Isaac Rosenberg at Passiontide

Easter is nigh upon us, and many are turning their minds to the few days off they may have ahead of them. This is the first Easter in memory that I have not been engaged in singing cathedral services, and while I relish the freedom in many ways, it is the one time of year that I used to enjoy above all others. You can keep Easter Day; but the darkness and desolation of Good Friday is something I feel keenly — which perhaps explains why the idea for my War Passion for soloists, chorus and large chamber ensemble (which ends in absolute desolation) took hold and has occupied my mind for the last two years.

Composition has been moving slowly but very surely in recent months, and I have now completed half of the work. At the moment I am taking advantage of a few days away from Ivor Gurney to — in the odd idle moments I can snatch — complete one of the sections of my Passion that has been eager to escape my brain, but which I have only started to put down onto paper during the last few days: a setting of an extraordinary poem by Isaac Rosenberg, the anniversary of whose death fell yesterday, he being killed at dawn on 1 April 1918, north-east of Arras. I am setting (for solo soprano) a poem written either for, or as an off-shoot to, his play, The Unicorn, which he was writing in France (in service and in hospital) during the latter half of 1917: ‘The Tower of Skulls’.

Rosenberg’s poem comes in the third movement of my War Passion: ‘Golgotha’ [‘the place of the skull’].  This movement opens with a passacaglia describing the procession of Christ/The Soldier to Golgotha; the narrator (an alto, not the customary tenor) tells us that it was there that they crucified him, and the soprano, horror-stricken, gives her reaction to the spectacle, through this extraordinary, visionary poem.

 

The Tower of Skulls

These layers of piled-up skulls,
These layers of gleaming horror — stark horror!
Ah me! Through my thin hands they touch my eyes.

Everywhere, everywhere is a pregnant birth,
And here in death’s land is a pregnant birth.
Your own crying is less mortal
Than the amazing soul in your body.

Your own crying yon parrot takes up
And from your empty skull cries it afterwards.

Thou whose dark activities unenchanted
Days from gyrating days, suspending them
To thrust them far from sight, from the gyrating days
Which have gone widening on and left us here,
Cast derelicts lost for ever.

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.