For a composer, one of the greatest privileges in life is having one of your works performed, having the piece brought to life. We write these things, hearing them in our minds, and then they lie silent on the page. Only in performance do they truly come to life, and only then can a composer know whether they have got the thing right — whatever that might mean.
This April, my song cycle for tenor and violin, Fallen, will be given its first performance, thanks to the generosity of Iain Burnside, who has programmed it in the opening recital of the Ludlow English Song Weekend, St. Laurence’s Church, 3 April, 7pm. Toby Spence will sing, with Michael Trainor of the Piatti Quartet will be on the violin. What a treat!
I completed Fallen exactly a year ago, on 12 January 2019, one of two projects involving collaborations with poets for which I ran a Crowdfunder campaign in January 2018. The other project was the writing of a Canticle for soprano and piano to newly commissioned words by Euan Tait, Miriam’s Exile, a work that received its first performance last June. With Fallen, I collaborated with poet John Greening, commissioning him to write a series of poems for a song cycle.
The ideas at the root of Fallen were several. My original working title for the piece was ‘The Sighing Poplar’, and in it I hoped to provide a new counterpart to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s song cycle to words by Housman for high voice and violin, Along the Field. Hoping to complete and bring the work to performance in 2018, I saw it as a personal tribute to RVW, marking the sixtieth anniversary of his death that year, but also to Housman, and to those other artists who found inspiration in his words, notably Ivor Gurney. In the end, I was unable to start writing the piece until mid September 2018, a couple of weeks after that anniversary; but the intention still stands.
The initial premise was that Housman’s poplar has been cut down. Who, or what, will now empathise and give voice to the sighing of the soul? The felling of the poplar is also redolent of the felling of the great man, the great maker, that was RVW, but it also speaks of more ecological matters, of which we have become increasingly aware in this time of climate crisis. The cutting down of trees in the name of progress, and — as John so succinctly put it in one of the poems — to ‘save five minutes’ in an age when every milisecond of time needs to be accounted for and made more efficient. Such is the case with new roads and rail projects (i.e., HS2). What is wrong with taking time and space? Why does everything have to be pushed to be that little bit faster, be it journeys, tasks, broadband speeds or otherwise? But in an age when mobile telephones and email make communication near instantaneous, giving worrying rise to the expectation that one is available to others at every moment of every day, being able to do anything ‘faster’ is apparently ‘better’.
Discussing ideas with John, we spoke about Housman and Vaughan Williams; about Housman’s poplars, seen in poems such as ‘Along the field’ and ‘Far in a western brookland’ — the first the title song of RVW’s cycle with violin, the second set so ecstatically by Gurney in Ludlow & Teme. I told John how I had first thought to create the cycle out of existing poems, beginning with Gerard Manley Hopkins’s ‘Binsey Poplars’, and including Rudyard Kipling’s ‘The way through the woods’. John responded to all of these, and the poems he wrote are headed by the initials of the respective poets and composers, to whom they pay tribute, whilst also presenting the narrative of the cycle. The opening song echoes Manley Hopkins, telling of the felling of the poplar (a ‘hi-vis man assault[ing] the sky’). The second tells of Vaughan Williams, who looks out upon the fallen poplar, having ‘outlived the Leith Hill aspen’ — a poem with some beautiful allusions by John to RVW’s works. The third poem is that response to Kipling (‘we saved five minutes’), and the fourth — the slow movement of the cycle — a tribute to Housman and Gurney, with echoes of that ‘Western Brookland’. The two poets meet on a bridge, and hear something calling ‘out of the west’: the distant call of Severn poplars, that river running through the homelands of both AEH and IBG. The final song echoes Housman’s ‘Along the field’, telling of the poplars that foretold the lovers’ futures, whilst ‘not knowing their own last trump’. The cycle ends with the lovers walking ‘where no poplar sighs’.
It may be incidental and immaterial, but it felt important for me to begin the writing of the music by going and finding a poplar or more, and spending some time with them, listening. I was in Gloucester on 14-15 September, staying with my dear friends Sebastian and Vicki Field, and giving a talk at a Gurney event organised by The Musical Brain. On the morning of 15th, I had a free couple of hours, and so I walked out to Alney Island, on the Severn, west of Gloucester, and found just a couple of poplars. It wasn’t quite the scene I hoped: oppressive pylons cross the meadows, and the sound of traffic from the nearby main roads mar the peace. But I spent about an hour or so with these poplars, a little apart from the river. I stood and listened, and watched, and thought. They are majestic trees, with the differing greens on either side of the leaves; and the sight and sound of the way they flick and rustle in the breezes is mesmerisingly beautiful. My song cycle opens with a ‘Prologue’ (with apologies for the ironic pun — ‘Pro-Log’, rather than Prelude or Introduction), which attempts to echo something of that rustling is the breeze rises and falls away. While I stood beneath those trees, from afar, on the breeze, I heard a voice resound. It was almost certainly just a child enjoying the echo in the concrete caverns under the main road overpass through which one must walk in order to reach Alney Island, but it took in my mind, and in the Prologue, and there and then I sketched the voice wordlessly sounding a short rising and falling figure under the violin’s poplar in the breeze — ideas that recur throughout the cycle.
Wonderfully, through the generosity of tenor James Gilchrist, the new music charity Sound and Music, and Bristol violinist Roger Huckle, in February 2019, a month after completing the cycle, I was able to hear the cycle begin to come to life, with a rough run-through of the piece in a private workshop. This allowed me to correct just a couple of things in the violin part, and refine the bowing, phrasing and dynamics in the piece. How invaluable it is for a composer to be able to work with performers in this way, to learn how best to write for instruments! And what a privilege it is to collaborate with poets such as John Greening and Euan Tait. I love bringing poems to life, but it is incredibly special to be able to actively work with a fellow artist, discussing ideas and refining them, making something together; something of our time.
Fallen will receive its first performance on 3 April, and I cannot wait to hear it. Tickets for the performance are available from Ludlow Assembly Rooms. If I were you, I would go to that recital just to hear Toby Spence and Iain Burnside perform one of the truly great masterpieces of 20th century English song, Michael Tippett’s Boyhood’s End — never mind about mine and John’s piece!