A Lament for Æthelflæd

I am just completing a new work that is, for the present, a rarity for me: a commission.  It is a small piece I was invited to write for Gloucester’s commemorations of the 1100th anniversary of the death of Æthelflæd, the eldest daughter of the Anglo-Saxon king, Alfred the Great; an extraordinary woman, warrior and queen, who was laid to rest in Gloucester, where she had established the priory of St. Oswald, bringing that saint’s relics to the city.

It was a tricky brief to fulfil, and indeed much of the time I have spent on the project has been devoted to reading Anglo-Saxon poetry and texts, endeavouring to find something that might suitably commemorate this great queen of the kingdom of Mercia — the Myrcna hlaedige; Lady of Mercia.  I sought references to Æthelflæd in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles: the idea of the ancient method of reciting poetry made me wonder about telling her story in a sung narration, to which ends I extracted various passages about Æthelflæd from those Chronicles, but couldn’t quite give the text sufficient body or purpose.  (There is a particularly touching passage that tells of Æthelflæd’s grief at the loss of four of her theigns, killed ‘within the gates’ of Derby during the offensive in which she successfully reclaimed from the invading Danes in 917AD).  I almost set a couple of passages from the poem ‘Elene’, which seem to echo something of Æthelflæd’s founding of St. Oswald’s Priory, the poem telling of the finding of the True Cross and the building of a church to house that relic.  In the end I found something that fitted what had been my initial thought on the project: to find a text suitable to form a Lament for Æthelflæd.

The text I found is from that great 10th century source of Anglo-Saxon poetry, the Exeter Book.  It is the end of the 9th century poem telling of the deeds of the Mercian saint, St. Guthlac of Croyland.  I selected various lines from the end of the second part of that poem, Guthlac B; lines relating the death of St. Guthlac.  I couldn’t find a completely satisfactory translation, and so, with an 1842 translation of Codex Exoniensis by Benjamin Thorpe as my guide (see here, pp.183-4), and with the help of an Anglo-Saxon dictionary, I set about creating my own translation.  I substituted references to ‘him’ with ‘her’, and added three words from the poem ‘Elene’ — words used to describe Elene: ‘Leader of Warriors’.  (I have seen it suggested that Elene may have been based upon Æthelflæd, but cannot recall where in my readings this was.)  The text I devised became:

Lament for Æthelflæd

Courage is best for those that oft must endure profound misery. Think deep on their torment. Their Lord’s death when it comes, woven by fate’s decree, they shall grieve with sorrowing soul, knowing their kind treasure giver is hidden in earth.

Our Lady, leader of warriors, the best of those between the seas, to God’s judgement, (staff of the weary), from worldly joy and loving kin, in glory has gone to seek that dwelling-place on high.

Now her portion of earth, a broken bone-house, is a house inhabited with death’s-rest, and that wondrous portion of body has in God’s light sought the glorious reward, to partake with the peaceful host of that well-spring of bliss.

It would have been good to have set the words in Anglo-Saxon Old English — indeed I would have preferred to in some ways, being more authentic in its voice.  Perhaps, if there had been more time I would have done so.  However, the difficulties in doing so in a reasonably short time-frame were several: knowing the pronunciation of the language would have been critical, so that it could be accented and properly nuanced in its setting; being able to relay that pronunciation to performers who, likely as not, would be similarly in the dark as to the verbal forming and aural interpretation of the text; and finally, the adjustments I was making to the text were readily done in modern English, but to make them in the original Anglo-Saxon would require an intimate grasp of the grammatical nuances of the language, adjusting masculine to feminine or neuter as required.  Without my being able to take more time than I had trying to grasp the intimacies of the language, and without a tame but knowledgable scholar of Anglo-Saxon to consult, I would not dare risk setting the original Old English.

Musically, I am using a perhaps slightly unusual ensemble, but one that I thought might be quasi-authentic. To the accompaniment of a solo violin (a quasi-rebec, as would have been used in the 10th century) and tenor drum, three solo voices — soprano, alto and tenor — give their lament. (Thinking on it now, the drum is perhaps a nod to Purcell’s Music for the Funeral of Queen Mary, although I didn’t think of this when I conceived the piece.)  My mind’s eye saw a banquet being held in Æthelflæd’s honour, where the honoured bard, keeper of the Kingdom’s tales and lore, singer of poetry, gives voice to the kingdom’s grief. Whilst there are nods to the period, musically, the Lament is (I’m afraid!) very much a contemporary work.  Beyond knowledge of instruments, we don’t really know what their music sounded like anyway, so it would be folly to try to write in pastiche.

The joy of this small commission is that, unlike the pieces I write to fulfil my own ideas, there is a performance of the piece already in place, and possibly even two performances!  My Lament for Æthelflæd will be premiered next month by Vicki & Sebastian Field’s group, ‘Gaudeamus’.  There is a concert performance in the Gloucester Music Festival on 26th June (the day before my lecture–recital on Gurney in that festival), and, depending on how the programme works out, it may be performed before then, on 8th June at St. Oswald’s Priory, in the opening event of Gloucester’s Æthelflæd Festival.  Four other composers were commissioned also, so there is a collection of new works to be given in honour of the Lady of Mercia at these events.  It will be fascinating to hear what those others have done.  All being well, with permission of the performers, I may be able to post a recording of the thing (if I manage it) in due course.


Gurney & Thomas in Arras

On Thursday, 6 April 2017, I shall be presenting a paper in Arras, at the Université d’Artois, as part of an Edward Thomas Centenary Conference.  I shall be speaking on Gurney and the influence of Thomas’s poetry on his work and ideas.  The date of the conference is a significant one: not only does it occur just a couple of days before the centenary of Thomas’s death at Arras; the 6th April marks the centenary of the advance on Bihécourt from Vermand, 40 miles south of Arras, in which Gurney was involved and was wounded.  That day in 1917, Good Friday, he was shot in the arm, clean ‘through-and-through’, and — if his later writing is to be believed — he feared not for his life, but for his piano playing, raining curses upon Fritz for the blighting of English music in his being wounded.

The advance on Bihécourt is likely the event depicted by Gurney in his justly famous poem ‘The Silent One’. The bombardment prior to their advance should have cut through the wires so that they could advance unhindered on the village, but the wires were unbroken.  A ‘noble fool, faithful to his stripes’ stepped over ‘and ended.’

‘Do you think you might crawl through, there; there’s a hole;’  In the afraid
Darkness, shot at; I smiled, as politely replied —
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’  There was no hole, no way to be seen.
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes’

Glancing briefly at the map, my train journey will take me through and close to so many places that Gurney knew.  It is sad that I won’t have time and opportunity to venture further afield than Arras to take in some of those places I am writing about at present.  Even so: it will be poignant indeed to be speaking of Gurney on the exact centenary of his wounding, and on Thomas, just a few days shy of the centenary of his loss, and as close as can be to the place of that loss and where he now lies.

In Memoriam (Easter 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Edward Thomas, 6 April 1915

W. Denis Browne: A Forgotten Centenary?

W. Denis Browne (1888-1915)

W. Denis Browne (1888-1915)

Today marks the centenary of the death of one of British music’s too-long-overshadowed figures: the composer, critic and pianist, William Denis Browne.  Born in Leamington Spa in November 1888, Denis attended Rugby School, where he met Rupert Brooke, whom he followed to Cambridge — Brooke to King’s College; Denis to Clare, where he served as organ scholar.  They knew each other well, and together became part of Edward Marsh’s circle, Marsh arranging ultimately for Brooke and Browne to serve together in the Hood Battalion of the Royal Naval Division, in which they were together dispatched for Gallipoli in 1915, neither of them to return home again.

At Cambridge, Denis Browne became one of Edward Dent’s most important protégés.  Dent, who knew both Brooke and Browne,  believed Denis to be every bit the worth of the now much lauded Rupert Brooke, but that he was too honest an artist to have wanted the sometimes blind attention that Brooke attracted even from the first announcement of his death.  Dent therefore refrained from pushing him into an uncritical limelight, and waited a few years before seeking to make his work more widely known.  Today, he is still little know, his reputation standing on just a few songs — a few of the eleven he completed.  One of these is one of the masterpieces of English song, and has gone on to become one of the most influential songs of the century: To Gratiana Dancing and Singing.

There is no doubt that, had he survived, he would have been one of the key players in 20th Century British music.  As a performer and critic, he was embracing the work of the modernists — Scriabin, Berg and Schoenberg — and was starting to introduce some of those ideas into his own music.  He worked with Ralph Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst, and some of the most notable singers of his day.  His was a truly remarkable genius, and was unquestionably the greatest loss to British music of the First World War.

In his pocket book he left a modest note to be passed on to Edward Dent in the event of his death:

It’s odd being dead. Rupert’s gone too, so there’s no reason why I should mind; and at any rate I’ve had a run for my money, and he was stolen unfairly before a shot was fired.  There will be no-one to give me such a jolly funeral as I gave him, which is a pity.

Think of me sometimes.


In honour of this centenary, I have put up on my website an article I wrote on WDB some years ago, which I hope might be of some interest, and I will be posting some scores and a selection of his other writings.  That page is here: http://www.philiplancaster.com/r/wdbrowne.htm

If you do nothing else today, try to seek out either To Gratiana Dancing and Singing or his truly remarkable and unique last song, Arabia.  Both are available for download for a matter of pence from Hyperion, from their wonderful War’s Embers disc (what I think to be the best performance of Gratiana on disc), or you can hear at least Gratiana on YouTube.  Arabia is certainly worth the 70 pence download cost (and more!), being not, as far as I can see, available for free from anywhere.  If such artistry as is shown by singers and pianists should ever be given for free — but that is a question for another day, perhaps.  Today is Denis’s day.  Remember him.

WW1 Poetry & Music Events & Conferences

The start of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is bringing with it a plethora of events, public and academic, with some of which I am going to be involved in the coming year.

Oxford Poetry School

Firstly, in April I am delighted to be speaking at a Spring School devoted to British World War One Poetry, which will take place at Wadham College, Oxford from 3rd to 5th April 2014, organised and hosted by the University of Oxford Faculty of English.  Full details of this event can be found at:  http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/news-events/upcoming-events/201404/british-world-war-one-poetry-spring-school.  The list of speakers is quite extraordinary, so do sign up for this!

Later in April (28th), I am speaking at the Edward German Festival in Whitchurch, giving a pre-concert talk on Music and the Great War – details here: http://www.edwardgermanfestival.org.uk/Edward_German_Festival_2014/Programme.html.

A few days later, on 3 May, I am giving a recital of Gurney songs and poems, with Ben Lamb, titled ‘The Far Country’, for the Ivor Gurney Society at St.Andrew’s Church, Churchdown.  Details will be available here shortly: http://www.ivorgurney.org.uk/.


There are two major conferences taking place at the end of August and beginning of September, one on the music of the War, and one on the poetry – at both of which I am presenting papers.

The first, ‘The Music of War, 1914-1918’, runs from 29-31 August 2014 at the British Library.  I will be giving a paper titled ‘Establishing the War Composer in a world of War Poets’.  The conference website is at http://www.themusicofwar.org, where the conference programme will be announced in due course.

The second, ‘British Poetry of the First World War’, is the major centenary conference devoted to the poetry, organised by the English Association, and taking place at Wadham College, Oxford, 5-7 September 2014.  I will be speaking on Ivor Gurney’s war poetry as a whole, including the numerous poems as yet unpublished.  The conference programme is now available here: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/ww1poetry/programme.

. . . For now, I am busy completing the editorial work on a Gurney song volume, finishing off a big funding application, finessing my poetry collection, Fulcrum, ready for press and publication in June, and otherwise trying to clear my desk in readiness for my taking up the Finzi Scholarship I was recently awarded in order to write The Passion of War  (– see preceding post).  This has become a very interesting year!

A Litany of Names: Remembering the First World War

A short time ago I was asked to give some thought to what might be organised for the commemoration of the forthcoming centenary of the First World War at Lichfield Cathedral.  In the few days prior to a meeting with Anthony Moore, the Cathedral’s Canon Chancellor, to discuss what might be done, I had a cup of tea with Tony Piper, a visiting friend who is a Bass Lay Clerk at Southwark Cathedral.  From that conversation and our ensuing discussions there arose an idea which has taken hold of both he and I, and which, as well as taking it on locally, we hope might become a national act of commemoration.

Something that I have been increasingly aware, personally, of is the anonymity of the war memorial.  These stone scars upon the towns and villages of our land are there to memorialise and remind us of those who gave their lives during the First and Second World Wars, but they are but names; often they are nothing than a name.  And there are so many names: There were nearly 996,000 British casualties in the First World War (not including its then colonial dependants), the sheer scale of which list means that it is unlikely that many of these names will ever find voice again.  They are doomed to silence, carved into a silent stone that will in time fade and be lost as weather erodes or lichen conceals. Some may already have succumbed.

In 2012 Tony was at the opening of the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction (www.titanicbelfast.com), during the course of which opening the names of the more than 1,000 casualties of that accident were read out.  However, they were not read out as a single list.  They were named simultaneously:  each person attending the event was given a piece of paper bearing just a few names, and at the given moment each person read out the names they had been given.  You can hear this moment during that exhibition opening here.

Tony mused upon what it would be like to do the same for the First World War; whether it might be possible to give voice to those silent dead at one moment at the point of commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice, on 11 November 2018.  In one roar – a great wave of sound – those who gave their lives in the war would be heard again; each and every one of them: a great cry across a century of silence.  How many names would how many people need to read?

This got me thinking that, on a perhaps more practical level, why shouldn’t each and every casualty of the war be named and heard?  While the mere reading of a name doesn’t provide any flesh to the body that was their being and life, it is a step beyond the silence of stone.  It occurred to me that there could be a daily roll-call.  The cathedrals of Britain hold services on a daily basis, during the intercessions of which are named those who are ill, have died, or whose anniversary of death occurs on that date.  Why should the litany of First World War casualties not be spread across the 4 years, 3 months and 1 week period of the war’s centenary, from 4 August 2014 to 11 November 2018?  This would still require the reading of some 600 or so names per day; but there are 43 Anglican dioceses in the country, not to mention the Catholic dioceses, mosques, synagogues, Quaker meeting houses, and other places of worship – not to mention whatever other public venues might join the fray (museums, galleries, libraries, concert halls?).  If each diocese of the Church of England alone were to read c.10-15 names per day, during the centenary period every name would be heard.  It would be impractical to read such names on the anniversary of the passing of the individual, but each and every casualty would in that period be named.  The division of whatever master list is compiled for this task (the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have an exhaustive database of the grave and memorial locations for each casualty, which might, I hope, constitute most, if not all of the 996,000 British casualties! I must get in touch with them….) might be done with consideration of locality (Battalions originating within a diocese would be the logical approach), although some balancing may have to be effected upon assessment of the density of such battalions within each diocese; or Parishes, villagers, town residents across their respective diocese could seek out the names on their local war memorial and submit them to the diocese for the greater project, and also use their local memorials as the basis for their own litanies.  If members of the public were to gather the names on their local monuments, then this could also feed into the War Memorials Online project, which still needs so much ‘data’.

In a centenary that is likely to come in waves, with pivotal moments and important battles being commemorated at intervals throughout the period on their respective anniversaries, a daily litany, spoken quietly across the land, would keep the commemoration of the centenary in the consciousness, but without risk of incurring what one might call ‘Remembrance Fatigue’.

But what about that roar?  What about the sounding of a great wave of names, whether at the start or close of the silence on remembrance day 2018?  It would be impractical to do this in one place, but it could be done across the nation.  The lists used for the daily roll-call could be divided amongst the commemorations taking place at that moment up and down the country, in churches and other places of worship; at memorials or elsewhere; and at that one moment could all of those who lost their lives during the war be given a voice in a single great shout; a cry of remembrance, reminding us that they lived, and that they gave everything in the pursuit of freedom and peace.  If the BBC were perhaps to undertake a simultaneous broadcast from several locations to capture some part of that roar, it might allow people to participate in the confines of their own living rooms or their places of work, and to be a part of that simultaneous litany.

Is this pie-in-the-sky?  I have made the suggestion here in Lichfield, and I think it is being pursued, and there are intentions to spread the word in the hope of making it a national endeavour.  But there is much work needs to be done to make it happen; indeed, it is possible that it might not happen at all – but one can try to get the wheels moving and to make it so.  Tony is beginning to think about the mechanics for disseminating and dividing the names; I am trying to spread the word for the idea and get other people interested.  To give the each of The Lost a voice during the centenary, however brief, is the least we can do.  We must remember.

The Death of an Artist? On the Passing of Seamus Heaney

Today saw the passing of the great Irish poet, Seamus Heaney.  It is only in the last couple of years that I have come to Heaney’s work, being introduced to ‘The Bog Queen’ by a friend.  It was a poem that gave me some extraordinary images that stuck fast, most notably the closing idea of the woman’s plaited hair as a ‘slimy birth-cord / of bog’, which cord was cut by the turf-cutter who discovered her, precipitating her birth from the mire.  As soon as I could thereafter I sought out North, which I bought in an edition which also contained his three prior collections: a great voyage of discovery to be had.  Sadly, the secondhand copy slightly marred my discovery of Heaney, many of the poems being annotated, often only briefly, by the previous owner, whether by a mere tick or more effusively with sporadic very goods or fabulouses.  For me, perhaps bizarrely, this mars my experience: I like to feel like I am on a private voyage of discovery and am the first to live these words.  Comment from another on the page from which I am reading is too invasive.  But I digress.  My point is, that while I have much still to read of Heaney’s work, the place of Heaney and the originality of his voice and his portrayal of his homescape (sic), has already become apparent.

I have this evening begun to contemplate the question of the death of an artist.  While Heaney’s loss undoubtedly leaves a great void for his family and friends, and secondarily for the literary world and the Irish nation in which he played a prominent part, he has left an important piece of himself behind in his work, which work will never die.  In fact, as one who still has so much of Heaney to discover, being in the early stages of that path of discovery, Heaney has only recently arrived: he is still in his infancy and will, for me, grow and join me on new journeys and experiences for some years to come.  Unlike so many who pass anonymously away, he remains with us, with great strength of personality and vision, and will be reborn again and again.