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The Soldier's Tent

author of text
Rumanian peasant poetry from Bard of the Dimbovitza
translator of text
translator of text

After the immense success of Parry’s oratorio Job at Gloucester in 1892 in which Plunket Greene played the title role, almost all of Parry’s solo songs were written with this singer in mind. On 20 July 1899 Plunket Greene married Parry’s younger daughter Gwendolen at Highnam Church on Parry’s Gloucestershire estate. ‘She’s radiantly happy’, Parry wrote to his old Cambridge friend Francis Jenkinson before the wedding, ‘and he seems no less so. He’s a fine tower of strength to bring into the family and I should be hopeful about their making a good thing of their lives together.’ Thus Plunket Greene’s connection with Parry became ever closer and one work to symbolize this familial alliance was The Soldier’s Tent commissioned by the Birmingham Festival in 1900. The work was composed under great pressure during the first part of September between bouts of fevered work on the Te Deum in F (for the Hereford Three Choirs Festival) and the incidental music for the Cambridge Amateur Dramatic Club’s production of Aeschylus’s Agamemnon; indeed the scoring was only completed a fortnight before the first performance on 2 October. If these vicissitudes seem onerous enough, then the circumstances leading up to the performance (which was to be programmed with the composer’s Psalm De profundis for soprano and twelve-part chorus) were even more frustrating. The first orchestral rehearsal took place in the afternoon of 24 September, the day students returned to the RCM after the summer break. Already weighed down with immediate administrative exigencies, Parry made his way after lunch to Queen’s Hall only to find that Richter, the festival conductor, was preoccupied with two other works: ‘Found Richter at work on Elgar’s Gerontius which he followed up by rehearsing Götterdämmerung. Kept us waiting on and on till past 4.30 when Harry and I were both worn out. Appalling rehearsal. Band simply couldn’t play. Gave it up.’ A second rehearsal two days later revived his hopes, but in Birmingham on Saturday 29 September the now well-documented full rehearsal of The Dream of Gerontius took place as chorus, orchestra and conductor grappled with the difficulties presented by Elgar’s challenging score. As Parry recounted: ‘Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius gave a vast amount of trouble and kept chorus and orchestra at work till past 5.30. No use trying to get anything out of De profundis with them all tired out.’ The festival began on Tuesday 2 October, the evening concert of which featured Parry’s two works as well as Elgar’s Sea Pictures. For Parry it was a harrowing ordeal: ‘Terrible performance of De profundis. 1st sopranos came in a bar too soon in the opening passage and ruined it. And all went as flabbily as possible. Nothing to be got out of the chorus by any means. Soldier’s Tent went fairly.’ More successful interpretations of The Soldier’s Tent took place in 1901 at the Philharmonic (27 February) and the Gloucester Three Choirs (11 September).

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


English Orchestral Songs
CDA67065Archive Service


Track 7 on CDA67065 [10'25] Archive Service

Track-specific metadata for CDA67065 track 7

Recording date
8 August 1998
Recording venue
City Halls, Candleriggs, Glasgow, Scotland
Recording producer
Martin Compton
Recording engineer
Philip Hobbs
Hyperion usage
  1. English Orchestral Songs (CDA67065)
    Disc 1 Track 7
    Release date: March 1999
    Deletion date: May 2012
    Archive Service
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