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Remembering WWI with Poems and Music


Mak Morgan (file photo)

What a better way to celebrate our veterans than with music and poetry, based on the so-called Great War that began exactly a hundred years ago? This seemed an excellent idea to me, and, as I loved the poetry of Wilfred Owen, I arrived at New England Light Opera’s concert at Hancock Church in Lexington on Sunday full of anticipation.

NELO has planned a trio of concerts “informed by the British experience of the Great War… and inspired by Ivor Gurney’s rarely performed settings of A. E. Housman’s ‘A Shropshire Lad’ poems,” according to New England Light Opera’s (NELO) Artistic Director, Mark Morgan. “Gurney’s experience of the war strongly influences the work, and I began to wonder how the experience of the war influenced other British composers of the time.”

Morgan wore several hats on Sunday; program annotator, poem reciter, and singer for all but one item. My problems began with his notes, which stated that “We hope that these concerts will bring our communities together around the remembrance of the millions who died in this war, which has all but passed from modern consciousness in America.” Elsewhere he states the “conflict dragged the world into modernity at the cost of 8,528,831 lives ended and 21,189,154 bodies wounded. No one has counted the minds wounded. And yet this war has been all but forgotten here in the U.S. Now is the time to remember.” Well, isn’t that what Veteran’s Day is all about? Surely, the term “remember” has been preempted for other wars, but the many people of a certain age in the audience decidedly had not forgotten this war had happened. And the book and documentary specials on television have certainly not ignored the events of 1914.

The structure prefaced each number with a poem by the great British poet, Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), recited by Mark Morgan. A song or song cycle would follow, accompanied either by piano or strings and piano. Odd for opening a survey of British music was the famous Dover Beach (text by Matthew Arnold, 1882-1888) by the American Samuel Barber (1910-1981). Melancholy pervades Arnold’s famous poem, which started its life as a love poem but was co-opted here as a preview of war. Not only the most famous work on this program, Dover Beach (which was recorded with Barber himself singing the baritone part) was certainly the shortest and best (and only American) composition included.

Next, Wilfred Owen’s “1914” was read. While all of the songs’ texts were included, their poems were not, and these texts were integral to the strength of the program. Ivor Gurney’s (1890-1936) long song cycle for baritone and string quartet, The Western Playland (and of Sorrow) followed. Several of the composers and poets knew, or knew of, each other, and of those who were not killed in the war, Gurney had, perhaps, the saddest fate. After he was shot and gassed in the war, he spent the rest of his life considered insane and committed to an asylum, where he completed and reworked this song cycle. What was striking was the lack of memorable, singable tunes. It was the poetry and the imagery that were memorable, not the music. Alas, this was not the Golden Age of British music, rather it was largely post-romantic, harmonically and rhythmically turgid. The usually second-rate British composer (1883-1953) Arnold Bax started to seem like Bach. Occasionally, the music was reminiscent of Ralph Vaughan Williams’s gorgeous Songs of Travel, but without the melodic and harmonic genius that made them so beloved.

After intermission and a recitation of Wilfred Owen’s “Smile, Smile, Smile,” Morgan put on his singer’s hat and performed Three Songs (“Think No More, Lad,” “ The Lads in Their Hundreds,” and “Bredon Hill”) by George Butterworth (1885-1916), texts by A.E. Houseman. One of the countless soldiers whose body was never found after he was killed by a sniper in France, Butterworth destroyed most of his compositions before enlisting in 1914. His three songs are best recalled for their folksong-sounding melodies, written under the influenced of his fellow Brits, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp.

So far, the program had been basically a recital for baritone, so I was glad to have a change of texture in Herbert Howells’s (1892-1983) Piano Quartet in A Minor (1916), performed by members of Quartetto Ardente: violin Rebecca Hawkins, viola Anne Black, cello Reed Drews, with pianist Beverly Soll. It is painful for a reviewer to be negative about a debut of a group whose intentions are so well-meaning, but sadly I must report that intonation was a problem throughout this dismal and interminable 30 minutes. The piece was dedicated to his close friend Ivor Gurney, who was serving in France when Howells wrote it. Morgan’s program notes declare that Howell’s chamber and orchestral works are “far too rarely heard, and are, as the Piano Quartet shows, well worth seeking out.” Sometimes there are good reasons student pieces are neglected, and I cannot make a case for this one to be performed any more often than it already has been. Unlike its hype in the program booklet, it hardly seems to me “a remarkable achievement.”

Owen’s “The Send-Off” came next, followed by Morgan in selections from “By Footpath and Stile” to a text by Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), with music by Gerald Finzi (1901-1956). Like most of Finzi’s lovely and ingratiating output, it provided a welcome relief from the austere British compositions on most of the rest of the program. Looking backward in time, the two poems are lachrymose and mysterious. There is no wonder Finzi would have been attracted to them, having lost his father at age 8, his teacher Ernest Farrar at the Western Front, and three brothers during the war.

Owen’s devastating “The Next War” preceded the concluding, “For All the Saints,” its text by William W. How (1823-1897), its tune “Sine Nomine” by Vaughan Williams, adapted by Morgan from an arrangement by Owen Goldsmith. We learned from the notes that Vaughan Williams “volunteered for the Field Ambulance Service in Flanders and was deeply affected both by the carnage and the deaths of friends like George Butterworth.” It would seem all of literary and musical Britain before the Great War existed in very few degrees of separation.

The program got a standing ovation—standard response for concerts nowadays. This reviewer had several reservations, however. When I have heard lengthy recitals like this in the past, two or more singers would often take turns, allowing for some needed variety. Or someone else could, for example, read the poems. From two differently spots in the hall, I had the same problems hearing enunciation and pitch, which was unclear quite a bit of the time, in both the singing and the string playing. The quartet was making its debut after four years of spending “many enjoyable evenings together exploring the quartet literature with great camaraderie.” Still, to be in the Boston in a golden age of string quartets and have to experience such consistent problems with intonation in tonal music is distressing. The idea behind this program was a worthwhile one, even if no one has forgotten this monstrous war. New England Light Opera has enjoyed artistic success for over a decade, but its show on Sunday did not, alas, add luster to its reputation.

Susan Miron is a book critic, essayist, and harpist. Her last two CDs featured her transcriptions of keyboard music of Domenico Scarlatti.

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  1. I think you must have been at a different concert. Good heavens, what a harsh review for an absolutely gorgeous and spiritually profound event. I thought it was so powerful that I intend to go again this weekend, and bring a friend.
    I’m usually not a fan of instrumental music (words-with-music are my thing) but was mesmerized by the Howells, especially within the context outlined in the program notes. It is true that the concert relied on following the words, which were hard to understand without reading along, but this is nothing unique to this concert. (I would have liked to have the texts of the poems, too, because the acoustics did make it hard to hear clearly.) Accepting that the notes were an integral part of the musical experience, I was transported into [my imagining/projection of] that time and place, and connected emotionally in a deep way with a kind of timeless grief.
    I was not disappointed that the composers were “second rate.” It would be hard not to recall “first-rate” works by Britten, Poulenc, others who captured that era with top-flight brilliance and agony. But the story here was of a few lesser men, and how their smaller measures of genius left a more intimate record of their particular scars from that war, which I would agree has been “all but forgotten” by many. Painful and wondrous to remember it through this music.
    When I rose to applaud, I was weeping, both for my own hazy griefs around war (which are nothing like those of those who fought or lived thru it, but grief nonetheless) and also gratitude for Mark and his colleagues for offering up this liturgy of remembrance. Perhaps it did not “add luster to its reputation,” but NELO gave this audience a gift from the heart which will stay with me for a long time.

    Comment by Ruth — November 13, 2014 at 11:32 am

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