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Bach J.S.

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Jonathon Willcocks

The Riddle of the World

A Solider's Tale

Loveliest of trees Somervell Housman 
The lads in their hundreds Butterworth Housman
There pass the careless people  Somervell Housman
White in the moon the long road lies  Somervell Housman
Along the Field  C.W. Orr  Housman
On the idle hill of Summer  Butterworth Housman
Into my heart an air that kills  Somervell Housman
     
Where she lies asleep  Bridge  Mary E Coleridge
Old Wine in New Bottles  Armstrong Gibbs  Anonymous
Sacred Song No.2  Gorecki  Marek Skwarnicki
In Flanders  Gurney F.W. Harvey
     
Channel Firing  Finzi  Hardy
Bleuet  Poulenc  Apollinaire
Die Heimkehr  Eisler  Brecht
Priez pour Paix  Poulenc  D’Orléans

 

Our soldier’s journey has no specific time or place but everything he experiences is the same as it has always been and probably as it always will be. 

He begins at home in the first seven songs, which are all settings of poems from A.E. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad (published in 1896).  Loveliest of Trees, perhaps the most frequently set of Housman’s texts, suggests a time of innocence, when our twenty year old man begins to contemplate his time on earth: “And take from seventy springs a score, It only leaves me fifty more.”  He has reached the point in his life where he is becoming aware of who he is as a man and that, now having been called to arms, life will never be the same again.  In Butterworth’s bittersweet setting of The Lads in Their Hundreds, he is one of the few who realises that not all of those travelling with him on this journey to war are likely to be making the return trip.  In the mêlée of the fair, it is impossible to tell who will survive: “And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.”  Hebrieflyponders war’s futility in There Pass the Careless People but soon, he is en route to his destination in White in the moon the long road lies.  Battle itself is some way away but the journey from his home and the separation from his life and his loved ones has begun.  He considers his mortality and the future of his relationship with his girl in Along the Field but the true importance and possible consequences of this call to arms is encapsulated perfectly in On the Idle Hill of Summer.He misses home quickly and the opening theme of Loveliest of Trees (in E major) is hauntingly reprised in Eb major in Into My Heart an Air That Kills, where the piano takes the melody, leaving the voice to intone the first verse on a solitary Bb lamenting: “What are those blue remembered hills/What spires what farms are those?” 

Now at the front, our soldier experiences some of the more mundane aspects of army life: waiting, writing letters and the painful longing for home that never seems to leave him.  He thinks of what and who he has left behind in Where she lies asleep, losing himself, dreaming of the comforts of home.  Drinking helps him to dull his pain but he feels some responsibility for maintaining the troops’ spirits and Armstrong Gibbs’ cautionary tale about the evils of drink concerning an Irishman, Scotsman and Welshman provide welcome relief.  Waiting for supplies, he goes without food and prays in Gorecki’s Sacred Song No2  “Hungry I walk around the city.  Hungry I go through life … I come to Your house, a man tired of hunger.”  His stoicism eventually gives way to homesickness in surely one of the most painful songs of longing ever written, In Flanders, and the score notes the completion date and place: January 11th, 1917, Crucifix Corner, Thiepval. 

He is shaken from his melancholy and, with another battle imminent, we now see our weary soldier as a battle-scarred man and, in Finzi’s tour de force Channel Firing, he is shaken from his fatigue by the sound of gunfire which is so deafening that three dead souls are awakened, fearing that the Day of Judgement itself has arrived.  The souls are instructed by God that the shuddering noise that has woken them is merely gunnery practice out at sea but that as “All nations striving strong to make red war yet redder,” continue upon their destructive path, the souls must lie down again and wait for the day of judgement as “It will be warmer when I blow the trumpet, if indeed I ever do.”  The guns continue their practice nonetheless.

Our soldier ‘stands to’ one last time in Bleuet (a slang term, meaning ‘cornflower’, given to French soldiers in WWI).  He is still a young man but, disillusioned, he has lost many of his friends and is almost better acquainted with death than life, having seen death, face to face, more than one hundred times.  Against all the odds, he has survived and he wonders what his town will look like when he returns.  In Die Heimkehr he follows the trail of bomber squadrons and sees the wreckage of where he used to live.  From the rubble of his home he prays for peace in Poulenc’s Priez pour Paix.  He has survived.

A celebration of the life of A.E.Housman

Although Housman was never very keen on musical settings of his poetry he was the inspiration for many composers. He had a natural gift for lilting rhythms and subtle rhymes and an innate musicality in all that he wrote. The programme includes music by Gurney, Moeran, Peel and Somervell.