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A Farewell to Arms

First line:
The helmet now an hive for bees becomes
author of text
'The helmet now an hive for bees becomes'
author of text
'His golden locks time hath to silver turned'

This juxtaposes two related poems, one Jacobean, the other Elizabethan (inscribed ‘to Queen Elizabeth’), on the theme of the old soldier recalling past wars and his present role in time of peaceful retirement—surely relevant in the 1950s when Bennett first encountered these poems as a schoolboy. Peele’s helmet-as-beehive image seems to have sparked off Knevet’s imaginative catalogue of further examples of swords-into-ploughshares, and whether by design or not the two poems complement each other well: Knevet focuses on the instruments of war, Peele on the soldier himself.

In Bennett’s setting a solo cello suggests the central character of the sturdy old soldier looking back over past battles, reflecting on the passing of time and the transience of military glory, youth, and life itself. Solo instrumental writing always appealed to Bennett, and in A Farewell to Arms he successfully integrates an eloquent, romantic cello part—Walton’s string concertos made an early and deep impression on him—with almost madrigalian vocal writing. There are appropriately retrospective touches: archaic Burgundian cadence figures with their sharpened fourths, echoes of Dowland’s lute songs, Purcellian scotch-snap rhythms on the word ‘Goddess’. The tightest of motivic unity holds this rich variety of elements together, until the final dying cello pizzicatos seem to tell us that the faithful old warrior has drawn his last breath.

from notes by Collegium Records © 2005


Bennett (RR): Sea change & other choral works
CSCD521Download only


Track 5 on CSCD521 [11'47] Download only

Track-specific metadata for CSCD521 track 5

Recording date
1 August 2004
Recording venue
LSO St Luke's, London, United Kingdom
Recording producer
Tim Handley
Recording engineer
Tim Handley
Hyperion usage
  1. Bennett (RR): Sea change & other choral works (CSCD521)
    Disc 1 Track 5
    Release date: March 2013
    Download only
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