The Fallen Soldier was a notable and moving evening on two counts. Firstly, we heard a new work of real talent that immediately leaves you wanting to listen to it again (there is another performance in Cheltenham in July). It takes a certain type of ambition to set poems by another notable poet and composer, and Mander more than held his own. Secondly, it was one of those meditative experiences as an audience member when the legacy of warfare, its costs and paradoxes, took you back and forth in different emotional directions, none of them very reassuring save confidence over the quality of artistic response that the unique affront of the First World War still provides to the creative imagination.
Lie down, lie down, young yeoman;
What use to rise and rise?
Rise man a thousand mornings
Yet down at last he lies,
And then the man is wise. – Housman
Walking through the wedding-cake stucco of Belsize Park on a fine June day takes you more into the cherry blossom-clad world of Edwardian England rather than the conflict that shattered its cosier assumptions. Yet on entering the local church the mood shifts. There on the walls are plenty of symbolic reminders of the losses suffered in the wars of the twentieth century. Indeed the plaque for World War One even commemorates the vicar’s son, killed at Suvla Bay aged only 19…
The theatre company Antic Disposition has recently shown how powerful these ecclesiastical symbols and forces can be when released in a full dramatic context. Their travelling production of Henry V, relocated to a hospital setting in World War One, proved hugely successful on its tour of English Cathedrals. Similarly, here in a Victorian Gothic-revival church in Belsize Park, we encountered continuing resonances between the legacy of that era and the conflicts of our own, all mediated through the music of composers and poets who tried to come to terms with the great confidence-destroying fault-line of their own time. The main vehicle however was a new chamber opera which self-consciously drew on that period idiom and emotional reservoir of sad, disenchanted experience.
Louis Mander’s chamber opera is a new work that lasts half an hour or so. It is written for two singers (baritone and tenor) and an individual orchestral palette of a quartet of strings, oboe, trumpet and percussion. A sequence of movements offers solos or duets in which the singers explore their experiences as two men serving in the trenches, George (Nicholas Ransley) and Harry (Jonathan Forbes Kennedy). Sometimes an instrumental interlude links them, but more frequently the soldiers read letters which reflect upon events or anticipate the mood of the next sung section. Some of the texts set are poems by the war poet and composer, Ivor Gurney.
As always with texts of this kind there is a disarming poignancy to the letters, where a measured fatalism finds a dignity in defiance of the facts, and many tiny details of trench life still have the capacity to shock and startle the listener. There is a variety of moods too in the sung movements, from the bluster and noise and confusion of battle through to the yearning of love in absence and the final achievement of haven. The musical aspects of this performance are very satisfying, though the dramatic ones leave some things to be desired.
Mander’s style is very accessible. For a young composer he already has considerable experience behind him in writing for voices and instruments for performance in large spaces. While his music has its astringent moments, he is not afraid of long-breathed melodic lines or of expressive harmonic sequences that remain broadly within familiar tonal parameters. He is fully attuned to the period aesthetic of wistful regret, pastoral romance and raw anger that is present in Gurney’s own poetry and music and therefore provides very sympathetic settings of poetry that has its own internal music.
He also has a very fine ear for orchestral textures and timbres, which is almost painterly in in the way he picks out unusual combinations of instruments to provide a tautly tense or more self-consciously romantic underscore for the voice. There is clearly a debt here to Britten’s War Requiem and especially to its settings of Wilfred Owen. Janáček was lurking somewhere in the background too. However, there are moments of real individuality that transcend these influences. It is rare, for instance, to hear music for oboe, trumpet and viola that sounds so idiomatic and natural, especially when combined with sympathetic writing for the voice, which clearly sat easily within the range of the singers’ voices.
Jack Cherry’s production for Belsize Opera had limited resources to work with. There were a few props to indicate the reality of trench dugouts, and the singers were in uniforms (though surely a pair of army boots could have been found for them as well!). Only in the very last sections did the singers begin to move around within the body of the church. While coordination with the conductor becomes an issue in these circumstances, more could have been done to break down the barriers between the performers and the pews – in the way for example that the company Merry Opera manage it in their highly kinetic performances of oratorios.
The second half was meant to offer a performance of Gurney song cycle Ludlow and Teme, which would certainly have been a useful counterpoint. This had to be replaced with a discussion and a performance of some Housman settings by George Butterworth. The discussion focused on Gurney’s work and sadly, troubled life (yet another case of an undiagnosed and mistreated bi-polar condition) and the contribution of the more enigmatic composer, George Butterworth, who was killed on the Somme in 1916. This conversation between Mander and Forbes Kennedy served as a reminder of how Butterworth’s work and fate has done more than anything to tie Housman’s poetry to the First World War when it originally was connected to the Boer War or just to the phenomenon of loss in the abstract.
Butterworth’s settings from A Shropshire Lad were the first sequence that found a successful musical language that matched the suppressed romantic longing, pastoral rapture and dry cynicism of the poems. They received a generally fine performance from Mander and Forbes Kennedy, with an understated, neat piano accompaniment from the former and some finely floated lines from Forbes Kennedy. We heard four settings. These are familiar items which are difficult to re-interpret afresh without bending the music out of shape. They resisted this temptation for the most part, though ‘The lads in their hundreds’ was a tad too brisk and rigid so that the detailed description and delicate poignant fade failed to fully register. On the other hand that truly haunting lyric ‘Is my team still ploughing?’ received its full measure, with the final betrayal as devastating as it should be, and echoed exquisitely in the final wan falling figure of the piano.
This was a notable and moving evening on two counts. Firstly, we heard a new work of real talent that immediately leaves you wanting to listen to it again (there is another performance in Cheltenham in July). It takes a certain type of ambition to set poems by another notable poet and composer, and Mander more than held his own. Secondly, it was one of those meditative experiences as an audience member when the legacy of warfare, its costs and paradoxes, took you back and forth in different emotional directions, none of them very reassuring save confidence over the quality of artistic response that the unique affront of the First World War still provides to the creative imagination.