Friday, 13 June 2014

Farewell to Two Old Friends

It was with great sadness that we heard of the recent deaths of two of Siegfried Sassoon’s friends, both monks at Downside Abbey in Somerset.  I met Dom Philip Jebb, who passed away last weekend, on two or three occasions, when he spoke at Sassoon-related events.    I only met Dom Sebastian Moore once, but it was a memorable meeting and one that has stuck with me if only because I made a film of it which I bring out and watch from time to time.   Articles in past issues of Siegfried’s Journal contained material from both Philip’s and Sebastian’s memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, and will no doubt be reprinted at some future date and made available to members who are interested.

The reason I went to Downside to make a film with Dom Sebastian was not that I am some kind of Oliver Stone wannabe but because he was due to speak at our 2007 conference but had to cry off because he was going on holiday!  If you are anything like me, your immediate response will be “I didn’t know monks had holidays”.  Well, they do, although I gather it’s not a frequent occurrence, hence Sebastian’s reluctance to cancel.  In a somewhat surreal conversation, I spoke to him on my mobile while walking round the wine section of a Sainsbury’s supermarket in London (not far from The Lamb, though I didn’t realise it at the time).  Naturally, news of a minor disaster like this is always going to reach you when you are away from home and cannot  easily communicate with the other party.  You can just imagine my husband’s incredulity, sitting at home when a  nonagenarian monk rang up to try to speak to his wife!  To cut a long story short, I had managed to come up with one of my Brilliant Ideas.  These usually come to me in the early hours of the morning after a sleepless night worrying about some SSF-related situation or other.  I could hardly ask Dom Sebastian to cancel his holiday, so I asked him to give me an interview which I would record on video and play to the conference, and that is what we did.

It turned out much better than I had hoped.  I spent an hour or so talking to Sebastian, although only 15 minutes of our conversation is recorded on film after some judicious editing.  Somewhat naively, I anticipated getting nothing but the truth from a priest, so I took him at his word when he told me that he had felt daunted because he was “practically illiterate” when he first met Siegfried.  I had no idea, at the time, that he actually had a double first in English Literature from Cambridge; I learned this only later when speaking to Dom Philip.  I suppose that what he meant was that he felt inadequate in the presence of a famous writer like Sassoon.  Yet it sounded to me as though the pupil-teacher relationship between Sassoon and himself had been just that.  He told me that Siegfried never questioned any of the more difficult dogma of Roman Catholicism but simply accepted it; I daresay Dom Sebastian was very grateful for the respect shown him by his elderly pupil, but I feel equally sure that the self-effacing instructor earned his keep.

The nicest thing about my visit to Downside to see Dom Sebastian, I think, was our walk to the rock garden where he had given Siegfried much of his instruction.  We closely inspected the bench in the garden which appeared to have been installed long enough ago to have been the one on which Siegfried and Sebastian sat, though it could have been a later replacement.  Dom Sebastian said he did not remember for certain, giving me the impression that he had not spent a great deal of time in the garden since – and yet it was the perfect setting, and I could just picture the two of them there, side by side, with the monk hesitantly explaining the finer points of Catholic doctrine and Siegfried attempting to listen intently, his attention sometimes diverted by the beauty of the natural world around them.

The other side of Dom Sebastian was his humour.  He had a very easy manner and appeared not to be put off in any way by my being female.  He had lived so long that he had no need to worry about conventions or rules, and I gathered he was considered something of a rebel, in theological terms.  He was of course a little forgetful about some details.  The subject of Wilfred Owen came up, and I asked if he had read the biography by Dominic Hibberd, which had just come out.  He thought about it for a moment then said, "It was a big book, wasn't it?"  I concurred, and he said he had found it very moving.  He proceeded to go into detail on the subject, and, although I had read the book, I didn't remember the content well enough to discuss it in any depth, so, like an idiot, I just copied down everything he said.  It was only later, when Meg checked the text of the interview, that I discovered he had been talking about some completely different poet (possibly Geoffrey Dearmer).   

As I'll be writing an obituary of Dom Sebastian for a forthcoming edition of Siegfried's Journal, I will move on to Philip Jebb.   The grandson of Hilaire Belloc, he was some years younger than Dom Sebastian and still a relatively young man when he visited the terminally-ill Siegfried Sassoon in hospital in 1967.  He had known Siegfried for some years (as did most of the Downside monks) through his participation in the abbey's cricket team as well as his occasional visits for religious reasons, and wrote movingly of the poet's last days in a letter to his own parents written shortly after the funeral.

I only met Philip Jebb as an elderly man, and, like Sebastian, he suffered from a little difficulty in recalling details.  This led to some embarrassing moments before and during our conference at Downside in 2007. Dom Philip was responsible for the abbey's guesthouse accommodation, and one or two delegates arrived to find they had not been booked in (thankfully, no one was left out in the cold as a result).  Nor would those who were present quickly forget the five minutes or so (it seemed more like an hour) at the beginning of Dom Philip's talk which was spent searching the conference room for the precious letter, which he had put down somewhere.  

The most amusing incident, however, was one I was told of by Meg and Dennis after the event.  A couple of years earlier, Dom Philip had been one of the speakers at a "Sassoon Day" hosted by the War Poets Association at Mells.  When Dennis began talking about Mells at our annual dinner on the evening of the Downside conference, Dom Philip suddenly said, "You know, I should go and give a talk at Mells".  "You did," said Meg and Dennis in unison.  "Did I?  When was that?" asked Dom Philip, and duly received a reminder.  Demonstrating once again the monastic sense of humour, he replied, "Really?  Why wasn't I told?"

Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Another War Requiem

I am immensely grateful to those members and other correspondents who brought to my attention the current edition of BBC Music magazine, which deals in depth with the subject of the First World War, highlighting the plight of the musicians and composers who were involved and exploring the changes in the world of music that came about as a result of it.  Most of my readers will, I imagine, have heard the names of George Butterworth and Cecil Coles, two particularly promising British composers who died in that war, aged 31 and 29 respectively.  

The Scotsman Coles, little known in his lifetime, was "rediscovered" at the start of the 21st century; one of his works, Cortège, was used as the theme music to a documentary series about the Great War.  Some of his compositions survive as a result of his friendship with Gustav Holst (who at forty had been turned down for military service), to whom he posted copies of his manuscripts while on active service on the Western Front.  If you want to sample Coles's work, I would have to recommend a CD called Artists Rifles, issued in 2004, which includes not only Cortège but recordings of Sassoon, Blunden and others reading from their own work.

Butterworth, a close friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams as well as of Holst, was beginning to make his name as a composer by the time war broke out.  A teacher at Radley College (where our SSF President, Dennis Silk, was coincidentally headmaster for over twenty years in the latter part of the century), he kept his career as a musician secret from his fellow-officers in the Durham Light Infantry; having known him as G. S. Kaye-Butterworth, they discovered only after his death how distinguished a figure he had been. Among his best-known works are his settings of poems from A E Housman's collection, A Shropshire Lad, but it is his Banks of Green Willow, first performed early in 1914, that has captured the public imagination and led to his work featuring in the top 100 favourite classical pieces selected by Classic FM listeners in the annual "Hall of Fame".

The BBC magazine comes with a "free" CD included, containing works by Ivor Gurney and Frank Bridge. Gurney we know well and have been discussing on the SSF Facebook page ever since the BBC documentary about him, The Poet who Loved the War, presented by Tim Kendall in April 2014. Gurney's settings of the work of other poets include Sassoon's "Everyone Sang".  Bridge, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity to most people, even music lovers.  A committed pacifist, who was already in his thirties at the time war broke out, he produced one of his first war-related works in 1915 in the form of a Lament for the victims of the Lusitania.  His Oration, with Steven Isserlis on cello, is the work featured on the CD.

As for Gurney, a lot of what we have learned about him in recent years is a result of the efforts of Philip Lancaster.  Many members will recall how Dr Lancaster led us in a sing-song at our joint event with the WOA at The Lamb a couple of years ago; others will have enjoyed his lecture on Gurney at the recent Spring School in Oxford.  It was therefore disappointing to see him relegated to a non-speaking role in the BBC documentary, mostly popping in and out of library stacks.  Nevertheless, the programme brought Gurney to the attention of many who would otherwise never have heard of him, and showed how music and poetry were intertwined in the course of his artistic career.  Although certainly a tragic figure, he left a rich legacy for us to enjoy.

What the magazine achieves most effectively, however, is to draw attention to other musical figures of the time whose reputations are as yet unmade, not to mention some whose war service has been overlooked because they survived. Who knew, for example, that Arthur Bliss had fought on the Western Front and been mentioned in dispatches, many years before he became Master of the King's Musick?  Who knew that Maurice Ravel, nearly forty at the beginning of the war, was desperate to sign up as an airman but was rejected on health grounds and resorted to driving military vehicles at Verdun, and that Le Tombeau de Couperin was written in memory of fallen friends?  Herbert Howells, a Gloucestershire man like Gurney, was unable to serve after being diagnosed with Graves' disease (nothing to do with the poet of that name!) and was told in 1915 that he had six months to live; he eventually died, aged 90, in 1983.  He did, however, perform a useful service in being a regular correspondent of Ivor Gurney and the recipient of some of his manuscripts, as well as dedicating his 1915 Piano Quartet in A Minor "to the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it"; the two men had often walked Chosen Hill together.  As for Arnold Bax, who would be Bliss's predecessor as Master of the King's Musick, he too was prevented from enlisting on health grounds, but, in view of his sympathies with the Irish activists involved in the 1916 Easter Rising (one of his works is entitled In Memoriam Patric Pearse), this may have come as a relief to him.  In addition to his music, Bax wrote poetry (heavily influenced by W B Yeats) and prose.

How many, though, have even heard the names of William Denis Browne and Ernest Farrar, not to mention their German equivalent, Rudi Stephan, the Australian F S Kelly and the New Zealander Willie B Manson?  Both Kelly and Browne were companions of Rupert Brooke on board the "Grantully Castle", and it was Browne who selected Brooke's burial place on Skyros. Browne himself was killed only a few weeks later; Philip Lancaster has kindly posted a fascinating article about him on our Facebook group.   The young composer had two degrees from Cambridge - like Siegfried, he was at Clare College, though somewhat later than our hero.  He had also, like Brooke and Sassoon, enjoyed the patronage of Eddie Marsh.

Frederick Septimus Kelly, like Gurney and Bax, had another string to his bow, so to speak, being an Olympic rower! Having survived Gallipoli, he died on the Somme in 1916.  Rudi Stephan, from a privileged background, had been able to get his work published in his early twenties largely thanks to his father's money and influence, but was considered a little avant-garde by contemporary standards; his music is now highly regarded.  He was killed, aged 28, by a Russian sniper on the Galician front, where unrest continues to break out sporadically to this day.

Further material about these composers and their work is not difficult to find on-line.  I was staggered by the sheer quantity, once I started googling.   Although none of the composers who were killed in action are exactly household names now, you can be sure that Siegfried Sassoon, himself no mean practitioner of the piano, would have been familiar with several of them.

The Spaniard Enrique Granados, who died, aged 48, when his cross-channel ferry was torpedoed by a U-boat, has fared a little better, fame-wise, than those mentioned above, on account of having made his name as a composer and performer prior to the outbreak of war; he was in fact on his way back to his homeland from the USA where he had been playing the piano for President Woodrow Wilson. Meanwhile, the Russian Alexander Scriabin, also slightly too old to serve in the war, died in 1915 of septicemia from a sore on his lip!   Avoiding military service has never, alas, been a guarantee of longevity, even if it does give one a slightly better chance.

If I may suggest some further individual works with a wartime flavour, Arthur Bliss's "choral symphony", Morning Heroes, is written in memory of his younger brother Kennard, who was killed in 1916 aged 24, once again reminding us of Sassoon's experiences.  This rather epic work was performed at the Wilfred Owen centenary concert in Shrewsbury Abbey back in 2008, with Robert Hardy as narrator, and uses words from the work of Owen himself, Homer, Walt Whitman, Li Tai Po and Robert Nichols - a somewhat curious combination.  The other work performed at that concert was The Lark Ascending, composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, yet another Gloucestershire composer, who was too old to enlist as a fighting man but joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and certainly saw some action at the Western Front.  Later he transferred to the artillery, where continued exposure to the sound of the guns led to his becoming deaf in later life, always a disadvantage for a composer.  The poem after which The Lark was named is, coincidentally, by George Meredith, the subject of a 1948 critical study by Siegfried Sassoon.

I could go on all day.  There is, however, another aspect to the music of the First World War, highlighted in the BBC Music magazine, that had not seriously occurred to me, in the shape of its propaganda value.  I'm not just talking about popular songs like "Keep the Home Fires Burning" but about classical music.  I think this may be a subject for a future post.