A Long Centenary : some initial thoughts on the WW1 commemorations, 2014-2018

One of the iconic images of the First World War: Lt Ernest Brook’s photograph of a British soldier standing over a grave near Pilckem during the Third Battle of Ypres, 22 August 1917 (Imperial War Museum)

One of the iconic images of the First World War: Lt Ernest Brook’s photograph of a British soldier standing over a grave near Pilckem during the Third Battle of Ypres, 22 August 1917. (Imperial War Museum)

In eighteen months we will be marking the beginning of a centenary which, I suspect, will be inescapable; a centenary commemoration that will mark the period from 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918 when we were at war with Europe’s ‘Central Powers’ – the ‘Great War’; the First World War.

With the desire – nay, the need – to commemorate these events, there has already been significant announcements about some of the undertakings being put in place, with substantial monies set aside by the UK government for commemorative projects and a major refit of the Imperial War Museum underway. There will undoubtedly be a wave of television and radio documentaries; and plans are already in place for major academic conferences such as that programmed in Oxford in September 2014 on British poetry of the First World War. One recent announcement has filled me with some degree of horror: that the Christmas Day 1914 football match in no-man’s land, when Allies and Germans set aside their differences and, in an unofficial truce, played football together, is to be recreated. The ‘recreation’ of such an iconic moment can only be (to my mind) an empty and hollow gesture that can in no way recapture the spirit in which the original was played.  Such moments might be recreated in the artistic context of a film, perhaps, but it should otherwise remain a unique piece of historical iconography.  The only context in which such a thing might recapture any of the ‘moment’ of the original is if perhaps those soldiers at the Israel-Palestine frontier, or similar, were to come together in such an activity.

While historical documentaries will relay some of the detail of the war, the due nobility and poignancy will undoubtedly find its voice in acts of commemoration that come from formal ceremonies, such as the Remembrance Day parades and services, and through the arts. The poetry of the First World War has become the defining voice for much of the conflict of the last century, and poetry and music, art and sculpture will play an important role in the commemorations. I know of two major commemorative commissions: a mojor work for the Three Choirs Festival titled ‘Echoes’, currently being written by the German composer Torsten Rasch (see here), and a choral symphony titled ‘Unfinished Remembering’ by Paul Spicer, to a libretto by Euan Tait.

Although the commemorations will last four years, there will undoubtedly be major landmarks within that period when the commemorations will come to the fore – particularly at the beginning and end of the period, but also the major battles within. With such a protracted timeframe I suppose we risk a waning public interest in the matter. But such a trial of endurance should be had, as was experienced by those who lived through that period.  As we progress through the centenary we will already know that any hope that such commemorations will be ‘over by Christmas’ will be fruitless: its period is now set by history; we know the outcome, and we know its time-frame.

But there will always be questions from some as to why we should bother. Indeed some people may feel entirely disconnected from the First World War, where the Second is more immediately memorable and directly affected many who are still living. Following a trip to Ypres and its environs with my friend Sebastian Field, undertaken in early November 2008 as part of my research into the work of Ivor Gurney, I returned to my job as a Lay Vicar Choral with Lichfield Cathedral Choir, with whom a couple of days later I was singing for the annual Remembrance Sunday service.  The proximity of the events spawned an idea for poem, which I give here merely because it seems relevant to the question in hand:


Ypres fresh
Flanders mud
not yet cleaned from my shoes;
the morning shows more potent
in heart and in mind.

But who can understand
the truth of that experience?
Its joy; despair;
mundanity; insanity . . .

Wind sweeping round the cathedral
lends breath to this latest Last Post . . .
Cadets, hands clasped, seem unmoved
by this service of mummery,
acting their part with reluctance
this ceremonial morning,
as minds, like the rain,
drum a gentle retreat.

Poetry of poppies perpetuates clichés
in memoried half-truths,
but none can know the full truth of each tale,
or the million tales untold.

© Philip Lancaster, November 2008/March 2011

When I visited the Front Lines, one thing stood out for me: the architecture of memorial, for which Edwin Lutyens was in a large part responsible, and the sheer quantity of headstones, spoke louder than any poem, or music, than any documentary or book.  Closer to home, almost every town and village in this country is scarred with a memorial to those who died in the First World War, often appended by those who died in the Second.  These individual memorials are being recorded in a project that is perhaps long overdue, but which is perfect for the internet.  However, the sheer scale and numbers of the memorials in France and Belgium is staggering; not only the British, but the allied and more austere German cemeteries also.  I would tell those who don’t understand why we should remember to visit Tyne Cot (particularly at sunset), or the Canadian memorial on Vimy Ridge, or Thiepval, or any of the smaller cemeteries dotted apparently randomly in the countryside.  These places are numbing, but the monumental beauty is noble and timeless. We must Remember and understand, whether through art, memorial, documentary, book or otherwise, why we are Remembering.


Creating a Genre : A Recital Programme Conundrum

In early 2012 I gave Adrian Partington a tour of the Ivor Gurney archive.  One of the items I showed him was the manuscript full score of ‘Spring’ from Ivor Gurney’s Five Elizabethan Songs – a set of songs that includes Gurney’s most popular work, a setting of John Fletcher’s ‘Sleep’.  Some time after this meeting I was asked whether I should like to reconstruct the remainder of the full score of the ‘Elizas’ (as Gurney called them), and to perform them during the 2013 Three Choirs Festival.  The answer was obvious (Yes!), and, given that the songs were written in December 1913 and the centenary of that writing is therefore close upon us, particularly timely.

Gurney’s ‘Elizas’ are his first acknowledged masterpiece, and their quality was acknowledged by Gurney himself in a letter to his friend and fellow Gloucestershire poet Will Harvey, in which he asked ‘How did such an undigested clod as I make them?’  I am sure that any who know the songs will be thinking, ‘What does he mean, “full score”? Why should they need reconstructing?!’  It is not widely known that Gurney originally intended these songs to be accompanied by the rather curious ensemble of  two flutes, two clarinets, two bassoons and harp – a curious ensemble indeed!  Only one of the songs is extant in full score, and a few of the manuscript piano scores bear some indications of that scoring, so the task ahead is to take these indications as the starting point for the reimagination of those scores.

Ivor Gurney: SpringIt is probable that the scored version of the songs was performed only once, in an orchestral concert at the Royal College of Music.  The fact that this performance took place during a full orchestral concert made their programming rather straightforward.  The necessary instruments could come forward from the orchestra and then return to their stations for the remainder of the programme.  Such was not my luxury when trying to programme the forthcoming Three Choirs Festival recital, for which the only forces available are those specified by Gurney.  Furthermore, it was asked that this be a ‘Gurney and Friends’ programme; so what works from those composers in Gurney’s circle could one draw upon to create a 70 minute recital programme when the instruments available to you are voice, 2 flutes, 2 clarinets, 2 bassoons and a harp.  There are not many works that spring immediately to mind, but nothing is impossible!

SO: The first task was to make a list of composers who had connections with Gurney, identifying those whose work it is almost essential to include and those whom it would be good to do so.  In honesty, with the right forces, one could have created a recital of twice the length or more, if one had the option of a piano to hand.  There were so many that one should have liked to have included, most of whom it was impossible to do so with the forces to hand: Arthur Bliss, Arthur Benjamin, Rupert Erlebach and Francis Warren were a few of those whom I should have liked to have represented and whose work I explored.  In the end it boiled down to a few essentials:

  • Gurney himself;
  • Gurney’s teachers: Charles Stanford & Ralph Vaughan Williams;
  • two RCM staff who were hugely influential: Hubert Parry, the Director of the RCM and another local ‘Gloucesterian’, and, most importantly, Marion Scott;
  • his close boyhood friend, Herbert Howells;
  • a composer whom Gurney never met, but one who was influenced by Gurney and, notably, did more than anyone else before 1978 to promote his music: Gerald Finzi.

But how might these work with the available ensemble?  There are few works by any of these that are scored for combinations of these instruments.  Howells wrote a Prelude for harp (‘Prelude no.1’, although no further preludes were written), which must obviously form a part of the recital; and Vaughan Williams’s Household Music, which can be performed on any combination of four instruments of the correct registers, was long in the running, in whole or in part, but was ultimately omitted owing to time constraints and the cost of hiring parts, which would have been necessary but problematical.  Such flexibility of instrumentation was something that would have to be brought to other works.  One could have sought songs that would work on harp in lieu of the piano – which I have done to some small extent – but I also had to start thinking, as the cliché goes, ‘outside the box’.

For instance, Marion Scott – whose musical works are very rarely heard and whose importance for Gurney lies in the fact that she looked after all of his business affairs, during the war and after – composed a Romance for oboe and harp.  The presence of the harp makes this a must, so a compromise must be made and the work passed to the clarinet.  The manuscript for this arrived yesterday, so I am looking forward to playing it through in the next couple of days.  (The lack of an oboe in the ensemble also discounted some wonderful potential works that I had on my list, such as Vaughan Williams’s Ten Blake Songs.)  More creatively, the potential for more involved arrangement is great, and allowed the choice of a programme that I hope will cast new light on the works in the programme.  Some works were long considered (Vaughan Williams Four Last Songs – how wonderful ‘Procris’ would be arranged with perhaps flute, clarinet and harp – and indeed the others!).  However, I think I have put together a particularly interesting programme, bringing together both personal relationships and musical influences.

For instance, I have been able to choose two Shakespeare settings by Hubert Parry, which are – to my ears – blatant precursors to Gurney’s Elizabethan Songs: ‘Blow, blow thou winter wind’, which musically pre-echoes Gurney’s ‘Orpheus’, and ‘When icicles hang’, which, with its bird calls, is a very distinct precursor to Gurney’s ‘Spring’.

One of the difficulties of presenting a novel form of a work and being constrained to that same ensemble is that one is at risk of pre-empting the moment of originality.  And so while I hoped to make the arrival of the Elizabethans in the programme a real moment of arrival rather than an ‘Oh, its this ensemble again, which we’ve already heard in the other works’.  It needs to seem like a culmination: the previous works must prepare the way, but somehow they mustn’t steal the thunder of the main work.  This is a very difficult thing to achieve, and in fact had to be compromised in the context of the programme and balancing the demands on each player and some of the musical relationships I wished to portray; so I must hope that its thunder will not be stolen nor its effect lost in the preceding works — although if I exchange one of the Howells pieces in the second half with the Stanford in the first……. Still the programme writhes in my mind!  I must lay it to rest.

The Five Elizabethan Songs closes the first half, which left the question as to the work which might close the programme.  There was one work that seemed an obvious counterpart to the Elizas, which would balance the programme nicely: Gerald Finzi’s set of five Shakespeare songs, dedicated to Vaughan Williams on his 70th birthday: Let us Garlands Bring.  Gurney’s work had a great influence on Finzi, who heard Gurney’s genius in his first hearing of ‘Sleep’, in 1920.  It is my belief that Let us Garlands Bring is directly descended from the Elizas and is in some ways a homage to Gurney’s set.  So: I have sought and be granted permission from both the Finzi Trust and Boosey & Hawkes to arrange the work for the same ensemble as the Five Elizabethan Songs, for a single performance at the Three Choirs Festival.  I am enormously grateful to both Trust and publisher for allowing me to undertake this task, which I hope will affirm the link between these two works and shed some new light on the Finzi.

And so, the programme is settled; the accompanying ensemble is nearly gathered (I hope they’ll like the programme and that few, if any changes will be necessary); and I am extremely pleased that mezzo-soprano Susanna Spicer has recently agreed to appear alongside me in the recital.  Susanna will most notably be singing the Elizabethan Songs, which were intended by Gurney to be sung by a mezzo, and her joining the ensemble allows scope for a couple of duets – one composed thus, and one not!  All that will remain is for you to come along to the recital on 29 July 2013 to hear for yourself how it all works out.  It should be a unique and interesting experience on many fronts.  To find out more, visit the Three Choirs Festival website.  I hope that the full programme list will be up there before long to entice you further – should you need it!

The Fascination of Manuscripts

‘[…] poetical manuscripts very often preserve reconsidered readings in the cancellations, deletions, corrections, rewritings, interlinear interpolations and the like at various stages of drafting.  These can catch the poet in the workshop, at the anvil; pause the sparks, so to speak, as in a photograph. […] Being able to observe these creative processes in progress put poetical drafts among the unclaimed wonders of the world – perhaps because they capture exceptional human beings in their most noble, most godlike, role […].  Such drafts are relics, sacred, holy in their way.’

So writes Roy Davids in his insightful introduction to the forthcoming major sale of poetical manuscripts at Bonhams in April and May; the sale of a major collection accumulated by Roy Davids.  (See the Bonhams website for details)

The scope and extent of Davids’ collection is extraordinary, with manuscripts the like of which one rarely, if ever, sees coming up for sale.  The catalogue has yet to be released, but the few tantalising details so far released include manuscripts by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, John Keats, Charlotte Bronte, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and John Betjeman.  The contents of one manuscript has been divulged in The Independent : a previously unpublished poem by A.E. Housman, for which see here.

As Davids tells us in his introduction, he began accumulating the material in the early 1970s, when poetry manuscripts were little regarded and available cheaply – a situation which accounts for the fact that so many manuscripts of major English poets are now in America, notably in the Berg Collection (New York Public Library) and in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.  The fact that large collections of work by twentieth century English poets have emigrated is a source of some sadness and frustation to myself and other scholars of the period – but at least they are preserved and in a place in which they will be cared for and are accessible.  I hope that as many as possible might stay in Britain, but know that the Americans in particular will be vying for these materials.  I hope that there will be archives and societies now clamouring to raise the funds to allow them to bid on these things and ensuring that they go to a safe and appreciative home.  How I should like to be able to afford a couple of the items myself!

Having worked closely with the manuscripts of Ivor Gurney (whose manuscripts do not appear in this sale) and others, I know only too well the frisson that an original manuscript can give you.  Joy Finzi likened such things to a piece of ‘the True Cross’ – echoing Davids’ view of these fragile items.  For those of us who believe in poetry and music, there are few objects quite so special.

On Books: Some Thoughts and a Poem

The last few years has seen the growth of the eBook.  The popularity of dedicated electronic readers such as the Kindle, not to mention the advancement and ubiquity of other portable technologies such as the once humble mobile telephone, has meant that there is an abundance of literary material available almost instantaneously at the touch of a (virtual) button.  The same technologies give advancement to these rash (in my view) notions of a ‘paperless office’.  Personally, I can’t think of anything worse.  Although I am technologically minded, and embrace many of the technologies that come along, the need for paper cannot be usurped.  I love paper.  When I write I use a combination of on-screen editing and paper, drafting ideas on paper, transferring and developing them on-screen, printing this and working on the paper copy, and transferring those edits to the computer – and so it might continue.  Paper is where the ideas happen and things take shape.  The screen is a tool on which I can refine and move things around.  And once I have completed the thing, I often print a copy and, depending upon the nature of the work, retain both the paper drafts and the final copy in a file.  At a time when paper is sourced responsibly and sustainably and draws upon recycled material, I think that there should be no qualms about using paper – so why the need for the paperless office?

SThe answer undoubtedly lies in the fact that paper must be stored and takes up space.  And the same is true of books.  I am sure that many of my books (a section of which is picture to the right) would fit on a small, slim thing about the size of a slim paperback, but that is not the point.  What, in actuality, is the book?  Is it, like music, an intangible thing, of which the printed page is merely a record of a work that only exists when that printed record is translated to sound?  (A question akin to that thorny issue of whether, when a tree falls in a wood and nobody is there to hear it, does it in fact make a noise?)  Or is it something more than that?  Is the typography the book?  Or its binding?  For me it is all of these.  The bookish experience is one that begins with the physicality of the book, which gives some sort of embodiment to the less tangible fuel of the imagination which is contained within.  While the electronic book may contain the words, and even the typography, in its ability to contain all and sundry within its plastic casing, you do not get the unique individualism of the physical book.  Something is lost.

This is not to say that I don’t use eBooks.  When I go in search of books for my research I use the wonderful facility that is http://www.archive.org, on which many books are available to view or download as PDFs; but this is merely a matter of convenience and a first foray into that book.  If it contains what I hope, and I wish to read it, then I will visit the wonderful resource that is http://www.abebooks.co.uk and seek out a physical copy.  And only then, once it is in my hands, do I feel that I can get to know a book.  The internet and electronic books are a marvellous tool, but they are merely tools.  When using reference works I do find that it is often faster for me to go to my shelves and pluck off a book than it is to search and filter and work out what google might present you with and then read it; and when you have several reference texts on the go, having three or four books in front of you is much easier.

One important point to make is that, with the increase in digital facilities, the need for archives and proper libraries (filled with books and not computers, as seems increasingly to be the case) is ever more important.  One can view archives and books on the internet or from images otherwise digitally supplied, but technology is not infallible.  As the physical stock of local libraries has very noticeably decreased, and the use of eBooks and downloaded texts has increased, one feels that the physical book is in danger.  The tragedy of this eventuality, I feel, cannot be understated.

Just in case anyone is interested, I am appending below a thing I wrote a couple of years ago on the subject:


It is nothing to see:
A lifeless fall of leaves
furled in dark
unremarkable silence.

As a name to a man’s soul,
so few words betray
what lies entomed within –
but how those boards
so faded and frayed did thrill!

I reach out and gently
lift the lid of this inward eye;
the outer world dulls and dims
as those drear wings spread
in nervous joy of first flight.

Worlds and ideas awake,
sparkling like fire in the senses,
fuelled by coal etched words
burned finely into the page;
refined embers of the maker’s first notion,
untangled from the wood of thoughts,
set down and bound as precious
growth rings of civilisation.

In fragile perpetuity they endure,
speaking soundlessly across generations,
igniting infinite original meanings
in each enquirer’s mind.

Burgeoning volumes thicken
the woods that grow
to seeming endless forest
as dreams of many compete
to stand tall, nurtured with pain
or self-seeding with ease;
and our autumn’s long
high summer begins
its untimely end:
fresh foliage suppressed,
the richly scented leaves
are swept away to be recalled
only in photographic memory, increasing
intangibility, diminishing experience,
which returns to the rare
artisan’s evergreen preserve.

Words remain, and ever shall
while man breathes and reasons;
but hold them fast in unreliant
silence, burnt into earth’s
offerings as lasting memorial;
near-eternal conveyers of mystery,
of wisdom . . . and of delight.

© Philip Lancaster, Jan-May 2011

[Please respect my copyright in this poem, and the other things posted on this blog.]

Picardy: A ‘Last Verse’ Reharmonisation

PicardyOne of my day (or rather, more often evening-) jobs, with which I attempt to keep the ‘wolf from the door’, is propping up the choir stalls in Lichfield Cathedral, serving as Bass Lay Vicar Choral – a sometimes curious choice of occupation for an ‘atheist’ (in some sense. How long have you got?!).  I have sung in church/cathedral choirs since the age of seven – so, allowing for a couple of short breaks, that makes about 25 years – during which time one cannot help but develop a favourite tune amongst the hymnody.

The best tune in the book as far as I am concerned is the seventeenth century French Carol, ‘Picardy’, which since the collation of the English Hymnal has been sung to the words ‘Let all mortal flesh keep silence’.  In recent months it has cropped up a few times in the cathedral, and each time I could feel a reharmonisation brewing.  I don’t get any time for composition amongst the many other things I juggle, but having made a start a few months ago, last week (when I should have been doing something else!) I sat down and finished off what was in mind.

Given the nature of the thing, I suspect it might be impractical from a congregational point of view, leaving them too much to their own devices, perhaps; but it is what I think when I sing it.  While I presented a copy to the Cathedral Organist here in Lichfield, I have no expectation of it ever being done; but I thought I’d throw it out into the world through this blog and, should anyone ever feel the desire to try it, I should love to hear from you how it goes!

The latter part presents the alleluias in a an awesome, ‘dreadful majesty’, as one might meet at the ‘last judgement’, rather than in a celebratory repose…

I don’t want to open up a discussion of which hymns are best, or where I go wrong in my interpretation and how it compares with others.  I just throw it out into the world.  Enjoy it or ignore it!  However, if you think you identify the nod to RVW, do say.

You can download a PDF of it here: Picardy

If time allows in the next couple of years, I’d love to write a Fantasy for strings or small orchestra based on the melody.  In the short term, this reharmonisation must seek to sate my creative desires, but if anyone fancies commissioning such a work……!