A little while ago I wrote about the music of the First World War, and hinted that I would do so again at a future date. What prompts me to choose this moment is the memory of the wonderful concert I attended last Friday night at the Holywell Music Room. It is perhaps a little ironic that an audience who were in Oxford specifically to attend a conference on the poetry of the war should have gone away from the concert full of superlatives about the music.
It is not such a strange phenomenon when you consider that the songs performed by Roderick Williams to the able piano accompaniment of Gary Matthewman were all poems set to music. Not the ones you might expect, though, especially if you are unfamiliar with the work of Gerald Finzi, George Butterworth, Ralph Vaughan Williams and others of their generation. Butterworth’s musical settings of poems from A E Housman’s A Shropshire Lad give us a strangely prophetic vision of the devastating changes inflicted on the rural life of the Welsh Borders by war. “The lads in their hundreds” is the most obvious example, but, having heard a longer extract from the cycle sung by Roderick Williams recently in a BBC Prom, I can testify to the general impression. That the poems were set to music by a composer who would himself become one of those “lads who will never be old” simply adds to the pathos.
Several of the songs at the concert had previously been performed (and in one case, premiered) at the “Songs of War” concert organised by SSF stalwart Sam Gray at St James’s, Piccadilly, in 2009. Ian Venables, a composer whose work was featured in the programme and also at that earlier concert, gave an introduction to the programme Roderick Williams had devised for the centenary, including some detailed commentary on the individual poems and settings. Another composer, Elaine Hugh-Jones, was also present in person to hear her interpretation of Owen's "Futility"; thus the settings covered a hundred years of music, showing that war poetry has not lost its ability to inspire.
It was of course disappointing that there was no Sassoon included in the programme. We could perhaps have enjoyed one of the many settings by Siegfried’s friend Cyril Rootham. But Williams and Venables avoided the obvious, including few of the major war poets and poems - Charles Ives' setting of “In Flanders Fields” being a notable exception. Rupert Brooke's "The Soldier", in a setting by John Ireland, was another no-brainer. William Denis Browne’s "To Gratiana, singing and dancing", is almost an elegy for Brooke even though the words were written in the seventeenth century by Richard Lovelace.
Ivor Gurney cannot, of course, be excluded from any such programme, in view of his almost unique achievement in successfully straddling the worlds of poetry and music, both during and after the war; his setting of Wilfrid Gibson's "Black Stitchel" set the scene beautifully, and Gurney's own “Pain”, in a setting by Venables himself, was both agonising to hear and a particular highlight of the programme. A lighter moment was the rousing rendition of "Captain Stratton's Fancy", Gurney's setting of a poem by Masefield (not, as the programme wrongly stated, by F W Harvey; Harvey was, however, represented in the form of his poem "In Flanders", again set by Gurney).
Roderick Williams himself, a charming and impressive figure dressed in black, perfectly conveyed the emotion of the songs in his rich, powerful baritone, holding the audience captivated throughout, and it was the eminent poet Michael Longley who was first to his feet for the well-deserved standing ovation.