A (Sixth?) Sense of Proportion

I am intrigued by aesthetic proportions, most notably the Golden Section. (Blame a second year undergraduate course on medieval and modern structures and living with somebody else’s writing a paper on the appearance of the Fibonacci sequence / golden ratio in nature and art!) When I am writing music I don’t consciously go out of my way to adhere to any particular proportions, but once a piece I am working on feels right in its span, scale and form, I do — merely out of interest — like to perform a few quick calculations to see what lies at a couple of critical moments. This evening, with the shape of my 6 minute Lenten motet now finally in place, I did the sums: the Golden Section just happens to fall exactly upon the great turning point of the piece; the start of the redemptive moment of hope. Not only this, but the prior petitions against oblivion begin at the exact half-way point in the motet. Sheer fluke! — but it does make one wonder what it is that the subconscious is up to, and whether and how we might feel or sense innately such proportions. A couple of minutes worth of notes need yet to be lived with and dwelt upon before it is finished, to determine whether or not they are right — and in a couple of passages have yet to be found prior to that settling process; but I feel now that the worst is over and that the piece will be completed before too much longer. 

Unlike the laissez faire approach to the artistic content of my work, when it comes to the design and layout of the recent print material I have produced, I have specifically calculated the proportions for certain elements on the page. In the case of the new poetry volume I am writing at present (a single, extended poem), I am — inspired by the fine press printer who undertook my first — laying it out for print on pages based on the Golden proportion with page margin’s similarly devised. The actual poem will remain at the whim of my feeling in its proportions. Overarching form is a major part of this poem, but I shall feel for it, as the poem evolves, rather than reach for the calculator. 

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.

New Music

The first hearing of a new musical work is like the opening of a gift. Slowly, bit by bit, that gift is unwrapped, slow revealing a hidden and ever-surprising present within, each reveal bringing to sight something fresh and unknown, never expected. More and more of the gift is revealed, until the last bit of paper is removed and, in that instant, the gift vanishes. Only memory holds some vague sense of what has been revealed in that unwrapping. It cannot be held or contained, and if one can hear it again and come to know it better, it will never again have quite the same mystery of that first hearing. We all come to music and art with some sense of expectation, but there are times when you just don’t know what to expect. It is all rather like the writing of music, although in a much more contracted time-frame, hours of thought distilled into just seconds for the listener. We should all seek to embrace new music on a regular basis, and enjoy the mystery of that unwrapping, particularly when the well-trodden paths of the repertoire are so repeatedly down-trodden with the likes of Classic FM, taking comfort in what we already know well. Whether it is the personal discovery of a Dunstable motet, a Sibelius tone poem, a composer we haven’t encountered before, or a work that was completed last week, it is exciting to unwrap such a gift and to enter an unknown world of thought, discovering new villages, countries and continents.

Poetic Butchery: the Act of Artistic Appropriation

The setting to music of a poet’s hard-wrought text is an act of butchery. It is an appropriation of a work of art which can lift a poem off the page and bring it to life; it can bring a poem to an audience who would likely never have otherwise encountered it; and it can also rile a poet, who sees his the result of his labours as a piece of art ‘intire in itself’; a work that was the poet’s ultimate goal and vision.

I am reminded of this today as I work through some of the secondary correspondence in the Gurney archive. In 1925 Gurney composed a setting of Robert Bridges’s ‘Johannes Milton Senex’, ‘Since I believe in God the Father Almighty’, which Gurney set as a ‘motett’ for double choir. It is an extraordinary setting, and, after I brought it out of the archive and to performance in 2012, it has now been recorded twice for CD, by Gloucester Cathedral Choir and The Sixteen, and broadcast at twice on Radio 3, sung by the BBC Singers.

Robert Bridges, on being sent a copy of the motett in July 1925, shortly after its writing, showed it to Henry Ley — then organist of Christ Church Cathedral, Oxford — who thought it interesting, suggesting that he might try it through [with the choir] if copies could be made. Bridges, however, was more circumspect about giving an opinion following any hearing of the work, stating that

‘I am not at all sympathetic with the way in which modern musicians treat words. They aim at effects which I do not desire. When they are successful I am pleased enough, but I do find their success very rare. I hope this may be one of them and that it will be possible to let Ley try it with his choir next term.’

Whether the work was ever tried through we cannot tell, although we know that a copy was made and reproduced, one such copy in Marion Scott’s hand being the only source for the motett now extant.

Nor was Bridges alone.  A. E. Housman, one of the most-set poets in the English language, while not disallowing the use of his words, resented the corruption that composers could impose upon his work.  The most famous case is that of Ralph Vaughan Williams: Housman was livid that RVW had had the audacity to cut two stanzas from ‘Is my team ploughing’ in his song cycle On Wenlock Edge. Reportedly, W. B. Yeats, heard a large group of boy scouts singing a setting of his ‘Lake Isle of Innisfree’ that so went against the vision and intention of his poem that he employed a musical agent to vet any future settings.  Peter Warlock fell foul of that censor in his Yeats cycle, The Curlew, having to fight to allow his settings past Yeats and his agent for publication under the Carnegie British Composers scheme.

The poetry selected for setting is a very personal thing to a composer, but it is, in my opinion, not merely a matter of subjectivity.  Not all poems are suitable for setting.  I have a number of times been asked to suggest some Ivor Gurney poems for musical setting, and it is a task that I find quite difficult — not merely because of the subjectivity of the matter.  Quite a lot of Gurney’s poetry contains so much innate music in its language and sound that it seems to preclude its setting.  It needs no further music.

As one who has dabbled in both poetry and composition, as well as gaining some insight (I think) into the separation between Gurney’s arts, I have become more sensitive to the matter of musical setting of poetry.  My role as an academic editor of poetry heightens the tensions at play.  In this latter, I strive always to represent as truly as possible the poet’s intentions.  The text is everything; it is the apogee of a poem, and the poet’s manuscript must be the last word on every aspect from punctuation to capitalisation of words, never mind the words themselves.  These details matter immensely.

In my recent composings, in the writing of the War Passion that is to receive its première in just over two weeks’ time, these tensions came to a head.  On the one hand I was interrogating  manuscripts of poems by Rosenberg to get to his original intentions where the published poem has been corrupted from its first, posthumous publication (see this blog-post).  Likewise, I sought out the corrected text of Julian Grenfell’s ‘Into Battle’, which was similarly corrupted.  Conversely, and much against my academic judgement, I also edited a few poems, for which I feel much guilt and underwent some very serious soul-searching.  The edits were made for purely dramatic purposes.  I have appropriated a work of art — several, in fact — and turned them to new use, which goes against the pains that the poets went through to get those poems right.  I left out a short stanza from ‘Into Battle’ — a poem which I also broke up across the span of the first movement; I made such selections from Edmund Blunden’s ‘Third Ypres’ as might be akin to roasting a whole chicken and then taking only a small bite from a leg, a bit from one of the breasts, and one of the oysters from the underside, before discarding the rest.  In Sassoon’s ‘Christ and the Soldier’ I omitted several words, and also took the decision to represent one of the stanzas in wholly musical terms, depicting in musical sound what was described in the stanza.  The words omitted from this were those descriptors and attributions that are un-neccesary when the words are being spoken or sung by an assigned character: ‘he groaned’, ‘he said’, and rhetorical statements that one can, I think, make out in the music, such as the closing line, ‘The battle boomed, and no reply came back’.  Such butcheries still play on my conscience — although I did seek express permission from Blunden’s daughters to be so selective about the passages chosen from ‘Third Ypres’.  They go against the grain, and I feel immensely guilty that I have appropriated the words of these poets, sometimes with great selectivity, and turned them to my own devices.  I can only apologise to those poets whose work I have butchered and appropriated — although I hope the Rosenberg at least will be glad at having had his text restored.

Whether butchered or restored, there still remains the question of whether the poets will have balked at the way I have used their poems in expressive, musical terms, or will I have used effects, as Bridges puts it, which the poets would not desire or have imagined?  We cannot tell.  All I do know is that it was the poetry, and my strength of feeling for the poems that led me to write the settings I have.  The music always started with the words, with vocal lines emerging directly out of them before textures suggested themselves around those vocal lines.  It is the way I feel the poetry, and the passion that I feel in my reading of them.  Whether they would pass the musical censor is impossible to say (I suspect it likely that it would not!), but it is what I felt, and I hope that might have sufficient validity to somehow overcome the great sense of guilt and betrayal I feel on the poets’ behalves.  In the form of the libretto I created, and in the music I composed, I have created a new work, a new whole, a new vision, which I think of as being very much my own.  But in that I am deeply indebted to the ten poets whose words I have taken and to which I have given voice, without whom the piece would never have come into being.  Their art and power gave me the thoughts to create anew. So all art can feed us, and future generations, whether as reader, listener, or as a creative artist who wishes to build on and give their own personal response to the work of others.  It is not that one is seeking to improve upon that work.  It is, I hope, more flattering than that; that they have created a piece of work that speaks so powerfully to another that they want to express that power, passion and meaning in the way they know how.


[Letter from Robert Bridges to Marion Scott is in the Gurney Archive, Gloucestershire Archives, ref. D10500/8/2/2/3.]

The Primacy of the Manuscript

As one who has spent, and continues to spend, many many hours of my life transcribing and editing works both literary and musical from manuscript for publication, I have developed an absolutist — some might say obsessive — need to be true to an artist’s scrawl; the words or notes they write; the definition and placing of every item of punctuation or articulation.  An artist’s manuscript is the most exacting source we have of their intentions, and any representation of a work must be true to the authorial sources available to us.

At present, my time is spent unpicking the poetry of Ivor Gurney — or as much as I am able in the midst of my current teaching commitments (a baptism of fire).  However, in the midst of this, I am at present trying to complete the last minutes of music for my War Passion — a chamber oratorio that is to be premièred at the Three Choirs Festival in July, and my absolutist need for accuracy has spilt over into that task, demanding textual accuracy in the poetry I am using.  (Some might argue that this mindset is at odds with the very act of setting a poem to music — a brutal act of artistic butchery — particularly so given my occasionally liberal way with the poetry I am using. But that is for another day.)

In a recent Oxford University Press (OUP) sale I ordered a book that I have had my eye on for a while: Vivien Noakes’s authoritative last word on the work of Isaac Rosenberg, in her ‘21st Century Oxford Authors’ edition of his poetry, plays and selected prose and letters.  This edition in some respects supersedes her Oxford English Texts (OET) edition, drawing upon manuscript material for Rosenberg’s poetry that only came to light after the OET.  I was fascinated to see one poem in particular in that edition; a poem that I have used in my War Passion, ‘The Tower of Skulls’ (see my blog-post about this setting, posted in April 2015).

At the time of the OET edition, which I have on my shelves, the whereabouts of the manuscript for ‘The Tower of Skulls’ was unknown, so that edition relied upon the 1937 published text.  Having learned that this manuscript was one of those that had come to light subsequent to that edition, I sought it out on the extraordinary and invaluable resource that is Oxford University’s First World War Poetry Digital Archive.  The manuscript threw up a few questions, the poem evidently having been doctored a little upon its first publication.  A repetition of text had been ironed out: ‘jargoning on’ should have been ‘jargoning on and on’, so this required some slight reworking of the setting I had, by June 2015, already completed.

There was one mightily intriguing change which also required some slight adjustment — although I was in a little doubt about my reading.  I have become quite adept at reading handwriting on manuscripts; but even so, there was just a niggle of doubt.  I had sufficient confidence in my reading to again rework the setting, but I wanted confirmation from Vivien Noakes.  The book arrived this morning, and I turned immediately to the poem, only to be disappointed: the reading given — although correcting the repeated ‘on and on’ — did not reflect my own reading of the manuscript.

The passage in question is the closing stanza of the poem.  In its published form it reads:

When aged flesh looks down on tender brood;
For he knows between his thin ribs’ walls
The giant universe, the interminable
Panorama — synods, myths and creeds,
He knows his dust is fire and seed.

However, in the manuscript, I read the second line as: ‘For he knows between his thin ribs walk / The giant universe […]’.  It is a curious thing.  Knowing those great vistas of possibility within one’s “thin ribs’ walls” is perhaps more likely; but might they also be said to walk there?  Or is there an apostrophe missing after ribs in the manuscript, added in the published version, suggesting that it is within the walk of his ribs — within the locus of his being — that those vistas are to be found?  Rosenberg’s locating the walk ‘between’ rather than ‘within’ suggests that the former reading to be the more probable: the vistas figuratively walk there, between his ribs.

Given that Noakes makes no concession toward my reading of the poem, I have again returned to Rosenberg’s manuscript, throwing aside my seminar planning for a few moments.  Returning to it afresh, I am yet more convinced that it is indeed ‘walk’ that Rosenberg wrote, and so my setting of the poem shall remain thus.  I have posted below the images of the manuscript, so that you might make up your own mind.

Detail of the line in question:
Rosenberg detail 1

Compare the ‘k’ of walk with the surround ‘s’s at the end of words, and also compare that last ‘k’ with the below detail from the same manuscript — the word ‘stark’:
Rosenberg detail 2

The whole manuscript is available to view here: http://ww1lit.nsms.ox.ac.uk/ww1lit/collections/document/5139/4359

You might pity the afflicted who are so concerned with the exact representation of a poet’s or composer’s work from their manuscript, but I hope you might agree: sometimes it is worth being pedantic about these things.  The manuscript and wider authorial sources must have precedence and must be preserved.  It also serves as a warning for both editors such as myself and users of published material; warnings of care and of our fallibility, and that, even though it might be in print several times over, Trust Nothing!!  Even a fine, exhaustive and extraordinarily knowledgeable editor such as the late Vivien Noakes can miss something.

The Art of the Artless

War Passion coverIt has been a long while since I have made a post on here. Life has been poured into my ongoing Gurney work and the composition of my War Passion, which is to be premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in July 2016.

Returning to composition this last two years, after a gap of more than a decade, has proved a revelation. There is fire in my belly, and a very real feeling of release, after the years of lacking time and confidence to answer the very real and always present need to create and set down some of the train of ideas that both bless and curse. My efforts in composition over the last years have reaped greater reward than I could ever have imagined. Not only has the War Passion grown to the point, now, where completion is now within touching distance, but it has also yielded a song setting which I have had in mind as an idea since 2008: a setting of Ivor Gurney’s poem ‘Bach and the Sentry‘. (I may have written little or nothing for some fifteen years, but the ideas came and have remained with me, awaiting the moment when I can start to craft them and set them down on paper. There’s more to come.)

As a composer, I am somewhat wary of any reliance on the digital facilities now so readily at hand, and most particularly the playback capability of any scoring/music-typesetting programme. The playback sounds are often misleading and the textures can become skewed and opaque. It can be a dangerous tool, and there is no replacement for imagination and the mind’s ear. However, I am now at the stage with the fourth movement of my War Passion when it is about to prove itself rather useful: the checking and refining of the spacing and pacing of the movement. For so long I have been intensely focussed on a bar here or a passage or counterpoint there. Now is the time to sit back and, ignoring any anomalous and jarring sounds, use the playback facility as an aid to the mind’s ear to gain an overall feel of the movement as a whole. I feel the music I write very intensely, and worry about every note, but when working on such a large scale as this — a span of 64 minutes across four movements — that it helps enormously to be able to sit back and just listen to the movement and feel how its proportions are working out aurally. For all the crafting and calculating, one needs to be able to stand back and take in the whole as a listener. While the inner movements of the piece are yet incomplete, I know only too well how the third movement feels as a whole, and the way in which the fourth movement transitions from this and rounds off the work as a whole. In this context it is critical for the pacing and spacing to be exactly as I feel it, otherwise the work could fall flat on its face and lose the effect of all that I am striving to achieve. While one can capture this given space and time, this is a rare thing when working from home with three children below the age of five bursting in or doing battle in the background, and when one is trying to squeeze the writing of a piece into snatched half-hours in the midst of one’s day-job. So the software playback facility comes into its own, and I can sit back and listen, or perhaps record it and listen to it in bed before sleep starts to drift in (the only time of the day when true peace is possible), and feel and sample the whole in a way that will only otherwise be possible in performance. I have the time to live with it for a couple of weeks, deciding whether a little air needs adding to a passage; whether one point needs beefing up or making more urgent. It is the act of making the work sound and feel artless; to sound as though the work has always been, and it has merely been found in the air or earth, not made and slaved over for many days and weeks. How successful this will be can only be judged in July, when the first person other than myself at last hears and feels the work that has so long filled my mind.