A Christmas Offering

In recent weeks I have been revising and completing a piece which I first drafted a year ago: an Aubade for Christmas Morning, for 2-part trebles and string quartet. It is a setting of a short poem by the Finnish poet Bo Carpelan (1926-2011), in a translation by David McDuff, ‘The green tree, the blue sea’, from Carpelan’s collection The Cool Day (1961). It is not an openly ‘Christmassy’ poem, if there is such a thing. Indeed it doesn’t even mention that, or any other, season — nor indeed any time of day. It is extraordinarily simple in its means. A tree holds its arms above a child; the sound of the sea mingles with the child’s breath. These interactions with the child happened ‘years ago’, and yet the tree and the sea remain: through them we have a connection with that child. The child might be any child, but the apparent need to hold that connection, to feel that link, made me think of a particular child whose birth we celebrate in late December. My aubade echoes the procession of these ideas: the peace of the child; the passing of time; and the joy at the realisation that the connection with the child remains. Whilst I completed that first draft some while ago, the end has always nagged at me as being unsatisfactory. It was just too unabatedly joyful; its end to too decisively affirmative. Those who know me will testify to my curmudgeonliness. I am what is most properly known as a ‘grumpy bugger’ — but that is not to say that I don’t know joy. I merely express it in more introverted ways. One of those ways is through my music, where one can risk just a little joy, but — as in the case of the Aubade — it can’t be too forthright in its expression. So, I revised the end, the joy easing into a peace imbued with that joy; a peace born of the knowledge that we share those connections of the tree and sea that witnessed the child’s being. The Christmasness (if there is such a word) of the setting is affirmed in small nods to both ‘The Sussex Carol’ and ‘Angelus ad Virginem’ in the acompaniment.

There are, I suppose, two questions that might be asked: why did I turn to a Finnish poet, and why the curious and unusual accompaniment for string quartet? The answer lies in a short piece by the remarkable Finnish composer, Aulis Sallinen, whose work I admire enormously: Vintern var hård — ‘Winter was hard’ (click here to hear the piece on YouTube). When exploring Sallinen’s works, in the wake of my discovery of his music through the fabulous Barrabas Dialogues, I stumbled upon Vintern var hård. I was struck by its remarkable texture — treble voices and string quartet — and its austere atmosphere. However, I was frustrated, solely from a musical perspective, that the piece didn’t progress or develop significantly. I felt there was so much more scope for the thing. However, Sallinen is in fact absolutely correct in his conception of the piece! He sets a poem from Bo Carpelan’s 1969 poetry collection The Courtyard, which is a series of poems which draws upon Carpelan’s recollection of his 1930s childhood in Helsinfors. The collection is inhabited solely by what he describes as the poor; the beaten; the silenced. Austerity is both the subject and the means of the poetry. In the short poem set by Sallinen, there is insufficient bread for the dissatisfied ducks, never mind the people; the water is freezing and ‘even the money froze inside the bank’. ‘Saturday evening’, he writes, ‘could only be celebrated every second Saturday.’ Winter was hard. Therefore the unyielding austerity of Sallinen’s setting — the purposelessness in its staid demeanour — is wholly in keeping with the poem. He is taking heed of Carpelan, echoing absolutely his image.

To answer my musical thoughts, I thought I would explore a piece of my own for the ensemble; and what better way to pay homage to that work by setting Carpelan, as did Sallinen. I have a ‘thing’ about Finland–Swedish poetry, and indeed Nordic music, so was only too glad to become better acquainted with Carpelan’s work through the means of David McDuff’s invaluable translations. (If you are so inclined, I do urge you to seek out his translations both of Carpelan and, more especially, the contemporary Finland–Swedish poet Tua Forsström, the latter available from Bloodaxe.) And so my Aubade for Christmas Morning was born, set with the kind permission of Carcanet Press, the publisher of McDuff’s translation of a set of three collections by Carpelan, gathered together in a volume from Carcanet titled Homecoming (1993).

With such an esoteric accompaniment, I suppose one might perhaps turn one’s mind to arranging the piece for something more generally useful, like trebles and organ. The problem is that, if I were writing the piece for organ, it would be an entirely different piece: I would not have written it as it is. It has been conceived for the string quartet and I don’t think it would work satisfactorily on the organ. It might perhaps be feasible to arrange the accompaniment for organ with violin obligato, but I’m not wholly sure. For now, however, it will stand as it is, and I shall move on to other works that are craving my immediate attention. In writing the work in the way I did, I had in mind Lichfield Cathedral, where, until December 2014, I was bass Lay Vicar Choral in the cathedral choir. In recent years they had been having a string quartet join the choir to accompany Christmas morning eucharist alongside the organ. Sadly this hasn’t happened since I wrote the piece.

Do you have a quartet at your disposal alongside a girls’ or boys’ choir? Or are you perhaps performing the Sallinen and wondering about a companion piece? Do get in touch if you would like to see the score. I shall be having it printed before long to make it available.

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A (Sixth?) Sense of Proportion

I am intrigued by aesthetic proportions, most notably the Golden Section. (Blame a second year undergraduate course on medieval and modern structures and living with somebody else’s writing a paper on the appearance of the Fibonacci sequence / golden ratio in nature and art!) When I am writing music I don’t consciously go out of my way to adhere to any particular proportions, but once a piece I am working on feels right in its span, scale and form, I do — merely out of interest — like to perform a few quick calculations to see what lies at a couple of critical moments. This evening, with the shape of my 6 minute Lenten motet now finally in place, I did the sums: the Golden Section just happens to fall exactly upon the great turning point of the piece; the start of the redemptive moment of hope. Not only this, but the prior petitions against oblivion begin at the exact half-way point in the motet. Sheer fluke! — but it does make one wonder what it is that the subconscious is up to, and whether and how we might feel or sense innately such proportions. A couple of minutes worth of notes need yet to be lived with and dwelt upon before it is finished, to determine whether or not they are right — and in a couple of passages have yet to be found prior to that settling process; but I feel now that the worst is over and that the piece will be completed before too much longer. 

Unlike the laissez faire approach to the artistic content of my work, when it comes to the design and layout of the recent print material I have produced, I have specifically calculated the proportions for certain elements on the page. In the case of the new poetry volume I am writing at present (a single, extended poem), I am — inspired by the fine press printer who undertook my first — laying it out for print on pages based on the Golden proportion with page margin’s similarly devised. The actual poem will remain at the whim of my feeling in its proportions. Overarching form is a major part of this poem, but I shall feel for it, as the poem evolves, rather than reach for the calculator. 

Gurney & Thomas in Arras

On Thursday, 6 April 2017, I shall be presenting a paper in Arras, at the Université d’Artois, as part of an Edward Thomas Centenary Conference.  I shall be speaking on Gurney and the influence of Thomas’s poetry on his work and ideas.  The date of the conference is a significant one: not only does it occur just a couple of days before the centenary of Thomas’s death at Arras; the 6th April marks the centenary of the advance on Bihécourt from Vermand, 40 miles south of Arras, in which Gurney was involved and was wounded.  That day in 1917, Good Friday, he was shot in the arm, clean ‘through-and-through’, and — if his later writing is to be believed — he feared not for his life, but for his piano playing, raining curses upon Fritz for the blighting of English music in his being wounded.

The advance on Bihécourt is likely the event depicted by Gurney in his justly famous poem ‘The Silent One’. The bombardment prior to their advance should have cut through the wires so that they could advance unhindered on the village, but the wires were unbroken.  A ‘noble fool, faithful to his stripes’ stepped over ‘and ended.’

‘Do you think you might crawl through, there; there’s a hole;’  In the afraid
Darkness, shot at; I smiled, as politely replied —
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’  There was no hole, no way to be seen.
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes’

Glancing briefly at the map, my train journey will take me through and close to so many places that Gurney knew.  It is sad that I won’t have time and opportunity to venture further afield than Arras to take in some of those places I am writing about at present.  Even so: it will be poignant indeed to be speaking of Gurney on the exact centenary of his wounding, and on Thomas, just a few days shy of the centenary of his loss, and as close as can be to the place of that loss and where he now lies.

In Memoriam (Easter 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Edward Thomas, 6 April 1915

Shifting perspectives: The growth of a work

Since late last year I have, in a few idle moments, been writing a work for unaccompanied SSAATTBB choir that has been in my mind for a few years: a Lenten reflection on mortality, ‘We are but dust’. As always, the process of writing has become a voyage of exploration. The ideas with which the work was conceived have grown and developed, and I am hopeful that this Reflection will come to fruition in the next couple of months (too late for this Lent, alas, but in good time for next). 

One of the passages I have written I like very much, but there is a problem: the music has become too overblown for the context — a passage from a poem by Edward Thomas (set alongside a verse from psalm 103). The Thomas needs something more subtle, so I must scrap the passage which had grown. 

A few weeks ago I was reading William Blake’s Vala or The Four Zoas. It is a remarkable and beautiful weaving of mythology, which I shall be revisiting soon. Whilst reading ‘Night the Second’, two lines stood out at me:

Thus were the stars of heaven created like a golden chain

To bind the Body of Man to heaven from falling into the Abyss.

Somehow, part of this suited the music I had had to cut from the Reflection; and these lines could also provide a wonderful counterpoint to the thoughts on mortality in the Reflection. It occurred to me that, with its common theme and shared music, it might form an Epilogue to the piece, or better still an Epilogue to a pair of such Reflections. So I now have a set on my hands, in development; a set in which the two initial Reflections might be performed singly, but the whole might also be done, with a connecting Epilogue. The multiple architectural requirements need some consideration, and will work out in the writing. More fundamentally, a second text needs to be settled upon. I have one option in hand, but it will take a while for me to know if and what will be the right course and text for the piece. In the meantime I shall be able to complete the original, first Reflection, and send that self-contained part out into the world. 

I very often curse my brain for coming up with ideas, so creating work and projects that I often do not have the time for; but I do get excited by the ideas and the process of bringing them to fulfilment. Whether it is of Gurney and my other scholarly pursuits, or my own ideas, I keep striving to clear the decks, bringing projects and ideas to a close and so exorcising them from my brain so that they don’t keep pestering me. The only problem is — at times frustrating, at times thrilling — that completing and bringing these ideas to fruition, exorcising them from the mind, only makes room for yet more ideas that clamour for my attention and time. I can’t suppress a slight frisson of excitement at both the prospect of completing current projects, so sharing them with the world, and at what might fill the relative void when they are done. 

A New Collaboration: The Canticle in Exile

In December I was sent some Christmas texts by the poet and librettist Euan Tait. I had first encountered Euan and his extraordinary facility, craft and vision, in his libretto for a choral symphony by my friend Paul Spicer, Unfinished Remembering. We crossed paths a couple of times thereafter, and began an occasional correspondence; he heard my setting of Gurney’s Bach and the Sentry and attended the premiere of War Passion, and we began to talk about whether we might perhaps collaborate on a work. 

We were hoping to meet and talk in the summer, but life and a house-move intervened. So, in December, Euan sent me some Christmas poems. Euan’s poems were remarkable for the freshness, vitality and reinvigoration of what I have sometimes thought to be hackneyed ways of the well-trodden path of Christmas. But, for personal reasons, I felt ill-suited to them, and that I couldn’t take on their setting with sincerity. In my reply to Euan I mentioned that I had been wondering whether I might find a way to channel my worries for, and about, the current refugee situation into a piece. The Calais camp had not long been cleared; reporting of the battle for Aleppo was at its peak; and I was struck by some lines from an article by Robert Fisk in The Independent, which came to my attention at that time: ‘Barbed wire along the Hungarian border, barbed wire at Calais’. Where is the compassion and humanity in denying temporary refuge to those who are fleeing war and death? I feel voiceless and powerless to change the political juggernaut, but I thought that I should say something in the way I best can. I sent my email to Euan, explaining this, late at night. I was a little worried about his being disappointed in my declining his Christmas poems. When his reply came the following morning, I was staggered to find an extraordinary new poem attached which voiced so powerfully my thoughts about the refugee situation. It immediately sang in me, suggesting its own music. Here was our first collaboration: Canticle I: Miriam’s Exile. In a few snatched moments in the last few weeks, between Gurney and the family, the music has begun to emerge onto the page. 

As you will see in the title, the work is a Canticle. Not a canticle as in the hymns said or intoned/sung at morning or evening prayer, but in the manner of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles. 

It is curious, perhaps, that with the death of Benjamin Britten, his Canticle ‘form’ died. Britten composed five such canticles, for varying chamber combinations.  The one constant is, as one might expect with Britten, is the tenor voice, with the canticles — like so many of Britten’s vocal works — being written for his partner Peter Pears.  The form is slightly difficuly to define, which may be the reason for its not having been taken on as a medium by other composers. For Britten, they grew out of the work of Henry Purcell; his Divine Hymns. They are semi-dramatic works in several sections; miniature cantatas and scena that often address a religious theme, but more often than not using texts of secular origin. 

Euan has long wondered about trying to rescucitate the Canticle, and this new collaboration marks — as the title implies — the first of a few such works that we intend to create together. (He has already sent, or read to me, his proposed texts for two further canticles. The flow, virility and bounty of his gift is miraculous and enviable. My music comes much more slowly.)

The text for this first canticle is a perfect successor to Britten’s canticles, and it is very much in that mode. It is a vehicle for the showing of humanity. It is a narrative of a woman fleeing with her son: Miriam; an Everywoman, who could be Mary fleeing with Christ in the wake of Herod’s diktat of slaughter, or the flight of   too many others from war or persecution. Euan’s poem encompasses the destruction of their lives, the decision to flee, the enmity with which they are viewed by some (‘We are strangers to you, not enemies’), and the great power of the humanity and compassion that might be shown by just one individual. 

I have returned to Purcell in my thinking about the form, and in my setting I have broken free of Britten by scoring it for soprano, with piano accompaniment. My early ideas added a clarinet to the mix, but this fell by the wayside the last time I was able to work on the canticle. I am excited by this new work, at being able to say something about the current (and historically recurrent) situation, and at my collaboration with Euan, which through our correspondence and first proper meeting last week, has become a sharing of friendship as well as of poetry and music. 

Canticle I: Miriam’s Exile will likely take me until the summer to complete, with my needing to focus my energies upon my Gurneian occupations, as well as in my wanting to complete a short choral work in progress. I have sounded out a soprano about perhaps bringing the canticle to performance and will share news of how things develop as and when they do. 

‘The cold was the borders of their mouths…’


To find out more about Euan Tait and his work, please do take a look at his website, euantait.com. Details of Paul Spicer’s Unfinished Remembering can be found Here, and a recording available Here.

Ivor Gurney’s Complete Poetry

My University of Exeter colleague and collaborator, Tim Kendall, and I are at present gearing up to submit the completed typescript of the first volume of our scholarly, variorum edition of Ivor Gurney’s complete poetical works to the publisher. By Easter it should be in the hands of our editor at the Oxford University Press and hopefully making its slow bur steadfast way to print. The subsequent two volumes should follow within a matter of a few months, having long been on the cusp of readiness. The first volume is the knottiest, but we are getting there, and the end is within sight. 

This week I have mopped up the last few sources that have been niggling at my mind; manuscript repositories outside of the main Gurney collection that I have wanted to sift for references to, and ms. copies of, Gurney’s poetry, not to mention the possibility of finding any more otherwise unknown poems. To my great joy, there were four new poems to be had! A light verse of late 1915/early 1916, and three from the autumn of 1922. Alongside two fragments found last week, these last additions mean that the span of known, extant poems — approaching 1,800 in number — is now complete. However: I know of poems and indeed several notebooks/collections that are either lost entirely or merely squirrelled away, forgotten, not known for what they are, or preserved in private, closely guarded sanctuaries. So please, if you have, or know of, even the slightest fragment in Gurney’s hand, please speak now or forever hold your peace! 

I hope that, now or in the future, some of Gurney’s lost works will surface, both musical and poetic, hoping beyond hope that these works have not been destroyed — although I know that many potentially important works have been lost irrevocably. Our poetry edition will be as complete as it can be, and the reader will at last be able to see the true picture of Gurney the poet, with a staggering thousand poems appearing in print for the first time. Some poems will fall and be passed over, for there is in his output work that is not ‘Great’ poetry, although it is of interest, biographically.  But I can promise you that there is a new strength coming, particularly in the largely overlooked late work: revelations of poetic means and purpose. There isn’t *too* much longer to wait! It will be off our desks soon. 

Fugue on the Salley Gardens

Continuing my quest to add fuller detail to our knowledge of Ivor Gurney’s works, I am today poring once more over his musical sketchbooks, clarifying some of their contents and dating these notebooks with a little more precision, as well as confirming for our (viz. Tim Kendall and me) edition of Gurney’s complete poetry for OUP that we haven’t missed any last fragments. 

As well as finding an incomplete draft of a poem titled ‘Legs’, written in January or February 1921, which has now been inserted into the now complete span of the edition, and identifying the opening of an otherwise unknown setting of Edward Shanks, I have found in the midst of his several sketches and drafts for his song ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ (a Yeats setting of September-October 1920) the opening exposition of a fugue which takes its theme from that song. It was perhaps undertaken as an exercise for his post-war studies at the Royal College of Music; and since that melody was in his mind at the time, why not just use it? It is a rather unexpected use for this, one of Gurney’s more popular songs. Who knows: the working out at least in part of this fugue to part of that tune may have helped him on his way with the song itself.