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  I will be speaking on Ivor Gurney’s war poetry as a whole, including the numerous poems as yet unpublished.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!


The Acts of the Artists: What Do Artists Do All Day?

The act of creativity and the place of the Artist in society is something that has become an increasing fascination. It is perhaps a result of my increasing desire, as told elsewhere on this blog, to express myself through my own work rather than through my research, editing and writing of/on composers and poets of the early twentieth century, which is the mainstay of my work.  Indeed, it the creative act and the place of the Artist is the central theme in a short collection of my own poetry that I am preparing for publication, for issue on 1 June 2014: Fulcrum (more details about this here). I sincerely believe that it is the Arts that are the defining vestige of humanity, and that they are the most important facet of our being.  It is what separates us from the mere bestial.  There are some who would beg to differ; those who see the Arts as an economically fruitless frivolity (because a growing economy is the be-all of everything, obviously, and if you aren’t an accountable cog within this machine then you are worthless); and there are those who believe that science, pushing the bounds of knowledge, is everything.  Some aspects of science can tend towards art in its outlook and ideology, one might argue; however, that aspect of scientific pursuit which is cited as the apogee of usefulness is medicine, which to my mind is merely a refined form of the bestial instinct to survive (I am in no way ungrateful of the medical profession: they do remarkable things, maintaining our well-being and quality of life, but it is, as I say, a refined form of the bestial instincts and is not something that defines us as human. That is for the arts alone.).

There has been, to my mind, only one television programme broadcast this year (in the first ten months thereof) has been worth watching (yes, only one – although by no means have I seen all that has been broadcast – far from it; indeed I haven’t yet watched any others in the series to which this programme belongs).  This programme showed something of the work of the artist, and is something that I recommend heartily: BBC4’s portrait of the great Norman Ackroyd, ‘What Do Artists Do All Day?’.  Having just joyfully stumbled across the programme on YouTube, I thought I would share it here.

Part one:

Part two:

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.

A Question of Context

I was interested this afternoon to stumble upon a handful of reviews of the rehanging of the collection at Tate Britain, the ‘unveiling’ of which has followed hot on the heels of a very similar rehang of another national collection, with the reopening of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum (a summary of reviews of that reopening can be found here).  The Tate’s new approach, ‘A Walk Through British Art’ from the 1500s to present, is one that breaks the boundaries between schools of art, reasserting a chronological – an almost ‘as it happened’ view – of our nation’s art and its varying contemporaneous facets, rather than one navigated by academic theories and classifications.

It is a problem of which I have become increasingly aware in my work in music and poetry of the early twentieth century – and also more widely: we research our little pockets of interest, most often solely in the medium that is the focus of our research, be it literary, musical or artistic, and can lose sight of the ‘broader picture’, and how our pockets of research relate to the other arts or even different ‘schools’ within the same arts.  The Tate’s rather more radical decision to give very little information beside each of the items on display is one which will perhaps help to bridge some of these divides and will be an invaluable eye-opener, removing many of the ‘labels’ and categories which have previously separated these works.

While such a view of a national collection of art is most welcome, it does no more than sound a reminder that as we explore our corners of the arts, as well as broadening our horizon within those corners, we must cross over to the ‘other side’, and remind ourselves what is happening in the other arts, and how they might relate to our own corners.  As I have found to my own benefit, being a musician who has recently completed a PhD in English literature (albeit the poetry of a composer-poet), crossing the boundaries can bear great fruit and be enormously informative.  However it can at times leave one wondering quite where one belongs!  While ‘interdisciplinary’ is a hot watchword in academic circles, when you truly fall between two stools, people aren’t quite sure what to do with you; and indeed one is oneself torn between disciplines, for departments of study are specific and not at their root interdisciplinary.

As well as crossing boundaries within our national arts, it is essential that we keep an eye on worldwide developments in our respective ‘periods’ and arts.  I am surprised by how little researchers and writers in the arts make such comparisons.  How many realise that Bach was born towards the end of Henry Purcell’s life?  Or that Wordsworth was an exact contemporary of Beethoven, who died in the same year as William Blake?  Indeed, do these facts matter at all?  Perhaps not, but it is interesting to consider them and to ask these questions.

Various pictures of the Tate’s collection and its rehang can be found here.  For now, this glimpse must satisfy, but I cannot wait to peruse the collection for myself.

A Long Centenary : some initial thoughts on the WW1 commemorations, 2014-2018

One of the iconic images of the First World War: Lt Ernest Brook’s photograph of a British soldier standing over a grave near Pilckem during the Third Battle of Ypres, 22 August 1917 (Imperial War Museum)

One of the iconic images of the First World War: Lt Ernest Brook’s photograph of a British soldier standing over a grave near Pilckem during the Third Battle of Ypres, 22 August 1917. (Imperial War Museum)

In eighteen months we will be marking the beginning of a centenary which, I suspect, will be inescapable; a centenary commemoration that will mark the period from 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918 when we were at war with Europe’s ‘Central Powers’ – the ‘Great War’; the First World War.

With the desire – nay, the need – to commemorate these events, there has already been significant announcements about some of the undertakings being put in place, with substantial monies set aside by the UK government for commemorative projects and a major refit of the Imperial War Museum underway. There will undoubtedly be a wave of television and radio documentaries; and plans are already in place for major academic conferences such as that programmed in Oxford in September 2014 on British poetry of the First World War. One recent announcement has filled me with some degree of horror: that the Christmas Day 1914 football match in no-man’s land, when Allies and Germans set aside their differences and, in an unofficial truce, played football together, is to be recreated. The ‘recreation’ of such an iconic moment can only be (to my mind) an empty and hollow gesture that can in no way recapture the spirit in which the original was played.  Such moments might be recreated in the artistic context of a film, perhaps, but it should otherwise remain a unique piece of historical iconography.  The only context in which such a thing might recapture any of the ‘moment’ of the original is if perhaps those soldiers at the Israel-Palestine frontier, or similar, were to come together in such an activity.

While historical documentaries will relay some of the detail of the war, the due nobility and poignancy will undoubtedly find its voice in acts of commemoration that come from formal ceremonies, such as the Remembrance Day parades and services, and through the arts. The poetry of the First World War has become the defining voice for much of the conflict of the last century, and poetry and music, art and sculpture will play an important role in the commemorations. I know of two major commemorative commissions: a mojor work for the Three Choirs Festival titled ‘Echoes’, currently being written by the German composer Torsten Rasch (see here), and a choral symphony titled ‘Unfinished Remembering’ by Paul Spicer, to a libretto by Euan Tait.

Although the commemorations will last four years, there will undoubtedly be major landmarks within that period when the commemorations will come to the fore – particularly at the beginning and end of the period, but also the major battles within. With such a protracted timeframe I suppose we risk a waning public interest in the matter. But such a trial of endurance should be had, as was experienced by those who lived through that period.  As we progress through the centenary we will already know that any hope that such commemorations will be ‘over by Christmas’ will be fruitless: its period is now set by history; we know the outcome, and we know its time-frame.

But there will always be questions from some as to why we should bother. Indeed some people may feel entirely disconnected from the First World War, where the Second is more immediately memorable and directly affected many who are still living. Following a trip to Ypres and its environs with my friend Sebastian Field, undertaken in early November 2008 as part of my research into the work of Ivor Gurney, I returned to my job as a Lay Vicar Choral with Lichfield Cathedral Choir, with whom a couple of days later I was singing for the annual Remembrance Sunday service.  The proximity of the events spawned an idea for poem, which I give here merely because it seems relevant to the question in hand:


Ypres fresh
Flanders mud
not yet cleaned from my shoes;
the morning shows more potent
in heart and in mind.

But who can understand
the truth of that experience?
Its joy; despair;
mundanity; insanity . . .

Wind sweeping round the cathedral
lends breath to this latest Last Post . . .
Cadets, hands clasped, seem unmoved
by this service of mummery,
acting their part with reluctance
this ceremonial morning,
as minds, like the rain,
drum a gentle retreat.

Poetry of poppies perpetuates clichés
in memoried half-truths,
but none can know the full truth of each tale,
or the million tales untold.

© Philip Lancaster, November 2008/March 2011

When I visited the Front Lines, one thing stood out for me: the architecture of memorial, for which Edwin Lutyens was in a large part responsible, and the sheer quantity of headstones, spoke louder than any poem, or music, than any documentary or book.  Closer to home, almost every town and village in this country is scarred with a memorial to those who died in the First World War, often appended by those who died in the Second.  These individual memorials are being recorded in a project that is perhaps long overdue, but which is perfect for the internet.  However, the sheer scale and numbers of the memorials in France and Belgium is staggering; not only the British, but the allied and more austere German cemeteries also.  I would tell those who don’t understand why we should remember to visit Tyne Cot (particularly at sunset), or the Canadian memorial on Vimy Ridge, or Thiepval, or any of the smaller cemeteries dotted apparently randomly in the countryside.  These places are numbing, but the monumental beauty is noble and timeless. We must Remember and understand, whether through art, memorial, documentary, book or otherwise, why we are Remembering.

The Fascination of Manuscripts

‘[…] poetical manuscripts very often preserve reconsidered readings in the cancellations, deletions, corrections, rewritings, interlinear interpolations and the like at various stages of drafting.  These can catch the poet in the workshop, at the anvil; pause the sparks, so to speak, as in a photograph. […] Being able to observe these creative processes in progress put poetical drafts among the unclaimed wonders of the world – perhaps because they capture exceptional human beings in their most noble, most godlike, role […].  Such drafts are relics, sacred, holy in their way.’

So writes Roy Davids in his insightful introduction to the forthcoming major sale of poetical manuscripts at Bonhams in April and May; the sale of a major collection accumulated by Roy Davids.  (See the Bonhams website for details)

The scope and extent of Davids’ collection is extraordinary, with manuscripts the like of which one rarely, if ever, sees coming up for sale.  The catalogue has yet to be released, but the few tantalising details so far released include manuscripts by Samuel Coleridge Taylor, John Keats, Charlotte Bronte, Gerard Manley Hopkins, Thomas Hardy, T.S. Eliot, Ted Hughes, Sylvia Plath and John Betjeman.  The contents of one manuscript has been divulged in The Independent : a previously unpublished poem by A.E. Housman, for which see here.

As Davids tells us in his introduction, he began accumulating the material in the early 1970s, when poetry manuscripts were little regarded and available cheaply – a situation which accounts for the fact that so many manuscripts of major English poets are now in America, notably in the Berg Collection (New York Public Library) and in the Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas.  The fact that large collections of work by twentieth century English poets have emigrated is a source of some sadness and frustation to myself and other scholars of the period – but at least they are preserved and in a place in which they will be cared for and are accessible.  I hope that as many as possible might stay in Britain, but know that the Americans in particular will be vying for these materials.  I hope that there will be archives and societies now clamouring to raise the funds to allow them to bid on these things and ensuring that they go to a safe and appreciative home.  How I should like to be able to afford a couple of the items myself!

Having worked closely with the manuscripts of Ivor Gurney (whose manuscripts do not appear in this sale) and others, I know only too well the frisson that an original manuscript can give you.  Joy Finzi likened such things to a piece of ‘the True Cross’ – echoing Davids’ view of these fragile items.  For those of us who believe in poetry and music, there are few objects quite so special.

Coming Out : The Name and Nature of the Poet

It is a time for the consideration of New Year resolutions; a time to think of tweaking or in some small way to redefine what you are or hope to be in the coming year. At the beginning of 2011 I made a decision which has only found some small voice, but which continues as one of my resolutions for the coming year:  In all my work as a researcher, editor, writer etc., I spend my days working with the creative output of others; I channel my thoughts and ideas through the output of mostly long dead composers and poets. This certainly continues to be the case, but in 2011 I sought to find space for my own creativity, in answer to long held desires to both compose music and write poetry. Why should I live wholly through the work of another when my own work might bring me some (greater?) fulfilment?

In spite of such a resolution, it is not often that I have been able to turn my hand to the such things, with the distraction of our two children, who are now 21 months old, the PhD, just submitted, and much else. March-July 2011 saw my first flurry of serious application to the task of poetry, working up some ideas both old (jotted in a notebook in 2009) and new. Since this first flurry, this last few days have been the first time that I have had the slightest space to begin to think about seriously working up some of the fragments and ideas that I have had in the intervening months. And this is only poetry: the several musical ideas I have, some quite well developed, must remain untouched for the present.

A question that has dogged me since the resolution to allow space for my own original creativity has been one of validity and purpose. It is a question that I suspect has been asked of many an Artist (a title I don’t dare claim for myself): Is my desire to create a matter of ego and self-indulgence? (A question that might be asked also of the impetus to blog, tweet or similar such avenues.) Or is it something greater; something more important and fundamental? I must admit that, after much thought, I don’t think it is a matter of ego. I don’t believe that to be the driving force behind my desire to create. I enjoy and receive a great deal of stimulation and solace from the music and poetry I hear, perform and read. My brain seems at times to stumble upon ideas for things that I somehow need to express in order to exorcise that idea from my mind so that further ideas follow, be they unrelated or growing out of previous ideas. I find the same in my research and commentary on the work of others. Ideas are what seem to drive me. I hope somehow that they might find resonance with others, but if those others be only one other person then it matters not. I must express the truth of what I think, be it of use or not. Perhaps there is some element of ego in this, but one could argue that nothing is devoid of ego.

Having only successfully completed a handful of poems I in no way lay any claim to the title of Poet. I just enjoy writing poetry when I am able. I know little of the art, knowing only what I like, and what I want to say. The nature of poetry is a curious thing. For some poetry is defined by rhyming lines. For me, rhyme and metre are not high in my poetic considerations – although this is not to say that rhyme and half-rhyme are not part of the armoury, and also does not mean that enjambments are arbitrary (they are often very far from being so – the enjambment is one of the most potent poetic ‘devices’). Poetry is about ideas; about the intensity of those ideas and the intensity with which they may be explored. Prose would be too, well, prosaic. Poetry seems to be the only way.

With such musings I here put forth one of my ‘things’, which is dawning upon being seasonally apt. I hope that I might find time to draw a line under several further ideas in the coming year, and maybe also excise some of the music that has been welling up. It is easy to live life through the work of another or in work that benefits another (although financially essential at times). But one must not solely live life through and for these others. We all have the capacity to create and to create something individual and be true to ourselves.

Twelfth Night

Eden lies desolate,
Abandoned and lost;
Unheeded by trains
of men that daily pass.

But one tree remains,
its yet budless boughs
dripping with the unfulfilled
passion of the dying season,
those unpearled gold
green garlands gathering
in twice regal conference,
hastening, foreshadowing
its end; awaiting
the final fall of this
manforsaken plot.

No Eve now comes
to pluck the dwindling
fruits of autumn
that untasted fall
to feed in vain long
fallow ridge and furrow
to which no Adam
now bends his plough.

Wantonly fertile;
impotent and futile.
What hope for this
now exiled embanked
garth in lonely brink,
ripe for reclaiming
by the wild places?

© Philip  Lancaster, 2011