The continuing commemoration of the centenary of World War I has been marked by many artistic endeavours, including a number of musical compositions. Here is Jonathan Dove’s response. In his booklet note he explains that in For an Unknown Soldier he sought to relate the story of one unknown and unnamed combatant. He considered setting to music the letters of someone who had served in the conflict but decided eventually to use a sequence of poems to illustrate how one man might have signed up in the initial rush of enthusiasm for the war. The poems then recount his experiences as he is confronted by the desperate realities of battle; he dies and is mourned.
Dove’s choice of poems is a good one. Celebrated war poets such as Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Ivor Gurney are represented but so are some of the lesser-known war poets, He also reflects the feminine response to the conflict through the inclusion of poems by four female poets. I’m glad to find that he has largely set poems that have not, to the best of my knowledge, been used by many other composers. The score calls for the following vocal forces: tenor solo, SATB Chorus and a children’s choir—here comprising children from three primary schools. The orchestral forces are relatively modest though at times it seems as if a larger band is deployed. Dove restricts himself to two each of oboes, bassoons and horns, a single trumpet, timpani, percussion (just one player) and strings. It seems to me that the avoidance of elaborate orchestration and the nature of the choral writing, of which more later, make the work very well suited to amateur performance.
For an Unknown Soldier begins very dramatically with a setting of Owen’s poem 1914. Both the imagery of the poem and Dove’s music are forceful. However, I’m not entirely sure that this choice of text fits with the composer’s intention to depict the enthusiasm for enlisting in which his putative soldier was caught up. I believe that the poem was penned in December 1914, in other words after Owen had experienced at first-hand the horrors of trench warfare. So I just wonder if this poem properly reflects the bravado and confidence that led young men to enlist in their thousands in the early months of the war, innocent of any knowledge of what awaited them in France. That said, Dove’s selection of texts thereafter is very appropriate.
A little later the children’s choir is given Jessie Pope’s The Call to sing and Dove sets it in the manner of a playground song. Immediately afterwards we hear the male voices of the choir and the tenor soloist singing All the Hills and Vales Along by Charles Hamilton Sorley (1895-1915). Here the music seems to me to suggest the march of young men going off to war. In this section of the work Dove finds a fine balance between confidence and poignancy.
Before Action is a poem written by Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson (1893-1916) just a few days before he was killed on the opening day of the Battle of the Somme. Actually, though I term it a poem it’s more like a prayer. Hodgson’s words are sung by the male voices of the choir—mainly in unison—and by the tenor soloist. In the middle of the setting the female voices sing To You in France written by Helen Dicks (d. 1975), probably during the War. The combination of her verses, Hodgson’s prayer, Dove’s simple and direct music and the knowledge of how imminent was Hodgson’s death when he wrote his words is powerfully poignant. At the heart of the work lies an extended setting of Rosenberg’s Dead Man’s Dump. The poem is extremely graphic and spares the reader or listener nothing in its description of battlefield carnage. Dove sets this harrowing text very dramatically. The choir sings much of the poem and their music is homophonic and syllabic, the rhythms driving and brutal. The orchestral accompaniment is similarly biting. At intervals the choir’s graphic presentation of Rosenberg’s imagery is interrupted by passages for the solo tenor. Here the music becomes chill, distant and Brittenesque.
After this vision of the carnage of the battle the tenor and the male chorus deliver Gurney’s To His Love. Gurney’s bitterly regretful verses of mourning become gradually more impassioned. The work ends with a slow-moving, mainly subdued setting of Wilfred Owen’s An Imperial Elegy. Dove’s melancholy music is very effective in conveying the sentiments of Owen’s poem within the narrative that he has constructed over the course of For an Unknown Soldier and the work achieves a very soft end, played by the orchestra alone.
I haven’t commented on every setting within this anthology work but I hope I’ve said sufficient to give a good flavour of it. What of the music? I must say that I’m left with slightly mixed feelings. Firstly, in general, the best music is in those sections where the tenor soloist features. In part I say that because I have a slight sense of disappointment over the choral writing. The choir’s music is communicative and direct but as a listener I felt that rather too much of it was either homophonic or unison writing. I stand to be corrected but only in the very first section and at the close is the choral music polyphonic in nature. I was left wanting more. As a singer, however, I might feel rather differently. As I indicated earlier For an Unknown Soldier seems to me to lend itself to amateur performance. I don’t mean by this that the choral writing is simple, still less simplistic, but I have the impression, without seeing a score, that Jonathan Dove has concentrated on writing music for the choir that is not excessively challenging so that the chorus can concentrate on putting the words and music across with expression and finesse. The orchestral writing is assured and complements the vocal music very effectively. I have to record that I’m not entirely convinced by the sections for children’s choir.
The performance is a good one. Nicky Spence sings expressively and his timbre suits the music very well. The combined forces of the Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir and the Oxford Bach Choir make a very good showing and I particularly appreciated their clarity of diction. The children’s choir sing confidently if not always immaculately. The London Mozart Players bring bite or finesse to the orchestral score depending on the requirements at any one time. Nicholas Cleobury secures a performance of commitment and conviction from all his musicians.
An Airmail Letter from Mozart is an example of Dove’s using his affection for Mozart as a source of inspiration. I’d not heard this before but I’ve heard and enjoyed his very clever The Magic Flute Dances (1999), most accurately described by my colleague, Jonathan Woolf as “a delightful work—knowing [and] naughty” (review). The present Mozart-inspired work is scored for piano, string quartet, double bass and two horns. Dove has used the Theme and Variations of Mozart’s Divertimento K287 as the basis for a witty and inventive score. The conceit behind it is that in the jet-age Mozart would be able to travel even more widely than he did during his lifetime and would want to keep in regular touch with Constanze while away from home. It’s an entertaining work which gets a sparkling performance from Melvyn Tan and his colleagues. The piano and horn parts are especially prominent.
The recordings of both works have been very effectively engineered by Matthew Dilley. The booklet notes are by the composer. I hope that this disc will bring For an Unknown Soldier to the attention of choral societies; it is worth investigation.