90 years after the events of WW1 is probably rather a good time to choose for dusting off some of the music of the era. None of the music here, even by Parry and Elgar, is overly familiar, and some of it must be known to very few indeed. The best piece is also the best-known piece, Elgar's Spirit of England, but if that suggests something akin to Land of Hope and Glory or the Last Night of the Proms the reality is otherwise. There is a certain amount of stiff-upper-lippery in Binyon's poems but beneath it the song is really of war and the pity of war, as surely as in Wilfred Owen. Parry's setting of Bridges' The Chivalry of the Sea, in memory of the dead of the Battle of Jutland, is a little, well, breezy I suppose; but the three instrumental numbers by minor composers are nothing of the sort, and two of them at least strike me as being real finds. The other strikes a quietly ironic note - Rupert Brooke himself, ultra-English elegist of WW1, receives a musical elegy of his own in which his death on a French hospital ship is commemorated by an Australian.
You may experience a semi-problem in setting the volume to play this disc at. In general you will need a high setting to obtain a good tone in the quiet sections, and you may find that uncomfortably high in Elgar's final climax. I strongly suspect that the difficulty is of Elgar's making rather than of the recording technicians, as I know the issue well from my set of Rattle's Gerontius. Armed with a full chorus and orchestra Elgar could probably make more noise than any other classical composer, and in Gerontius the volume-level I need for most of the work blasts me out of the room at Praise to the Holiest. I find something similar here, but I have no complaint with the engineering, which is from this very year 2006. Elgar sets three poems by Binyon, the last and best being the familiar For the Fallen. Despite the general title, and despite the defiant 'optimism' of the first poem, the prevalent tone is one of profound unease. The deeply Catholic Elgar was never comfortable with himself in the way the pagan Strauss was with himself, and I catch the authentic tone of doubt, and of hope fighting despair, eloquently from this account.
Parry's The Chivalry of the Sea dates from 1916, and in musical terms it is very much Parry as I know him, the professionalism total but the inspiration second-order. Nevertheless it's one of the better works that I know from him and a welcome addition to my library. I was interested to learn from the liner that Parry was out of sympathy with the oratorio tradition. That tradition must indeed have had poor Handel turning in his grave, but I wonder in that case how Parry may have reacted to the merciless panning that his own oratorios Job and Judith got from Shaw. The other three works, all purely instrumental, are fascinating. Frederick Septimus Kelly's elegy on Brooke has yet to make a deep impression on me, but it is well worth having. Lilian Elkington's Out of the Mist is another matter entirely. The score of this 8-minute tone-poem, from 1921, was discovered fortuitously and I don't know whether it is yet in print. In my own opinion it deserves that and more, and it should be part of the standard concert repertory, being full of character, melody and real power. Gurney's War Elegy made a big impression on me too. I had known Gurney previously only for setting Housman, which is a sin I find hard to forgive in any composer. In terms of war poetry Housman's lines
Now when the flame they watch not towers
Above the land they trod,
Lads, we'll remember friends of ours
Who shared the work with God.
To skies that knit their heart-strings right,
To fields that bred them brave,
The saviours come not home tonight:
Themselves they could not save.
are out of Binyon's league, but they do not go to music, nor does anything by Housman. However Gurney makes noble amends here, although it seems that the restoration of his score was a scholarly task to rank with editing the text of Aeschylus.
The performances seem admirable to me. This is apparently the first recording of the Elgar work that gives it as he originally intended in the uneconomic version using two soloists. I was familiar with Susan Gritton from elsewhere, and I am thoroughly pleased to make the acquaintance of the tenor Andrew Kennedy who makes a worthy partner. The BBC SO and chorus seem to me excellent too, however difficult it may have been to accommodate these large forces in a recording.
Texts of the poems are provided, and the liner-notes by John Norris and Lewis Foreman are informative and absolutely fascinating. This is the first Dutton Digital issue that has come my way, and I hope there will be many more to this outstanding standard of imagination and enterprise.
on 19 May 2014
This is a fascinating collection of music by five English composers responding to the First World War. All music composition follows to some extent, Wordsworth's credo of emotion recollected in tranquillity, Here we have Elgar, Kelly and Parry writing during the conflict and Gurney and the neglected Lilian Elkington writing in 1920 and 1921, respectively.
Elgar is in reflective rather than gingoistic mood, and manages not to rise to the the lurid portrayal of the Germans in verse six of Binyon's The Fourth of August, as 'The barren creed of blood and iron,/ Vampire of Europe's wasted will...'
To some extent, I find the Gurney disappointingly bland, when compared to the vivid nature of much of his song writing of this period. It is possible that the task of deciphering the composer's intentions from his chaotic manuscript, has led to an overly cautions choice when alternatives presented themselves - without sight of the original manuscript, this remains a tentative view, however.
The real treat is provided by Lilian Elkington's Out of the Mist, inspired by the return voyage of the Unknown Warrior in November 1920. The composer's programme note sets the mood: 'This short tone poem is the outcome of a poignant memory connected with the War ...there was a thick mist over the Channel, out of which the warship slowly emerged as she drew near to Dover.' Like several of her female composer peers, Elkington gave up composition when she married. Yet, she is certainly worthy of further investigation.
"Spirit of England" is Elgar's war effort, written in 1916-17. Yet, despite the title, and the jingoism of the Binyon texts he set, the music is not the expansive stuff of Pomp and Circumstance, but more sombre and restrained. One of the texts, "For the Fallen", presented Elgar with a problem because he found that he had been pipped at the post by Cambridge composer Cyril Rootham (1875-1938) who, unbeknown to Elgar, was also setting the text at the time. In the end, both men completed their respective settings, although it caused some ill-feeling for a while, especially among Rootham's entourage. Happily, the listener can compare settings as Rootham's effort can also be found on disc.
For all Elgar's celebrity, Spirit of England has never really established itself in the concert hall, probably because it is an occasional piece, fitting only to be performed around Remembrance Sunday. For me it is the other, supporting works on the programme that create the greater interest. Frederic Kelly (1881-1916) was an Australian composer who came to study in England before serving in the Gallipoli campaign. He was present at the burial of the poet Rupert Brooke on the island of Skyros in 1915, and wrote this beautiful, heart-rending elegy in his memory. Kelly uses a wavering string motif to depict the rustling of an olive tree that stood guard over Brooke's grave. Little more than a year later Kelly himself was dead, a victim of the Battle of the Somme.
Another novelty on the programme is Ivor Gurney's War Elegy, with its slow, heavy march-like rhythms. Although Gurney was equally feted as poet and song-writer (the first since Thomas Campion, it is often claimed) his technique in orchestration was limited. The autograph score of this piece was shot through with ambiguities and errors which had to be addressed before it could be brought to performance. We must remember, too, that Gurney was a hapless victim of the very events he was trying to depict in the music.
Parry's "The Chivalry of the Sea" is a late work (1916) written to a text by Robert Bridges in memory of those who died at the Battle of Jutland. Parry was a superb choral composer, and his music here highlights every nuance of the poet's text - elegiac, but with a touch of defiance, too.
It is perhaps fair to say that the final composer on the programme, Lilian Elkington (1901-69), was completely forgotten until this Dutton revival of her sombre tone-poem, "Out of the Mist", which the composer says is meant to portray the return through the Dover Straits of the Unknown Soldier. The work was played three times in the early twenties and then discarded. Remarkably the autograph score turned up in a Worthing bookshop after the composer's death. Yet this is a noteworthy piece of music for a 20-year old composition student, exuding a memorable elegiac beauty. What a pity Elkington gave up music after her marriage.