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.]