Gurney & Thomas in Arras

On Thursday, 6 April 2017, I shall be presenting a paper in Arras, at the Université d’Artois, as part of an Edward Thomas Centenary Conference.  I shall be speaking on Gurney and the influence of Thomas’s poetry on his work and ideas.  The date of the conference is a significant one: not only does it occur just a couple of days before the centenary of Thomas’s death at Arras; the 6th April marks the centenary of the advance on Bihécourt from Vermand, 40 miles south of Arras, in which Gurney was involved and was wounded.  That day in 1917, Good Friday, he was shot in the arm, clean ‘through-and-through’, and — if his later writing is to be believed — he feared not for his life, but for his piano playing, raining curses upon Fritz for the blighting of English music in his being wounded.

The advance on Bihécourt is likely the event depicted by Gurney in his justly famous poem ‘The Silent One’. The bombardment prior to their advance should have cut through the wires so that they could advance unhindered on the village, but the wires were unbroken.  A ‘noble fool, faithful to his stripes’ stepped over ‘and ended.’

‘Do you think you might crawl through, there; there’s a hole;’  In the afraid
Darkness, shot at; I smiled, as politely replied —
‘I’m afraid not, Sir.’  There was no hole, no way to be seen.
Nothing but chance of death, after tearing of clothes’

Glancing briefly at the map, my train journey will take me through and close to so many places that Gurney knew.  It is sad that I won’t have time and opportunity to venture further afield than Arras to take in some of those places I am writing about at present.  Even so: it will be poignant indeed to be speaking of Gurney on the exact centenary of his wounding, and on Thomas, just a few days shy of the centenary of his loss, and as close as can be to the place of that loss and where he now lies.

In Memoriam (Easter 1915)

The flowers left thick at nightfall in the wood
This Eastertide call into mind the men,
Now far from home, who, with their sweethearts, should
Have gathered them and will do never again.

Edward Thomas, 6 April 1915

Ivor Gurney’s Complete Poetry

My University of Exeter colleague and collaborator, Tim Kendall, and I are at present gearing up to submit the completed typescript of the first volume of our scholarly, variorum edition of Ivor Gurney’s complete poetical works to the publisher. By Easter it should be in the hands of our editor at the Oxford University Press and hopefully making its slow bur steadfast way to print. The subsequent two volumes should follow within a matter of a few months, having long been on the cusp of readiness. The first volume is the knottiest, but we are getting there, and the end is within sight. 

This week I have mopped up the last few sources that have been niggling at my mind; manuscript repositories outside of the main Gurney collection that I have wanted to sift for references to, and ms. copies of, Gurney’s poetry, not to mention the possibility of finding any more otherwise unknown poems. To my great joy, there were four new poems to be had! A light verse of late 1915/early 1916, and three from the autumn of 1922. Alongside two fragments found last week, these last additions mean that the span of known, extant poems — approaching 1,800 in number — is now complete. However: I know of poems and indeed several notebooks/collections that are either lost entirely or merely squirrelled away, forgotten, not known for what they are, or preserved in private, closely guarded sanctuaries. So please, if you have, or know of, even the slightest fragment in Gurney’s hand, please speak now or forever hold your peace! 

I hope that, now or in the future, some of Gurney’s lost works will surface, both musical and poetic, hoping beyond hope that these works have not been destroyed — although I know that many potentially important works have been lost irrevocably. Our poetry edition will be as complete as it can be, and the reader will at last be able to see the true picture of Gurney the poet, with a staggering thousand poems appearing in print for the first time. Some poems will fall and be passed over, for there is in his output work that is not ‘Great’ poetry, although it is of interest, biographically.  But I can promise you that there is a new strength coming, particularly in the largely overlooked late work: revelations of poetic means and purpose. There isn’t *too* much longer to wait! It will be off our desks soon. 

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.

Ivor Gurney on Crickley Hill

I am these days often ensconced in the Gloucestershire Archives, beavering away at the cliff-face of the Ivor Gurney archive.   Often this is spent in the transcription of Gurney’s many poems from manuscript, in preparation for the edition I am preparing with Tim Kendall of the Complete Literary Works of Ivor Gurney for Oxford University Press.  This week I have been mopping up a few odds and ends relating to the collation of the 1973 published selection of Gurney’s poems edited by Leonard Clark; a knotty process that began in 1962 and took 11 years to finally come to fruition.

In the midst of Clark’s papers are a number of press cuttings, which include some recollections of Gurney, the writing of which was prompted by Clark’s edition.  One was published on Wednesday 29 August in The Citizen – Gloucester’s local paper — and was from Mrs Helen Herring: the then 9-year-old daughter of the farmer of Dryhill Farm, where Gurney worked and stayed in the spring of 1919.  She recalls:

I remember so well the first cup of tea in the kitchen and my mother trying to get him to talk.  But all he would do was to look out on to the wash house roof and go into raptures over the moss and broken tiles.

My father swept out, remarking, ‘A rum chap to help farming’.

The first job he was given was to groom a yearling cart colt which had wintered badly.  He curry-combed away and was knee deep in hair and lice.  But Ivor could see beauty in everything and his notebook was on the wall.  He wrote a poem about Lousy Joe — but forgot to turn poor Joe loose.

Evenings he would compose music on our old iron framed piano which had not been tuned for years.  No one would come so far into the country to do things like that in those days.  To me it was the most terrible noise.  The whole room seemed to rock as he thumped away.  Father would get his gun and disappear.  Mother would sit and worry about Ivor’s health as he would not eat while he was composing and drank, literally, gallons of milk.

When he had finished whatever it was on his mind he would have an enormous appetite.  Which was rather awkward, as one never knew when that would be.

When put to dig a potato patch, very little was done, but Ivor came in with a poem about how he met a German in the war — ‘I shot him, it had to be one of us, him or me’.

[The quoted poem is the opening line of ‘The Target’, which in fact dates from October 1917]

Mrs Herring also went and found out the old autograph book from the farm house, in which Gurney, as a guest in the household, had written a short squib:

How wonderful,

To be able

To sit one down

At the table

and write tout-suite

Straight off

A wonderful, original

Autograph.

Following the publication of this recollection, another former resident of Crickley Hill, Mrs Beatrice Blandford, came forward with her own recollections of Gurney, on his visits to the ‘Green homestead on Crickley’.

Ivor Gurney and my father, George Compton, were great friends.  Ivor was organist at Hempsted Church [an undoubtedly peripatetic post] and after service he would come to our home and entertain us by playing all sorts of funny pieces on our piano.

One of the songs of which I had the manuscript was ‘Bright is the ring of words when the right man sings them.’ He gave it to me and my father used to sing it.  […]

Although Mrs. Blandford says in the article that she has searched for the manuscript but has been unable to find it, this song is held in the archive, titled ‘Song and Singer’; a pre-war manuscript dated 18 January 1911.

Gurney and Mr Compton were ‘comrades in arms’, both serving with the 2/5 Gloucesters, and the article goes on to recall an occasion which reflects ‘Gurney’s sensitivity’, on ‘an occasion when they were relaxing behind the lines on the Somme’:

Gurney said, ‘George, let’s found an organ’, so they did — in a ruined church with the organ still in working condition.

Ivor […] played and played as her father pumped the instrument until he could pump no more.  Then Ivor broke down and sobbed like a child because his hardened hands were in such bad condition.

For any who wish to visit Dryhill Farm, and perhaps look at what is now known as ‘the poet’s room’ in the farmhouse attic, the Gurney Society is organising a walk on Crickley Hill on Sunday 10 May, 2015, as part of their annual Spring Weekend.  See www.ivorgurney.org.uk.

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.

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/.

Conferences

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!