• Ian Venables
  • Through These Pale Cold Days, Op. 46 (2016)

  • Novello & Co Ltd (World)

  • pf/va
  • Tenor
  • 23 min

Programme Note

As the preparations for the centenary commemorations of the Great War gathered pace in 2013, I began to think about how I might add my own tribute to those many creative projects that were being planned. The impetus to write this song cycle came from a number of oblique sources. Firstly, my home is near to Gheluvelt Park – a memorial park to the Worcestershire Regiment. It was this regiment’s self-sacrifice that prevented the German army from breaking through the allied lines in the early months of the war. According to Sir Winston Churchill, this momentous act of bravery changed the whole course of the conflict. So, first and foremost, I wanted to dedicate this new work to their memory. Secondly, I have had a long and close association with the Royal Grammar School Worcester. In 1914, it was the City’s principal grammar school and by the end of the war ninety boys had died. They too were uppermost in my mind. Finally, there was the commission itself from the Limoges Trust whose generous support helped to bring this work to fruition.

Once I had decided upon the cycle’s instrumentation, I began to search for 1st WW poetry that dealt with themes that would have resonance for a contemporary audience – one that is looking back on an event that has now passed into history. These ‘themes’ that I decided upon deal with the universality of loss, love and personal identity and so lift the poetry out of the arena of war and bring it within the compass of personal experience. Sometimes, I wonder whether I choose words or whether they choose me!

I say this, because when I first read Wilfred Owen’s (1893-1918) poem The Send-Off it jumped off the page and hit me with such emotional force that I felt compelled to set it. Indeed, the opening lines, ‘Down the close darkening lanes they sang their way to the siding-shed’, contains within it a strong musical rhythm that is highly suggestive of an army on the march. The song is ‘through composed’ and follows closely the poem’s verse structure of four five-line stanzas. By contrast, the second song, Procrastination, provides the cycle with a lyrical interlude. The poem is by an almost unknown war poet, Francis St. Vincent Morris. He was born in 1896 in Ashbourne, Derbyshire, the youngest son of Canon and Mrs Morris. In 1910, he went to Brighton College and subsequently gained a place to study at Oxford in 1915. In that year he joined the army and became a Second Lieutenant in the 3rd Battalion of the Sherwood Foresters. The following year he transferred to the Royal Flying Corps. In the spring of 1917 he crossed into France, and on April 10th his plane was brought down by a blizzard at Vimy Ridge; he died from his injuries on the 29th April. ‘Procrastination’ addresses the subject of love: love sought, felt and then lost. It echoes the tragic circumstances of those who were caught up in the conflict and who, like Vincent Morris, would be denied such love.

The third song is a setting of Isaac Rosenberg’s (1890-1918) final poem written three days before his death on the 31st March 1918. Rosenberg had a desperately unhappy time in the army where anti-Semitism was rife. He was persistently bullied for being a Jew and in a letter to his friend, Sydney Schiff, he wrote, ‘my being a Jew makes it bad among these wretches’. Despite this, he found solace in his Jewishness and identification with his religion’s long history of persecution. In Through these pale cold days Rosenberg presents a dream-like narrative; one where he can imagine himself communing with the ghosts of his ancestors. The author Timothy Kendall has written, ‘Rosenberg, in those pale cold days, is briefly at one with his ghosts; he sees with living eyes for them; they are dead and through him, alive. However, their visit is necessarily short; with new understanding of the future, they turn away to resume their search for the lost Edenic home. The poet is left behind, abandoned even by his own people’. A setting of Siegfried Sassoon’s (1886-1967) poem Suicide in the Trenches provides the cycle with a mock scherzo movement. Sassoon’s stark poem deals with one of the most horrific aspects of the War – the needless death of a young soldier who, suffering from severe psychological distress, depression and fear, is driven to suicide by the harsh conditions in the trenches. For the army’s leaders, however, suicide was viewed as a cowardly act and Sassoon’s poem was attacked for its anti-war and unpatriotic stance. The poem relates the story of a youthful but naïve recruit who, like so many others, was totally inexperienced to deal with the harshness of trench warfare. The song closely follows the poem’s Ballad-like contours with correspondingly energetic and spirited rhythms, and provides a rustic backdrop to the simple and carefree Folk-like vocal melody on the words, ‘I knew a simple soldier boy who grinned at life in empty joy’. The optimistic key of D major sustains the cheerful mood of this stanza but ‘Spring’s’ lightness is suddenly obliterated by the ‘Winter’ darkness of the second verse. Here, we are plunged into the horrors of the trenches – the devastation and exploding bombs (‘crumps’), the ‘lice’ and ‘lack of rum’. Then we are told that Sassoon’s young soldier ‘put a bullet through his brain/no one spoke of him again’. For this harrowing stanza, the music descends into a minor key with the underlying rhythms now becoming more insistent and the viola adding a menacing tone with the use of col legno. The trenchant vocal line, beginning at the words ‘In winter trenches’, becomes more agitated and angry as it reaches a violent climax on the words, ‘through his brain’. This powerfully expressive moment is sustained through to the line, ‘no one spoke of him again’. Here, the piano thunders down the keyboard arriving on two cataclysmic chords. On the second chord, marked sffffz, the pianist is directed to maintain the sound until it dies away to the point of temporal uneasiness. Following this, the opening piano introduction is reprised, initially heard quietly and at a slower tempo, but quickly moving to a faster tempo for the last verse. The song’s jaunty vocal melody makes a brief appearance before being scythed by the final line, ‘the hell where youth and laughter go’ – at which point the violent music from the central stanza returns and the song ends abruptly with a repeat of the earlier cataclysmic chords, however this time, there are three – the final one functioning as a bridge that links the song with the final poem of remembrance. When I was composing Suicide in the trenches I felt that I could not end it with the usual musical full stop; the poem’s emotional effect was simply too overwhelming. The music required space but not silence. To achieve this, the music segues without a break into the final song; a setting of Geoffrey Anketell Studdert Kennedy’s (1883-1929) poem If Ye Forget. Studdert Kennedy, or ‘Woodbine Willie’ as he was affectionately nicknamed, was the vicar of St Paul’s Church, Worcester. At the outbreak of the war he volunteered as an Army chaplain and became attached to a bayonet-training service. Studdert Kennedy became one of the best-known figures on the Western Front for giving Woodbine cigarettes and spiritual comfort to the soldiers. He was admired and respected by his comrades for his bravery under fire and he received the Military Cross in 1917 at Messines Ridge for running into no man’s land to rescue the injured. After the war, he became closely involved in the Christian Socialist and the Pacifist movements, touring the country giving public lectures. He died suddenly in 1929, whilst on tour in Liverpool. A crowd of over 2,000 people turned out for his funeral procession, lining the streets from Worcester Cathedral to St Paul's Church. They threw packets of Woodbines onto the passing cortege. Studdert Kennedy’s collected verse was published in 1927 under the title The Unutterable Beauty.

If You Forget opens with a tolling bell-like figure heard in the piano in a slowly paced 4/4 rhythm. The voice intones an anguished and yearning lament on the words, ‘Let me forget/let me forget’ and leads to the principal vocal melody on the words, ‘I am weary of remembrance/and my brow is ever wet/with the tears of my remembrance’. This disconsolate melody is underpinned by an elegiac piano accompaniment. Following a brief moment of intense reflection on the words, ‘Let me forget’, the tolling bell figure returns and the final stanza begins with a reprise of the song’s opening lament but this time the personal pronoun has been changed to ‘If You Forget’. On the final lines ‘Then your children must remember/and their brow be ever wet, with the tears of their remembrance/with the tears and bloody sweat’, the voice and piano are joined by the viola as they move towards the song’s contemplative conclusion. At the last moment, the poet makes an impassioned appeal to posterity. By reiterating the words, ‘If You Forget’, we are forced to reflect not only upon the sacrifice of those who gave their lives for the world we have inherited, but also to remember what is at stake if future generations fail in their duty of remembrance. The bleakness and unsettling nature of the cycle’s final bars seek to mirror the unresolved tension that underlies all acts of remembrance.

Ian Venables