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.]

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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.

War Passion : I. Birth & Progress

Painting by Isabel Dryburgh.

Painting by Isabel Dryburgh, who has kindly allowed me to associate this enormously powerful picture with The Passion of War.

In March 2013 there arrived in my brain one of those ideas that grabs you and will not let go.  In the February I had started once again to read William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman, in the 18th passus of which is his unique recounting of the Christ’s Passion.  When a week or so later I attended a Lent lecture in Lichfield Cathedral given by Paul Spicer on the musical settings of the Passion, I had in mind the seed of an idea to develop the notion of an ‘English Passion’, with the Langland as its basis.  However, a week or so after the lecture, in the last full week of Lent before Holy Week, I was reading some Isaac Rosenberg when I was struck forcibly by the notion of setting the Passion with a commentary in the form of poems by those figures now known as the War Poets – the poets who fought and in some instance lost in the First World War: a War Passion.

To my mind the idea was one with enormous potential and strength, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross for the salvation of Man having the potential for a powerful and evocative parallel in the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the war to similar ends.  This was, of course, contingent upon my identifying poems suited to the task by the broad body of First World War poets, which poems would aptly reflect and give a parallel purpose to the narrative.  I immediately went to my various WW1 anthologies and to the individual volumes of poems and other writings by as many soldier-poets as I could muster.  In the midst of my preparations for a Three Choirs Festival recital, I could only snatch the odd moment here and there in which to scour these volumes, but over the course of ten weeks I managed to complete the libretto, knocking the last bits into shape during the few idle moments I had at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song, with which I was involved.

The libretto is based upon the gospel narrative according to St. Mark, within which is set poems by Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney (a yet unpublished poem), Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, and Edward Thomas.  It is cast in four interconnected movements:

  1. Gethsemane
  2. Trial
  3. Calvary
  4. Epilogue: The Seven Last Words

The climax of the work comes at the end of the third movement, following Christ’s last breath, through which there is the promise of redemption and rebirth.  The Epilogue is not, as the title might suggest, the traditional Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross, but the last words of the soldier to Christ on the Cross, which conversation brings the work to a  conclusion of bitter despair; the despair of one who has lost all hope in any god, and in Man.

Whilst preparing the libretto, I had a large-scale ambitions for the scoring of the work.  However, I was reminded (if I really needed reminding) of the power and potential of a chamber ensemble in a large-scale vocal setting whilst listening to the premiere at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song of Julian Phillips’s remarkable new Pessoa cycle, Cantos de Sonho.  This turned my mind in a slightly new direction for the music, but a direction which will undoubtedly intensify the experience of the work – as well as somewhat more practicable than a large-scale work.  The War Passion is set for four soloists, with a small choir (c.12 voices) and chamber ensemble.  With other commitments to fulfil, and the very real need to earn a reasonable living in order to support my family, I have necessarily had to put the composition of the work on ice.  However, I am simply over-the-moon to have been awarded a Finzi Scholarship by the Finzi Trust for the purposes of getting the music down on paper.  Musical ideas have been present from the outset, but, aside from a couple of sketches for key motifs in the work,  I have had neither the time nor space to work them up to anything more, and to set down much of the rest that has been taking shape in my mind.  In March, therefore — once I have cleared a few things from my desk — I shall be embarking upon the final stage of this work, working full time on the composition, which should ‘break the back’ of its writing.  I hope that the Passion be completed over the summer.  Watch this space for updates.

[Updated Feb.2016 to reflect the change in the title of the work from ‘The Passion of War’ to ‘War Passion’]