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. 

New Music

The first hearing of a new musical work is like the opening of a gift. Slowly, bit by bit, that gift is unwrapped, slow revealing a hidden and ever-surprising present within, each reveal bringing to sight something fresh and unknown, never expected. More and more of the gift is revealed, until the last bit of paper is removed and, in that instant, the gift vanishes. Only memory holds some vague sense of what has been revealed in that unwrapping. It cannot be held or contained, and if one can hear it again and come to know it better, it will never again have quite the same mystery of that first hearing. We all come to music and art with some sense of expectation, but there are times when you just don’t know what to expect. It is all rather like the writing of music, although in a much more contracted time-frame, hours of thought distilled into just seconds for the listener. We should all seek to embrace new music on a regular basis, and enjoy the mystery of that unwrapping, particularly when the well-trodden paths of the repertoire are so repeatedly down-trodden with the likes of Classic FM, taking comfort in what we already know well. Whether it is the personal discovery of a Dunstable motet, a Sibelius tone poem, a composer we haven’t encountered before, or a work that was completed last week, it is exciting to unwrap such a gift and to enter an unknown world of thought, discovering new villages, countries and continents.

Arthur Benjamin in the Trenches

In early 1917 the composer Arthur Benjamin was serving with the Royal Fusiliers in the trenches of France.  In the Gurney archive, at Gloucestershire Archives, is held a letter, dated 26 January 1917, that I cannot help but transcribe for his description of his situation.  Benjamin writes to Marion Scott:

These are lines of intense frost, clear skies & dainty sunsets.  It is so cold that in one of our worst trenches where there is, as a rule, 2ft of water, one can walk dry-shod on 3 inches of ice.  Of nights myriads of stars and the narrowest of sickle moons give us that feeling that Heaven is closer to use; and if Turner could have lent Corot his palette we should have had a reproduction of last week’s sunsets.  No splashes of vivid orange or red, no purples, no silhouetted clouds[;] in short, none of the fantasy of the east or south.  Simply the blue merging peacefully into rose-grey and a ball of orange infusing an aura of its own colour into the rose-grey and dipping behind lace-like trees and shrubs of that green-tinged grey only Corot could mix.  If only Turner could enliven Corot and Corot subdue Turner!

It is all very lovely.

Benjamin’s letter begins whimsically, responding to a letter from Marion Scott in which she evidently reported the illness of her cats, Fluff, Tumble, and Lady Audrey — this latter immortalised in their mutual friend, Herbert Howells’s, four movement work for string quartet, Lady Audrey’s Suite (1917), in the manuscript of which Howells refers to himself as ‘the Composer–person’ (see here).  They (the cats & Marion Scott) evidently sent Benjamin a card featuring a golliwog (with the first movement of Howells’s suite being titled the ‘Four Sleepy Golliwogs’ Dance’, I presume that Scott had a menagerie of black cats), in response to which  Benjamin writes,

I think it delightful of them [the cats] to have thought of me while feeling so unfit.  Please thank them & give them my love.  The Gollywog will fraternize I’m sure with my other mascot[,] a ‘Touchwood’.  They have a piece of uncut amethyst (my lucky stone) to amuse them and the wishbone of a pigeon to dine from.  Also they have very warm quarters in my pocket-book. So they can’t grumble.

At the end of the letter Benjamin adds as a postscript, ‘The Gollywog’s patriotic pantaloons are vastly diverting!’.  We can only but wonder!

[Letter at Gloucestershire Archives D10500/8/2/1/1.]

Poetic Butchery: the Act of Artistic Appropriation

The setting to music of a poet’s hard-wrought text is an act of butchery. It is an appropriation of a work of art which can lift a poem off the page and bring it to life; it can bring a poem to an audience who would likely never have otherwise encountered it; and it can also rile a poet, who sees his the result of his labours as a piece of art ‘intire in itself’; a work that was the poet’s ultimate goal and vision.

I am reminded of this today as I work through some of the secondary correspondence in the Gurney archive. In 1925 Gurney composed a setting of Robert Bridges’s ‘Johannes Milton Senex’, ‘Since I believe in God the Father Almighty’, which Gurney set as a ‘motett’ for double choir. It is an extraordinary setting, and, after I brought it out of the archive and to performance in 2012, it has now been recorded twice for CD, by Gloucester Cathedral Choir and The Sixteen, and broadcast at twice on Radio 3, sung by the BBC Singers.

Robert Bridges, on being sent a copy of the motett in July 1925, shortly after its writing, showed it to Henry Ley — then organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford — who thought it interesting, suggesting that he might try it through [with the choir] if copies could be made. Bridges, however, was more circumspect about giving an opinion following any hearing of the work, stating that

‘I am not at all sympathetic with the way in which modern musicians treat words. They aim at effects which I do not desire. When they are successful I am pleased enough, but I do find their success very rare. I hope this may be one of them and that it will be possible to let Ley try it with his choir next term.’

Whether the work was ever tried through we cannot tell, although we know that a copy was made and reproduced, one such copy in Marion Scott’s hand being the only source for the motett now extant.

Nor was Bridges alone.  A. E. Housman, one of the most-set poets in the English language, while not disallowing the use of his words, resented the corruption that composers could impose upon his work.  The most famous case is that of Ralph Vaughan Williams: Housman was livid that RVW had had the audacity to cut two stanzas from ‘Is my team ploughing’ in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge. Reportedly, W. B. Yeats, heard a large group of boy scouts singing a setting of his ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ that so went against the vision and intention of his poem that he employed a musical agent to vet any future settings.  Peter Warlock fell foul of that censor in his Yeats cycle, The Curlew, having to fight to allow his settings past Yeats and his agent for publication under the Carnegie British Composers scheme.

The poetry selected for setting is a very personal thing to a composer, but it is, in my opinion, not merely a matter of subjectivity.  Not all poems are suitable for setting.  I have a number of times been asked to suggest some Ivor Gurney poems for musical setting, and it is a task that I find quite difficult — not merely because of the subjectivity of the matter.  Quite a lot of Gurney’s poetry contains so much innate music in its language and sound that it seems to preclude its setting.  It needs no further music.

As one who has dabbled in both poetry and composition, as well as gaining some insight (I think) into the separation between Gurney’s arts, I have become more sensitive to the matter of musical setting of poetry.  My role as an academic editor of poetry heightens the tensions at play.  In this latter, I strive always to represent as truly as possible the poet’s intentions.  The text is everything; it is the apogee of a poem, and the poet’s manuscript must be the last word on every aspect from punctuation to capitalisation of words, never mind the words themselves.  These details matter immensely.

In my recent composings, in the writing of the War Passion that is to receive its première in just over two weeks’ time, these tensions came to a head.  On the one hand I was interrogating  manuscripts of poems by Rosenberg to get to his original intentions where the published poem has been corrupted from its first, posthumous publication (see this blog-post).  Likewise, I sought out the corrected text of Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’, which was similarly corrupted.  Conversely, and much against my academic judgement, I also edited a few poems, for which I feel much guilt and underwent some very serious soul-searching.  The edits were made for purely dramatic purposes.  I have appropriated a work of art — several, in fact — and turned them to new use, which goes against the pains that the poets went through to get those poems right.  I left out a short stanza from ‘Into Battle’ — a poem which I also broke up across the span of the first movement; I made such selections from Edmund Blunden’s ‘Third Ypres’ as might be akin to roasting a whole chicken and then taking only a small bite from a leg, a bit from one of the breasts, and one of the oysters from the underside, before discarding the rest.  In Sassoon’s ‘Christ and the Soldier’ I omitted several words, and also took the decision to represent one of the stanzas in wholly musical terms, depicting in musical sound what was described in the stanza.  The words omitted from this were those descriptors and attributions that are un-neccesary when the words are being spoken or sung by an assigned character: ‘he groaned’, ‘he said’, and rhetorical statements that one can, I think, make out in the music, such as the closing line, ‘The battle boomed, and no reply came back’.  Such butcheries still play on my conscience — although I did seek express permission from Blunden’s daughters to be so selective about the passages chosen from ‘Third Ypres’.  They go against the grain, and I feel immensely guilty that I have appropriated the words of these poets, sometimes with great selectivity, and turned them to my own devices.  I can only apologise to those poets whose work I have butchered and appropriated — although I hope the Rosenberg at least will be glad at having had his text restored.

Whether butchered or restored, there still remains the question of whether the poets will have balked at the way I have used their poems in expressive, musical terms, or will I have used effects, as Bridges puts it, which the poets would not desire or have imagined?  We cannot tell.  All I do know is that it was the poetry, and my strength of feeling for the poems that led me to write the settings I have.  The music always started with the words, with vocal lines emerging directly out of them before textures suggested themselves around those vocal lines.  It is the way I feel the poetry, and the passion that I feel in my reading of them.  Whether they would pass the musical censor is impossible to say (I suspect it likely that it would not!), but it is what I felt, and I hope that might have sufficient validity to somehow overcome the great sense of guilt and betrayal I feel on the poets’ behalves.  In the form of the libretto I created, and in the music I composed, I have created a new work, a new whole, a new vision, which I think of as being very much my own.  But in that I am deeply indebted to the ten poets whose words I have taken and to which I have given voice, without whom the piece would never have come into being.  Their art and power gave me the thoughts to create anew. So all art can feed us, and future generations, whether as reader, listener, or as a creative artist who wishes to build on and give their own personal response to the work of others.  It is not that one is seeking to improve upon that work.  It is, I hope, more flattering than that; that they have created a piece of work that speaks so powerfully to another that they want to express that power, passion and meaning in the way they know how.

 

[Letter from Robert Bridges to Marion Scott is in the Gurney Archive, Gloucestershire Archives, ref. D10500/8/2/2/3.]