On Armistice Day, Andrew Kennedy reflects on his personal experiences with the poems and music of World War One.
I have always enjoyed singing in English, and as a tenor am particularly lucky to have all the repertoire in song and opera that Benjamin Britten wrote for Peter Pears. So English song is a natural progression, and, thanks to competitions such as Cardiff Singer of the World song competition, my career as a recitalist has continued to flourish, and not been overshadowed by opera, as happens to so many singers.
My wife Kate is an academic and broadcaster who has worked on culture around the First World War period for the last 10 years or so. She began working on music around the war coincidentally at around the same time as I began to get more and more bookings to make CDs of English song, give recitals, etc. So we both began to discover the repertoire at the same time, from different angles.
She is currently working on a biography of Ivor Gurney, one of the most intriguing characters in recent musical history. He was almost unique in that he was both a poet and a composer, and his short life included 15 months in the trenches, mental breakdown and the majority of his adult years in an asylum. I became captivated by his story, and particularly by the fact that much of his writing and composition is still waiting to be edited, and is unpublished, languishing in an archive in Gloucester.
Both his music and his poetry are initially quite difficult to get to grips with, so he poses a huge challenge. The songs we selected, On Wenlock Edge and The Ghost had never been heard, so Julius Drake and I spent a long time trying to get to the bottom of what Gurney had had in mind. On Wenlock Edge is the only one of his songs written actually at the front that has been overlooked. The problem was that there were two versions of it, something Gurney quite frequently did.
Most of the songs that are published are only available because Gerald Finzi was given 24 hours to play through literally hundreds of manuscripts, which are difficult to read at the best of times, and decide which he thought were publishable. He himself admitted this was a preposterous task, but developed a code of ticks and crosses – two ticks being top class, a tick and a cross being ambivalent, etc etc. He gave Wenlock Edge two ticks, but it has failed to be published because until now no one has taken the time to come up with an edition combining the two existing versions.
One of the things that this project has brought home to me is how easy it is for works and even composers themselves to slip out of the generally performed canon – it only takes a few years out of the limelight for a generation to forget, or an editing problem, or an under-resourced trust, and a family who take little interest in their relative’s work. Kate was very keen to put the poetry alongside the music, partly because the two art forms are inseparable, but also because in Gurney’s case he could write a song in the morning and a poem in the afternoon – they sprang from the same inspirations; the Gloucestershire countryside, his war experiences, his struggle to retain his sanity.
Because of the format of recitals, and the division between poetry festivals and music festivals, there is rarely any opportunity to hear both his creative voices together. This made for a whole other element in the recording process, which was really inspirational. We were lucky enough to get Simon Russell Beale to agree to read the poems, and as he was frantically busy in between projects, he was really discovering the poems for the first time in the recording sessions. Some, like the Housman, are old favourites, and icons of the time, but others, such as Gurney’s Watching Music, are completely unknown, tucked into the appendix of one collection of his poems.
It was fascinating watching Simon making sense of these challenging, dense texts, and the sessions were so emotional. What struck me most was the musicality with which he read, absolutely involved in the sound world and imagery of the poems, moving his arms like a singer as he read. There wasn’t a dry eye in the recording booth by the time the session was over.
Julius was also a joy to work with, and I have the pleasure of doing projects with him regularly. He is a perfectionist, so some moments took a huge number of takes until we were absolutely satisfied. It did mean that we worked on the songs to get them to a point where we felt they made the most sense – the most important aspect of singing repertoire like this is the emotional honesty you bring to it. Your role is as interpreter, more than performer. So it was imperative that we really tried to get to the essence of each song, and find a way through them, a mood, speed, or idea that made them fall into place.
One of the other aspects that made this project special and helped us to reach the emotional integrity we needed to approach the songs was the understanding of their background, and some insight into what composers suffered during the war. It is all too easy, particularly when you have a busy career and a variety of repertoire, not to have a full understanding of the culture that has created the music you’re singing, or of the circumstances of the composer. It is arguable that this is not always necessary, although it is certainly always interesting, but when the situation is so extreme, and the events suffered so cataclysmic, it cannot help but deepen your understanding of the music to have some insight into the period.
The disc has been a voyage of intellectual discovery, discovering new songs, which we’re delighted to see are even now entering the repertoire; Julius is performing On Wenlock Edge at the Wigmore Hall in November, and it is a huge thrill to feel that through combining research and performance we might have been able to add something however small to the repertoire from this time.