Songs of War was a concert organised by the War Poets Association (together with societies remembering particular poets) in St James’s Church, Piccadilly yesterday evening. St James’s is a building of dignified elegance, designed by Sir Christopher Wren, and located about half-way between Piccadilly Circus and Fortnum and Mason. It’s the church where Robert Graves was married to Nancy Nicholson, poor woman.
The songs were all based on Great War poems. Some settings were old, some new. Ivor Gurney came out strongly, both as poet and composer. A version of his ‘Pain’ by Ian Venables was terrific, especially the last line:
The amazed heart cries out angrily on God.
You can hear a music sample of ‘Pain’ here.
There was a world premiere of a Gurney-composed song that has only recently been rediscovered, a setting of W.W.Gibson’s ‘The Mugger’s Song’ that goes with a real swing – much jollier than other Gurney songs I’ve come across.
Some poets, I think, resist musical setting, and Wilfred Owen may be one of them. Maybe it’s something to do with his use of consonants, often close compacted.
Are limbs, so dear-achieved, are sides
Full-nerved, still warm, too hard to stir.
Say the lines aloud and you are slowed down – feel how hard your mouth has to work to clearly enunciate ‘nerved, still’. The power of the lines comes in part from the fact that they are not very singable.
Housman, on the other hand, is a gift to composers. There are wonderful versions by Vaughan Williams and Gurney, but this concert featured Butterworth’s terrific ‘Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad’. Butterworth was killed at Pozieres in 1916, and these songs make you wonder what he might have achieved had he survived.
A setting that really explored the inner life of a poem was Finzi’s setting of Hardy’s ‘Channel Firing’. By turns Finzi brings out Hardy’s foreboding and his dark humour, and finishes with a vision of ‘starlit Stonehenge’ that works sublimely.
Nicholas Mulroy (tenor) and William Coleman (baritone) shared the singing. As well as excellent expressive voices, both had very good diction. You could hear the words clearly – by no means always the case with concerts of this kind.