Ian Bostridge introducing his recording of On Wenlock Edge with Bernard Haitink and the London Philharmonic. Short version of the same video here.
I agree with Roger Scruton when he says, in England, An Elegy (2001), that On Wenlock Edge is “one of the masterpieces of modern music” and am glad he doesn’t say only English music.
Vaughan Williams composed these six songs after AE Housman – On Wenlock Edge, From far, from eve and morning, Is my team ploughing?, Oh, when I was in love with you, Bredon Hill and Clun – in 1909 for an unusual combination of forces, though it had precedents in France: tenor, piano and string quartet.
Fp: Gervase Elwes, tenor; Frederick Kiddle, piano; Schwiller Quartet; Aeolian Hall, London, November 15 1909. He made the orchestral version in the early ’20s. Fp: London (by whom and where?), January 24 1924.
Housman published the sixty-three poems of A Shropshire Lad in 1896 at his own expense. They are bleakly stoical, set in a universe devoid of divine grace or mercy, nostalgic for a vulnerable rural “land of lost content” and filled with references to war and to the deaths of young men. They were prophetic, since written at a time of peace, in 1894-95.
Housman’s earliest memory of Shropshire was views seen on walks near his family’s home at Fockbury in Worcestershire (Bredon Hill is in Worcestershire) in his childhood. He wrote (where?) that Shropshire was “our Western horizon, which made me feel romantic about it”.
At first A Shropshire Lad sold slowly, but during the Second Boer War (1899-1902) it became a bestseller. Its appeal was intensified in the trenches.
The first composer to set the poems had been Somervell, who composed a cycle for voice and piano in 1904. Many others followed. Whitman had a similar attraction, though he reached composers in continental Europe as well as England and America and his vogue lasted longer.
A Shropshire Lad is recorded complete, in verse and song, on Hyperion CDD22044 with Alan Bates, reader; Anthony Rolfe Johnson, tenor; Graham Johnson, piano. Musical settings are by Barber, Butterworth, Horder, Ireland, Moeran, Orr. There are also two Berkeley settings of poems not in A Shropshire Lad. Sleeve notes.
It is worth pointing out that Parry, Elgar, Delius and Holst did not set Housman. The poems might have had a certain appeal for Mahler (Jünglingetotenlieder?). Or perhaps not. They are too English. Housman acknowledged a German influence in Heine.
The great settings are the Vaughan Williams cycle and two for voice and piano by his younger friend George Butterworth: Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (1911) and Bredon Hill and Other Songs (1912). The first song of the first Butterworth cycle, Loveliest of trees, and the last of the second, With rue my heart is laden, were the basis of an inspired orchestral rhapsody called A Shropshire Lad (1912), music by and about a very young man in which fear half-overshadows rapture.
Butterworth was an Etonian, like Parry and Arne. He read Greats at Trinity, Oxford, but turned increasingly to music.
He met Vaughan Williams and became a collector of folk song in his own right.
He was already nearly a great composer when he went to the front. Would he have developed, or was the material that we have all that was in him? The phrase, the question, that opens the rhapsody, though it was written in peacetime, seems so much like a dawn on the Somme that it is difficult to imagine what he would have gone on to say in the ’20s or ’30s. Housman outlived him by twenty years.
I once played the rhapsody with Barbirolli and the Hallé to an Austrian musician who knew nothing about English music. He was ready to take it seriously because he had heard that Giulini admired and had even performed it. It seemed most unlikely, and I have still found no evidence of this by googling. Could he have meant Sinopoli? He agreed, anyway, that it was a masterpiece.
The Housman pieces aren’t quite all Butterworth wrote (the orchestral idyll of 1913, Banks of Green Willow, is famous, in Britain anyway), but his standards were exacting: he destroyed the scores which he considered unworthy before setting out for France in case he would not be able to revise them.
He kept quiet in the army about his music and in his letters home about his Military Cross. He died on the Somme in 1916, aged thirty-one. Brigadier-General Ovens of the North Command praised him as a soldier in a letter to his father and added: “I did not know he was so very distinguished in music.”
Here is part of Loveliest of trees, sung by John Shirley-Quirk, with Martin Isepp, piano, recording issued 1966, directly followed by the rhapsody, with Adrian Boult and the London Philharmonic in a recording made in 1954.
And here is Vaughan Williams’s Is My Team Ploughing? from On Wenlock Edge sung in 1917 by Gervase Elwes with the London String Quartet and Frederick Kiddle, followed in the same clip by Butterworth’s setting of the same poem at the end of his first cycle, sung by Peter Pears with Benjamin Britten, piano, in a recording made in September 1955.
You can hear the whole of the 1917 On Wenlock Edge recording here and here, but I recommend it only as a historical document. There is a much better modern recording, performers not stated, here and here.
Ivor Gurney, a survivor of the Somme, wrote a note on his programme following a performance on On Wenlock Edge by Gervase Elwes in May 1920:
“Purely English words retranslated and reinforced by almost purely English music – the product of a great mind not always working at the full of its power, but there continually and clearly apparent. The French mannerisms must be forgotten in the strong Englishness of the prevailing mood – in the unmistakable spirit of the time of creation. England is the spring of emotion, the centre of power, and the pictures of her, the breath of her earth and growing things are continually felt through the lovely sound.”
The music may be English, but it is fully aware of what is happening on the continent. Vaughan Williams had studied with Ravel, who was his junior by two and a half years, in Paris for three months in early 1908. The fifth song, Bredon Hill, shows Ravel’s influence clearly, especially at the end. The last verse of Is My Team Ploughing? takes us into the world of Gurrelieder. There will be passages in the London Symphony (1912-13) which remind one of Petrushka. These influences never make Vaughan Williams sound derivative. He has metabolised them. His music is original. Gurney is right if that is what he meant.
The setting of the words No change though you lie under in Is My Team Ploughing? seems an echo of Gerontius, an influence on Vaughan Williams, as it would be, whether acknowledged or not, on Britten. On Wenlock Edge is the most brilliant modern English song-cycle before Britten’s Les Illuminations, for which get Bostridge on EMI again, with Simon Rattle and the Berlin Philharmonic.
Gervase Elwes was a cousin of the father of Toynbee’s correspondent Columba Cary-Elwes. From 1904 onwards he was a famous Gerontius.
In late 1939 or early 1940, Columba visited his cousin, Gervase’s son, at Elsham Hall in Lincolnshire and found Gervase’s copy of Newman’s poem, which had been given to him by Mary Gladstone. Laid in it was a letter of some theological interest from Newman to an obscure person. Columba sent it to my godfather, who was the editor of The Tablet, and it was printed in the edition of April 6 1940. My godfather’s portrait was later painted by another of Gervase’s sons, Simon Elwes.
Toynbee quotes Housman, including On Wenlock Edge and From far, from eve and morning, in at least four volumes of A Study of History, usually as examples of a pessimistic stoicism, not for his pastoral themes. He thinks of him as a plaintive echo of Lucretius. No doubt he also respected him as a classical scholar.
We know that he was acutely and guiltily conscious of what the Butterworth site calls the “arbitrariness of who would return [from the war] and who would not”.
For Housman’s life and its meanings, see Tom Stoppard’s The Invention of Love.
Is My Team Ploughing? is a poem about somebody else taking over your life.
“‘Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?’
Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.
‘Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?’
Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.
‘Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?’
Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies not down to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still, my lad, and sleep.
‘Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?’
Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.”
A living man meets a dead, as in Wilfred Owen’s Strange Meeting. The penultimate verse could mean that the two had themselves been lovers.
Housman, though not musical, always gave permission for composers to set his poems, but was unhappy when Vaughan Williams omitted the third and fourth verses of this (he set the others complete). Vaughan Williams is said to have commented that a composer had a right to set any part of a poem so long as he did not change its meaning, and in any case deserved to be thanked for having left out the lines
“The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.”
Vaughan Williams in a musical autobiography reprinted in National Music and Other Essays, OUP, 1963:
“Ravel paid me the compliment of telling me that I was the only pupil who n’écrit pas de ma musique.”
In April 1909, Ravel, soon to start work on Daphnis et Chloé, stayed with the Vaughan Williamses in Cheyne Walk. Ursula, his second wife, in R.V.W.: A Biography of Ralph Vaughan Williams, OUP, 1964:
“Ralph enjoyed taking him sight-seeing [...]. It appeared that steak and kidney pudding with stout at Waterloo Station was Ravel’s idea of pleasurably lunching out.”
Ravel to Adeline Vaughan Williams:
“C’est la première fois qu’il m’arrive de regretter vivement un autre pays. [...] Il a fallu cet accueil cordial et délicat [...] pour me faire goûter le charme et la magnificence de Londres [...].” Arbie Orenstein, editor, Maurice Ravel: lettres, écrits, entretiens, Paris, Flammarion, 1989. Last three quotations are from www.maurice-ravel.net.
In February 1912, Vaughan Williams attended the French premiere of On Wenlock Edge in Paris at which Ravel played the piano part. Ravel wrote to him afterwards (source?):
“Everyone is agreed that your lyric poems were a revelation.”
Scruton, op cit:
“The turning points in English literature can be seen as attempts to re-enchant the land, as it was re-enchanted in Shakespeare’s Arden, in Milton’s Eden, in Gray’s Elegy, in the poetry of John Clare, in the novels of Fielding, in Blake’s lyrics and mystical writings and – pre-eminently – in the Prelude of Wordsworth. Housman’s land of lost content is mourned because the poet’s impoverished imagination could fill it only with substitute people, postcard peasants who had no place on the living earth. The real tradition of English literature continued in its ancient way – not grieving over a Merrie England that had never existed, but re-enchanting the landscape, as Hardy and Hopkins did, as Lawrence did and as Eliot did in Four Quartets. Those writers turned to the landscape not in order to sentimentalise it, but in order to discover another order, a hidden order, which had been overlayed by history but which was, nevertheless, the true meaning of that history and the deep-down explanation of our being here.”
The music of Elgar, Delius and Vaughan Williams works at the same level. Out of Vaughan Williams’s experience in the Great War would come a Pastoral Symphony.
Orwell in the second part of his essay Inside the Whale (1940):
“At the beginning of the period I am speaking of, the years during and immediately after the war, the writer who had the deepest hold upon the thinking young was almost certainly Housman. Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous and is now not at all easy to understand. In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the Shropshire Lad by heart. [...]
“His poems are full of the charm of buried villages, the nostalgia of place-names, Clunton and Clunbury, Knighton, Ludlow, ‘on Wenlock Edge’, ‘in summer time on Bredon’, thatched roofs and the jingle of smithies, the wild jonquils in the pastures, the ‘blue, remembered hills’. War poems apart, English verse of the 1910-25 period is mostly ‘country’. [...]
“Moreover all his themes are adolescent – murder, suicide, unhappy love, early death. They deal with the simple, intelligible disasters that give you the feeling of being up against the ‘bedrock facts’ of life [...].
“And notice also the exquisite self-pity – the ‘nobody loves me’ feeling [...].
“Such poems might have been written expressly for adolescents. [...]
“But Housman would not have appealed so deeply to the people who were young in 1920 if it had not been for another strain in him, and that was his blasphemous, antinomian, ‘cynical’ strain. The fight that always occurs between the generations was exceptionally bitter at the end of the Great War; this was partly due to the war itself, and partly it was an indirect result of the Russian Revolution, but an intellectual struggle was in any case due at about that date. Owing probably to the ease and security of life in England, which even the war hardly disturbed, many people whose ideas were formed in the eighties or earlier had carried them quite unmodified into the nineteen-twenties. Meanwhile, so far as the younger generation was concerned, the official beliefs were dissolving like sand-castles. The slump in religious belief, for instance, was spectacular. For several years the old-young antagonism took on a quality of real hatred. What was left of the war generation had crept out of the massacre to find their elders still bellowing the slogans of 1914, and a slightly younger generation of boys were writhing under dirty-minded celibate schoolmasters. It was to these that Housman appealed, with his implied sexual revolt and his personal grievance against God. He was patriotic, it was true, but in a harmless old-fashioned way, to the tune of red coats and ‘God save the Queen’ rather than steel helmets and ‘Hang the Kaiser’. And he was satisfyingly anti-Christian – he stood for a kind of bitter, defiant paganism, the conviction that life is short and the gods are against you, which exactly fitted the prevailing mood of the young; and all in charming fragile verse that was composed almost entirely of words of one syllable.”
Quotation taken from here.
The Boy and the Man by George Clausen, shown at the Royal Academy in 1908, always makes me think of Is My Team Ploughing?, though the boy is only physically on a different plane.
The Times (May 4 1908) felt that the painting (197.5 x 164 cm, now Cartwright Hall, Bradford) was “too large for its subject, unless we read into The Boy and the Man a spiritual significance which is not there”. I find some Clausens too small for the effect for which they are striving, but The Boy and the Man works for me. Enlarge.
Housmanesque: The End of a Long Day, c 1898 (dimensions to follow, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth) and a similar work, same period (name, dimensions and whereabouts to follow)
Hyperion used a painting by Clausen – Sunrise in September (72 x 93 cm, Ferens Art Gallery, Hull), painted near Duton Hill in Essex and shown at the Royal Academy in 1924 – for the cover art of a 1990 CD of On Wenlock Edge and two Housman cycles by Gurney (reissue artwork).
Adrian Thompson, tenor, for On Wenlock Edge and Ludlow and Teme (composed 1919-20, published 1923); Stephen Varcoe, baritone, for The Western Playland (part going back to 1908, published 1926); and Iain Burnside, piano and Delmé Quartet for all three. CDH55187. Sleeve notes.