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.