signature.
When the USA entered World War I in 1917, Charles Ives wrote a series of ‘war songs’ among the best known of which are Three songs of war, which comprise In Flanders fields, Tom sails away and He is there!. Ives wrote the text himself to the song, and then revised it in 1942 for use in World War II. The subtitle is 'Fighting for the People’s New Free World', and several patriotic tunes are quoted, including ‘The Battle Cry of Freedom’ that had been written during the Civil War by the Boston composer (and publisher) Geo. F. Root.
The field-marshall from Musorgsky’s Songs and dances of death falls into two distinct parts: the extended narrative description of the battle scene and Death’s majestic summoning of his victims. In the former the voice is accompanied by scurrying bass motifs, sforzando chords and march-like rhythm that cry out to be played by horns and trumpets. Musorgsky intended to write an orchestral version of the song but never carried out his resolve.
Gabriel Fauré’s Les berceaux is one of his most sombre songs, and has a vocal range of a 13th (from low A-flat to high F) that is greater than that of any other Fauré mélodie. Sully Prudhomme’s poem describes in quasi philosophical style how fate decrees that women should stay at home and rock the child’s cradle, while men must cross the oceans. The violence with which Fauré composes ‘Et que les hommes curieux/Tentent les horizons qui leurrent’ [‘And that men with questing spirits/Shall seek enticing horizons’]—set to a crescendo molto marking that climaxes in a forte explosion—suggests that the men are sailors and doomed, perhaps, to perish in a watery grave. The seven songs of Francis Poulenc’s La courte paille were composed in 1960 and are Poulenc’s farewell to the cycle form. Lune d’avril, the last of the set, portrays a utopia from which all guns have been banished. This wonderful, other-worldy song of serenity, marked Très lent et irréel, unfolds to a largely piano dynamic and ends with the word ‘lune’ sung in a pppp whisper.
Gustav Mahler spent much of his childhood in the Moravian garrison town of Jihlava, and it is reliably reported that as a young boy he knew hundreds of military tunes by heart. Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen is a dialogue between a dead soldier and his grieving sweetheart. Major and minor alternate throughout the song which ends in the soldier’s confession that his home is in the grave—after which the relentless martial rhythm, indicative of man’s subjection to Fate, slowly fades away. Revelge describes how a young drummer-boy sets out to battle (verse 1), is wounded (verse 2) and calls out to his fellow soldiers (verse 3). Unable to help, they die before him (verse 5). The closer the young soldier approaches death, the louder he sings, and the song is punctuated by trills, sforzandi and bare staccato octaves which gives it the character of a funeral march. In the final two stanzas the dead boy turns narrator: in an apocalyptic vision he describes how next morning he will lead the dead soldiers in front of his sweetheart’s house, banging his drum as he goes.
Heinrich Heine’s Die beiden Grenadiere tells the story of two prisoners-of-war returning home to France after years in Russia. Schumann portrays the soldiers’ patriotism by introducing the Marseillaise in the final verses, only to end the song with a faltering postlude that tells us that they collapse and die. The final half-rhyme (blitzen/schützen) suggests with wonderful economy the dashing of the patriotic dream. Adelbert von Chamisso, the poet of Frauenliebe und -leben, was also a most skilled translator, as Schumann reveals in his version of Andersen’s Der Soldat. The inexorable march theme accompanies the firing squad of nine riflemen to the place of execution and the hapless victim. The latter’s best friend is the narrator, and the only one to hit the target: ‘But I, I shot him clean through the heart’, he exclaims over pianissimo tremolando chords, while the postlude depicts the slumping body of the corpse.
Hugo Wolf’s pleasure at composing Eduard Mörike’s delicious fantasy Der Tambour can be felt from the initial drum-roll in the piano and heard in the astonishing prodigality of musical themes that he lavishes on the poem. It was the first of the Mörike songbook to be composed and unleashed a period of sustained creativity almost unparalleled in the history of song.
Richard Stokes © 2019
I was to take part in the Song Prize of the Association of English Singers and Speakers. My singing teacher at that time, Mark Wildman, who was instrumental in my ever being a singer at all, suggested a group of songs by Ivor Gurney including three settings of Gurney’s own poetry written while a soldier in World War I, and also proposed the title From Severn to Somme; a play on the poet’s own title for one of his anthologies. Gurney’s output struck a deep chord with me and reverberated throughout my recital programming for years to come until another dear colleague, Malcolm Martineau, hatched the bright idea of expanding that group into a more eclectic collection of soldier inspired songs for my New York recital debut in 2000.
To Gurney we added Mahler, Schumann, Musorgsky and Malcolm’s own genius touch of ending with Poulenc’s Lune d’avril. A twenty-minute competition programme became enough to fill a whole half, and was more generally renamed, The Soldier. Satisfying as the conceit of this ‘Jedersoldat’ proved to be, it wasn’t until early 2013 that its true calling became clear. With the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War only a year away Gurney’s journey from his home by the tranquil river Severn to the horrors of the Somme burned in my mind, and seemed the perfect narrative from which to grow a more meaningful incarnation of the two sister programmes that blazed the trail. Gurney, wounded and gassed in 1917, was joined by George Butterworth, tragically killed at the Somme in 1916, and the poems of A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad, whose themes of youth, love, death and lost innocence became a totem for the young soldiers of the Great War. Further Housman settings by Arthur Somervell and Gerald Finzi’s epic illumination of Thomas Hardy’s masterpiece, Channel Firing, would become the bones of each section; Home, Journey, Battle and Epitaph. I fleshed out this skeleton with works representing many of the major belligerent powers involved; Great Britain, France, Russia, Germany, the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the USA.
I sought to use these stunning compositions to form a coherent but temporally flexible narrative that specifically wraps its arms around those wounded and lost in multitudes of ways during World War I, but also to commemorate all those men, women and children whose lives have been lost or torn apart, combatant or not, by the grief and horror of wars past, present and future. I can think of no more fitting words to end with than those of Housman himself:
They braced their belts about them,
They crossed in ships the sea,
They sought and found six feet of ground,
And there they died, for me.
Christopher Maltman © 2019