A New Collaboration: The Canticle in Exile

In December I was sent some Christmas texts by the poet and librettist Euan Tait. I had first encountered Euan and his extraordinary facility, craft and vision, in his libretto for a choral symphony by my friend Paul Spicer, Unfinished Remembering. We crossed paths a couple of times thereafter, and began an occasional correspondence; he heard my setting of Gurney’s Bach and the Sentry and attended the premiere of War Passion, and we began to talk about whether we might perhaps collaborate on a work. 

We were hoping to meet and talk in the summer, but life and a house-move intervened. So, in December, Euan sent me some Christmas poems. Euan’s poems were remarkable for the freshness, vitality and reinvigoration of what I have sometimes thought to be hackneyed ways of the well-trodden path of Christmas. But, for personal reasons, I felt ill-suited to them, and that I couldn’t take on their setting with sincerity. In my reply to Euan I mentioned that I had been wondering whether I might find a way to channel my worries for, and about, the current refugee situation into a piece. The Calais camp had not long been cleared; reporting of the battle for Aleppo was at its peak; and I was struck by some lines from an article by Robert Fisk in The Independent, which came to my attention at that time: ‘Barbed wire along the Hungarian border, barbed wire at Calais’. Where is the compassion and humanity in denying temporary refuge to those who are fleeing war and death? I feel voiceless and powerless to change the political juggernaut, but I thought that I should say something in the way I best can. I sent my email to Euan, explaining this, late at night. I was a little worried about his being disappointed in my declining his Christmas poems. When his reply came the following morning, I was staggered to find an extraordinary new poem attached which voiced so powerfully my thoughts about the refugee situation. It immediately sang in me, suggesting its own music. Here was our first collaboration: Canticle I: Miriam’s Exile. In a few snatched moments in the last few weeks, between Gurney and the family, the music has begun to emerge onto the page. 

As you will see in the title, the work is a Canticle. Not a canticle as in the hymns said or intoned/sung at morning or evening prayer, but in the manner of Benjamin Britten’s Canticles. 

It is curious, perhaps, that with the death of Benjamin Britten, his Canticle ‘form’ died. Britten composed five such canticles, for varying chamber combinations.  The one constant is, as one might expect with Britten, is the tenor voice, with the canticles — like so many of Britten’s vocal works — being written for his partner Peter Pears.  The form is slightly difficuly to define, which may be the reason for its not having been taken on as a medium by other composers. For Britten, they grew out of the work of Henry Purcell; his Divine Hymns. They are semi-dramatic works in several sections; miniature cantatas and scena that often address a religious theme, but more often than not using texts of secular origin. 

Euan has long wondered about trying to rescucitate the Canticle, and this new collaboration marks — as the title implies — the first of a few such works that we intend to create together. (He has already sent, or read to me, his proposed texts for two further canticles. The flow, virility and bounty of his gift is miraculous and enviable. My music comes much more slowly.)

The text for this first canticle is a perfect successor to Britten’s canticles, and it is very much in that mode. It is a vehicle for the showing of humanity. It is a narrative of a woman fleeing with her son: Miriam; an Everywoman, who could be Mary fleeing with Christ in the wake of Herod’s diktat of slaughter, or the flight of   too many others from war or persecution. Euan’s poem encompasses the destruction of their lives, the decision to flee, the enmity with which they are viewed by some (‘We are strangers to you, not enemies’), and the great power of the humanity and compassion that might be shown by just one individual. 

I have returned to Purcell in my thinking about the form, and in my setting I have broken free of Britten by scoring it for soprano, with piano accompaniment. My early ideas added a clarinet to the mix, but this fell by the wayside the last time I was able to work on the canticle. I am excited by this new work, at being able to say something about the current (and historically recurrent) situation, and at my collaboration with Euan, which through our correspondence and first proper meeting last week, has become a sharing of friendship as well as of poetry and music. 

Canticle I: Miriam’s Exile will likely take me until the summer to complete, with my needing to focus my energies upon my Gurneian occupations, as well as in my wanting to complete a short choral work in progress. I have sounded out a soprano about perhaps bringing the canticle to performance and will share news of how things develop as and when they do. 

‘The cold was the borders of their mouths…’


To find out more about Euan Tait and his work, please do take a look at his website, euantait.com. Details of Paul Spicer’s Unfinished Remembering can be found Here, and a recording available Here.

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Fugue on the Salley Gardens

Continuing my quest to add fuller detail to our knowledge of Ivor Gurney’s works, I am today poring once more over his musical sketchbooks, clarifying some of their contents and dating these notebooks with a little more precision, as well as confirming for our (viz. Tim Kendall and me) edition of Gurney’s complete poetry for OUP that we haven’t missed any last fragments. 

As well as finding an incomplete draft of a poem titled ‘Legs’, written in January or February 1921, which has now been inserted into the now complete span of the edition, and identifying the opening of an otherwise unknown setting of Edward Shanks, I have found in the midst of his several sketches and drafts for his song ‘Down by the Salley Gardens’ (a Yeats setting of September-October 1920) the opening exposition of a fugue which takes its theme from that song. It was perhaps undertaken as an exercise for his post-war studies at the Royal College of Music; and since that melody was in his mind at the time, why not just use it? It is a rather unexpected use for this, one of Gurney’s more popular songs. Who knows: the working out at least in part of this fugue to part of that tune may have helped him on his way with the song itself. 

New Music

The first hearing of a new musical work is like the opening of a gift. Slowly, bit by bit, that gift is unwrapped, slow revealing a hidden and ever-surprising present within, each reveal bringing to sight something fresh and unknown, never expected. More and more of the gift is revealed, until the last bit of paper is removed and, in that instant, the gift vanishes. Only memory holds some vague sense of what has been revealed in that unwrapping. It cannot be held or contained, and if one can hear it again and come to know it better, it will never again have quite the same mystery of that first hearing. We all come to music and art with some sense of expectation, but there are times when you just don’t know what to expect. It is all rather like the writing of music, although in a much more contracted time-frame, hours of thought distilled into just seconds for the listener. We should all seek to embrace new music on a regular basis, and enjoy the mystery of that unwrapping, particularly when the well-trodden paths of the repertoire are so repeatedly down-trodden with the likes of Classic FM, taking comfort in what we already know well. Whether it is the personal discovery of a Dunstable motet, a Sibelius tone poem, a composer we haven’t encountered before, or a work that was completed last week, it is exciting to unwrap such a gift and to enter an unknown world of thought, discovering new villages, countries and continents.

Arthur Benjamin in the Trenches

In early 1917 the composer Arthur Benjamin was serving with the Royal Fusiliers in the trenches of France.  In the Gurney archive, at Gloucestershire Archives, is held a letter, dated 26 January 1917, that I cannot help but transcribe for his description of his situation.  Benjamin writes to Marion Scott:

These are lines of intense frost, clear skies & dainty sunsets.  It is so cold that in one of our worst trenches where there is, as a rule, 2ft of water, one can walk dry-shod on 3 inches of ice.  Of nights myriads of stars and the narrowest of sickle moons give us that feeling that Heaven is closer to use; and if Turner could have lent Corot his palette we should have had a reproduction of last week’s sunsets.  No splashes of vivid orange or red, no purples, no silhouetted clouds[;] in short, none of the fantasy of the east or south.  Simply the blue merging peacefully into rose-grey and a ball of orange infusing an aura of its own colour into the rose-grey and dipping behind lace-like trees and shrubs of that green-tinged grey only Corot could mix.  If only Turner could enliven Corot and Corot subdue Turner!

It is all very lovely.

Benjamin’s letter begins whimsically, responding to a letter from Marion Scott in which she evidently reported the illness of her cats, Fluff, Tumble, and Lady Audrey — this latter immortalised in their mutual friend, Herbert Howells’s, four movement work for string quartet, Lady Audrey’s Suite (1917), in the manuscript of which Howells refers to himself as ‘the Composer–person’ (see here).  They (the cats & Marion Scott) evidently sent Benjamin a card featuring a golliwog (with the first movement of Howells’s suite being titled the ‘Four Sleepy Golliwogs’ Dance’, I presume that Scott had a menagerie of black cats), in response to which  Benjamin writes,

I think it delightful of them [the cats] to have thought of me while feeling so unfit.  Please thank them & give them my love.  The Gollywog will fraternize I’m sure with my other mascot[,] a ‘Touchwood’.  They have a piece of uncut amethyst (my lucky stone) to amuse them and the wishbone of a pigeon to dine from.  Also they have very warm quarters in my pocket-book. So they can’t grumble.

At the end of the letter Benjamin adds as a postscript, ‘The Gollywog’s patriotic pantaloons are vastly diverting!’.  We can only but wonder!

[Letter at Gloucestershire Archives D10500/8/2/1/1.]

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 Tyranny of Time

This last few days, our one year old daughter has been waking early.  It might be easy to curse and rue the lost hour in bed that we have been achieving quite reliably over the winter, but I have started to think that it is merely the season catching up with her.  Time will, in a couple of weeks, catch up with both of them, as the clocks ‘Spring forward’ an hour to ‘darken our mornings’ and deny all that precious hour of sleep as we enter British Summer Time.

Whilst many will while away a happy few hours in a couple of weeks berating the loss of the hour, there is only one thing to blame: our tyrannical observance of time; our modern culture’s endeavours to adhere to, and account for, the minutest of horological increments, without any concession to the fundamental cycles that govern our planet, and the lives of every other creature that lives upon it.  Our little girl is quite right: the sun is rising earlier, and so would we, if we weren’t regimented and controlled by our 9-5 work routines, post sunset television addictions or other such observances.  We defy the world around us.  We work the same length of day in winter as we do in summer; we seek to keep the same hours come what may.  Why shouldn’t jobs and other such commitments begin at the second or third hour after sunrise, and finish at a similar fixed period before sunset?  In summer we might counter the long days with a midday siesta period, as they do elsewhere in the world.  Winter days would be less productive, but would it be that much so, and does it matter if they are?  The summer would surely make up for it.  In this misguidedly materialistic age in which money is the driver of everything, I doubt whether this seasonal flexibility would ever be conisdered seriously.  However, there is one thing I don’t think can be denied: we in the western world need a serious dose of Rewilding.

The return of these thoughts (for they are thoughts I return to often) has brought back to me a poem I wrote a few years ago, which was published in my first short collection, Fulcrum.  Indulge me if you will, or simply look away now, if you haven’t already.

Plain Sight

The deceit of Time creeps unceasing
in a myopia of tyrannical exaction,
contrivance of containment,
regulation of increments
in immeasurable microscopia
— an opiate of division, all-accounted;
tungsten dawns deluding,
denuding the seasons of defining
night; humdrum extraneity
of light, enlightenment, progress,
polluting, and masking far stars;
fixated and feinted by the day’s
diminutions in glazed isolation,
submerged in hermitic continuation;
TV-attuned, switched to remote
inoperation; inured of being,
cocooned in life’s birth-canal
to obscurity (or eternity?),
pushing, yet rising
rarely to ripple life’s surface
in a stasis of feigned living
in filmic fallacy.
— We are lost in the moments’ minutiae.

What do you see as you stand and gaze?
Our eyes and ears are gills
of chance and nurture
that filter the tide of vision
that bears upon us,
clouding clarity beyond our being.

Lift up your head!
Open the minding gills and drink
of sight, sound and thought!
Hark — the robin’s song from tree-height
shatters, cleaves the realms of time, earth,
sky, and the darkling roar of eternity’s
din breaks upon me, the world’s populace
— past, present, future — clamorous —
a billion lone voices in vast tremendous
tumult of sound, surging, searching,
piercing the air as a winded spear,
which crescents beneath the cover of cloud,
and cuts with its trail through the canopy’s
shroud, felling great trunks of shadow,
revealing a thousand stars and suns,
— then breaks and plunges
as darted gannets from sea-stacks
deep into earth’s swell
to gather the writhing threads of ages,
emerging to weave a weft of tales and time
through the warp of the present, revealing
the secrets of bird, beast and land until
now held fast in the scented breaths of earth. . .

Can you not hear? Do you not see?

© Philip Lancaster, 2014.

[Please respect my copyright — thank you.]

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.