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In private, he despaired. ‘Concerning the war I say nothing,’ he wrote to his friend Frank Schuster shortly after enlisting. ‘The only thing that wrings my heart & soul is the thought of the horses … the men—and women—can go to hell … I walk round & round this room cursing God for allowing dumb beasts to be tortured …’ Beyond collaborating with the poet Arthur Benson on new, more sombre words for Land of Hope and Glory (promptly ignored by the general public), Elgar found it almost impossible to write large-scale music in the first months of the war.
He did, however, respond to a request to contribute something to King Albert’s Book—a charity anthology in support of the people of Belgium, where reports of Prussian atrocities had done much to stoke British support for the war in the autumn of 1914. The result was Carillon, a setting for speaker and orchestra of words by the Belgian poet Émile Cammaerts. It was such a success that Cammaerts and Elgar collaborated again on Une voix dans le désert: a setting of Cammaerts’s words (translated from the French by his wife Tita Brand), completed in July 1915 and premiered at the Shaftesbury Theatre in London on 29 January 1916 as an interlude between Mascagni’s Cavalleria rusticana and Leoncavallo’s Pagliacci. Elgar conducted, with the Belgian actor Carlo Liten as the speaker, and the soprano Olga Lynn.
Melodrama—spoken words with a musical accompaniment—has fallen from fashion, but in the late 19th century it had a wide audience (Richard Strauss’s melodrama Enoch Arden, almost completely forgotten today, was a popular recital item). Une voix dans le désert adds a further dimension—a solo soprano, representing the Belgian peasant girl of the poem. It was also fully staged. The critic of the Pall Mall Gazette left a description of the first performance:
It is night when the curtain rises, showing the battered dwelling, standing alone in the desolate land, with the twinkling of camp fires along the Yser in the distance, and in the foreground the cloaked figure of a man, who soliloquises on the spectacle to Elgar’s music. Then he ceases, and the voice of a peasant girl is heard coming from the cottage, singing a song of hope and trust in anticipation of the day the war shall be ended … The wayfarer stands transfixed as he listens to the girl’s brave song, and then, as he comments again on her splendid courage and unconquerable soul, the curtain slowly falls.
Elgar’s evocation of the Western Front by night is desolate and subdued—almost expressionist in its starkness and the immediacy with which it responds to and colours the narrator’s words. But, when the Belgian girl sings, the music—as the text demands—warms and soars, with a melody built on an aspiring phrase that wouldn’t sound out of place on the lips of the Angel from The Dream of Gerontius. (Elgar modelled the song’s climactic phrase—‘Our churches will be opened’—on an Ave Maria by the Flemish Renaissance composer Jacques Arcadelt.) There’s something more here than a public duty being fulfilled: Une voix dans le désert is a poignant, poetic and strikingly original glimpse of the true Elgar in wartime.
from notes by Richard Bratby © 2016