« »

2011.10.13 Simon Keenlyside presents ‘SONGS OF WAR’


London, 13th October 2011

Previous interview 2011.10.19 Baritone Simon Keenlyside: Force of Nature. SFCV >>>
Next interview 2011.10.18 Tales from the Stave, BBC Radio 4 programme >>>

In November 2011, Sony Music will release ‘Songs of War’ by baritone, Simon Keenlyside. [Click cover for CD details]

Songs Of War Hi-res Cover

Just as his Gramophone Award-winning debut recording for Sony Classical, ‘Tales of Opera’, featured a personal selection of the singer’s favourite arias, so the eagerly-anticipated ‘Songs of War’ incorporates Keenlyside’s hand-picked selection of war songs that reflect such universal themes as fear, yearning, loss, restlessness, homesickness and love.

Recorded in February this year and featuring celebrated pianist, Malcolm Martineau, the CD includes works by a range of influential composers such as Ralph Vaughan Williams (Youth and Love, The Infinite Shining Heavens, The Vagabond); Arthur Somervell (Into My Heart An Air That Kills, There Pass the Careless People, White in the Moon The Long Road Lies, The Street Sounds to the Soldiers’ Tread); George Butterworth (his famous setting of A.E. Housman’s  A Shropshire Lad together with On Bredon Hill, O Fair Enough are Sky and Plain, When the Lad for Longing Sighs, On the Idle Hill of Summer, With Rue My Heart is Laden); Peter Warlock (The Night); Gerald Finzi (Fear No More the Heat o’ the Sun), Frank Bridge (Thy Hand in Mine); Ned Rorem (An Incident); Ivor Gurney (When Death to Either Shall come, In Flanders); John Ireland (Sea Fever, Vagabond, The Three Ravens) and Kurt Weill (Beat! Beat! Drums!, Dirge for Two Veterans).

Simon Keenlyside’s choices for the recording reflect the fact that much war poetry written in the English language is, in the main, more about life than death and he was struck by how many former soliders put their energies into life-affirming, humanitarian projects around the world, reflecting an optimism borne out of having witnessed destruction and despair at close hand.   He showcases here a range of songs, some of which are indeed war poems and some which resonate with war themes or else are clearly associated with war.   Other poems are included because of Keenlyside’s own empathy for the safety and well-being of young men and women involved in theatres of war and for those left worrying at home; for those who have lost their loved ones or received them home, damaged or injured and for those far away, yearning for home and family.

Many of the songs on the disc, such as ‘Sea Fever’ reflect a restlessness, a searching for something more fulfilling than the mundane and routine that the soldiers percieved awaited them in civilian life and poems such as ‘The Vagabond’ (particularly the Vaughan Williams setting) likewise represent something of that restlessness.
So too ‘Youth and Love‘. The latter is not specifically about war, but alludes to it nevertheless. The young man is up and away for adventure but the trumpet fanfare in the texture of the piano accompaniment hints at military enlistment.

The George Butterworth song ‘When I was One and Twenty’, set to the A.E. Housman poem from the collecton ‘A Shropshire Lad’, is included here as it is linked to the business of war.  Even though many of the poems do not discourse its brutality and many do not even allude to fighting of any sort, they speak instead of the longing for home and loved ones, for pubs and well-remembered country lanes, for rivers, for friends, laughter, hearth and home, soldiers longing for their families and, at home, the unsung and shivering fear that their men and women might not return.

The same is true of ‘The Night’, a poem by Hillaire Belloc, written in 1896 in the wake of two Boer wars and set to music in 1927 by Peter Warlock.  As with so many great British poems and songs written under the shadow of wars recently finished or else where nations are gearing themselves up for conflict, both the poem and the song have a fragility, a resonance of terribly uncertain times.  Peter Warlock was 20 at the outbreak of the first world war and this song has a beseeching quality for peace and respite from great anxiety and fear of what tomorrow might bring.

The theme of homesickness is taken up in Vaughan Williams’s setting of ‘The Infinite Shining Heavens’ and the two poetry collections – A.E. Housmans ‘A Shropshire Lad’ and Robert Louis Stevenson’s ‘Songs of Travel’. Housman’s is a direct response to war, Stevenson’s to a travelling life, stressing the emotional affinity between those who go away on military service and those who have opted for whatever reason for  a life of travel.  Both may suffer homesickness and a yearning for the familiar whilst far away from home.

Some of the songs and poems included,such as ‘The Street Sounds to the Soldiers’ Tread’ are a traditional, classic and idealised clarion-call to arms . No mention here in this song, of consequences. No facts, no appraisals, no rights or wrongs – just the seductive lure of a uniform and an all-embracing life of cameraderie to a young man.  Only right at the very end does the song and its narrator step back tenderly to wish the young men good luck.

With Butterworth’s ‘When I was One and Twenty‘, there is nothing in the poem which ever speaks of war.  The weight of the poem only comes when juxtaposed with thoughts of the flower of British youth being sent in their hundreds of thousands to the trenches of the First World War, there to be slaughtered wholesale.  This song, coupled with another in the collection ‘Think no more, Lad‘, points-up the age-old story of youth – as yet unknowing –  straining for the glory.  Thoughts which will, all too soon, turn from adventure to pain, loss, regret, introspection and a change of heart.

Songs such as Somervell’s ‘There pass the Careless People’ or Butterworth’s ‘The Lads in their  Hundreds’ contain uncomfortable observations. The soldier returns, ghost-like, in his old community and comments upon the faces and attitudes he sees in the streets.  It’s an awkward place to be, as a civilian, under the spotlight of the old soldier’s gaze and to be found wanting.  The poet envies those who will return to their Maker. Perfect in their glorious youth, as bright as new coins, never having to suffer the indignities of old age.  (Butterworth himself was killed in the trenches of the First World War).

Much here is about the sheer terror and brutality of war as witnessed by poet Wilfred Owen.  American poet, Walt Whitman too was unafraid of describing the shattered and torn bodies of once a once perfect youth in poems and songs that do not shirk from the filth of war, injury and death, such as ‘An Incident’, set by Ned Rorem.

Finzi’s setting of Shakespeare’s ‘Fear no more the Heat of the Sun’ is an acceptance of death. Inevitable, honoured in its coming.  Not a war poem  but one which would comfort any man or woman who had suffered the loss of a deeply loved person.

The disc finishes with two songs by Kurt Weill and Walt Whitman – savage indictments of war and the appalling euphemistic term in use today: ‘collateral damage’. They turn their spotlight on those innocents who had neither asked for nor provoked conflict or attack. Whoever they are and from whichever country, they are just the same and, as in all wars, bombed out of their beds and out of existence with countless lives wrecked and their peaceful existance, far from the theatre of war, shattered beyond repair.  These are the guts of the song ‘Beat!  Beat!  Drums’. In the final song, ‘A Dirge for Two Veterans’, the singer is a narrator with no involvement,  no waves of emotion over the rights and wrongs of war – just a great empathy and love for those fallen.

As Wilfred Owen noted: “My subject is war and the pity of war. The poetry is in the pity. All a poet can do is warn”.

Previous interview 2011.10.19 Baritone Simon Keenlyside: Force of Nature. SFCV >>>
Next interview 2011.10.18 Tales from the Stave, BBC Radio 4 programme >>>

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment