War Passion : I. Birth & Progress

Painting by Isabel Dryburgh.

Painting by Isabel Dryburgh, who has kindly allowed me to associate this enormously powerful picture with The Passion of War.

In March 2013 there arrived in my brain one of those ideas that grabs you and will not let go.  In the February I had started once again to read William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman, in the 18th passus of which is his unique recounting of the Christ’s Passion.  When a week or so later I attended a Lent lecture in Lichfield Cathedral given by Paul Spicer on the musical settings of the Passion, I had in mind the seed of an idea to develop the notion of an ‘English Passion’, with the Langland as its basis.  However, a week or so after the lecture, in the last full week of Lent before Holy Week, I was reading some Isaac Rosenberg when I was struck forcibly by the notion of setting the Passion with a commentary in the form of poems by those figures now known as the War Poets – the poets who fought and in some instance lost in the First World War: a War Passion.

To my mind the idea was one with enormous potential and strength, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross for the salvation of Man having the potential for a powerful and evocative parallel in the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the war to similar ends.  This was, of course, contingent upon my identifying poems suited to the task by the broad body of First World War poets, which poems would aptly reflect and give a parallel purpose to the narrative.  I immediately went to my various WW1 anthologies and to the individual volumes of poems and other writings by as many soldier-poets as I could muster.  In the midst of my preparations for a Three Choirs Festival recital, I could only snatch the odd moment here and there in which to scour these volumes, but over the course of ten weeks I managed to complete the libretto, knocking the last bits into shape during the few idle moments I had at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song, with which I was involved.

The libretto is based upon the gospel narrative according to St. Mark, within which is set poems by Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney (a yet unpublished poem), Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, and Edward Thomas.  It is cast in four interconnected movements:

  1. Gethsemane
  2. Trial
  3. Calvary
  4. Epilogue: The Seven Last Words

The climax of the work comes at the end of the third movement, following Christ’s last breath, through which there is the promise of redemption and rebirth.  The Epilogue is not, as the title might suggest, the traditional Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross, but the last words of the soldier to Christ on the Cross, which conversation brings the work to a  conclusion of bitter despair; the despair of one who has lost all hope in any god, and in Man.

Whilst preparing the libretto, I had a large-scale ambitions for the scoring of the work.  However, I was reminded (if I really needed reminding) of the power and potential of a chamber ensemble in a large-scale vocal setting whilst listening to the premiere at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song of Julian Phillips’s remarkable new Pessoa cycle, Cantos de Sonho.  This turned my mind in a slightly new direction for the music, but a direction which will undoubtedly intensify the experience of the work – as well as somewhat more practicable than a large-scale work.  The War Passion is set for four soloists, with a small choir (c.12 voices) and chamber ensemble.  With other commitments to fulfil, and the very real need to earn a reasonable living in order to support my family, I have necessarily had to put the composition of the work on ice.  However, I am simply over-the-moon to have been awarded a Finzi Scholarship by the Finzi Trust for the purposes of getting the music down on paper.  Musical ideas have been present from the outset, but, aside from a couple of sketches for key motifs in the work,  I have had neither the time nor space to work them up to anything more, and to set down much of the rest that has been taking shape in my mind.  In March, therefore — once I have cleared a few things from my desk — I shall be embarking upon the final stage of this work, working full time on the composition, which should ‘break the back’ of its writing.  I hope that the Passion be completed over the summer.  Watch this space for updates.

[Updated Feb.2016 to reflect the change in the title of the work from ‘The Passion of War’ to ‘War Passion’]

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One thought on “War Passion : I. Birth & Progress

  1. Pingback: Gurney Choral Works in the Recording Studio | The Unknown Region

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