Somme Centenary

Live | Somme Centenary: BBC NOW

BBC Hoddinott Hall, Wales Millennium Centre, Cardiff, 1 July 2016

BBC National Orchestra and Chorus of Wales

Elizabeth Watts (soprano), Mark Stone (baritone), Philip Dukes (viola).
Conductor: Adrian Partington

Butterworth: Rhapsody For Orchestra (A Shropshire Lad)
Jacob: Symphony No. 1 – second movement
Howells: Elegy For Viola, String Quartet and String Orchestra
Roussel: Pour Une Fête De Printemps
Warren: Ave Verum
Delius: Requiem


Context would play only a small part in the evaluation of the arts if it were anything other than war and its depredations. At this concert, for example, to commemorate the beginning of the Somme offensive on July 1, 1916, all the music performed was written  by composers associated with the First World War: as fighting men who were killed; as survivors; or as those desperately looking on. A composer who made the ultimate sacrifice (as grisly death on the battlefield is euphemistically called) did not by that token raise the stature of his music if, under any other circumstances, it would have been considered inferior. Such an observation does not preclude the compensatory notions of loss, tragedy and pathos, applied as much to the music in situ as to the composer himself.  To mix emotive terms when considering composers in fatigues at that time, good men can write bad music and bad men good. Music’s saving quality, if emanating from a hand either ill-fated or heart-wrenchingly involved as an outsider, would be its composer’s unfulfilled promise. At the time of the First World War, when music itself was changing, that was significant.

Delius was bad, maddening, and dangerous to know. He was also bigoted and opinionated, though his views on the crippling piety of English music were spot on. He cut a swathe through the prostitutes of fin-de-siècle Paris, leaving a trail of misery and contracting syphilis, which eventually immobilised him and robbed him of his sight. At the outbreak of the war he was 52; when the German army was threatening the environs of the French capital, he fled with his wife, Jelka, to England. None of this, or any other unseemly part of his story, has a bearing on the sublimity of much of his music.  In the rarely-performed Requiem of 1922 he displayed integrity and courage, refusing to pander to religion when commemorating young artists who’d lost their lives in Flanders. Many at the première were discomfited, their grieving unassuaged and their non-clerical props rejected in favour of the rituals and certainties of Christian belief.

This performance, with many far-travelled Delians in the audience, was invigorated by the absence of contemporary misgivings and thus able to indicate how Delius’s atheism was ironically poised as much as its sentiments were concentrated. Mark Stone, deputising for Christopher Maltman, led the charge, supported by a galvanised chorus, with Partington, its director, taking control of the whole concert. He made a memorable event of it, not least in preparing Delius’s declamations and more astringent harmonies for Elizabeth Watts to make a bid for equivalence at the point where some sopranos feel cowed by the text’s philandering male argument, already hurled forth. Although Partington had the work’s course mapped, the final bars in which Delius attaches to Spring’s harbingers an exotic gilt were more afterthought than evocation, an end rather than a prospect of renewal. Often with a downward gravitational pull, Delius’s music has places where the tone needs to be lifted, and this is one. The composer’s own views notwithstanding, the Requiem isn’t his finest work – its Nietzschean sympathies can exude their own repulsiveness – but his finest hour may have been in presenting it to a public still war-weary and grief-laden. On the day of this concert, amid the 100th anniversary’s sometimes sanctimonious heart-searching and the machinations of a repellent political class, it stood as a human response to humanity abused on a grand scale by both politicians and a protecting deity.

Francis Purcell Warren was 21 when he was killed on the Somme. Whether he’d have come to anything we’ll never know, though there’s a Mozartian precosity about his teenage Ave Verum. The unaccompanied chorus, for whom it was a dawdle, gave it width if not the depth it understandably lacks. Warren’s death dismayed his fellow Royal College of Music student Herbert Howells, whose ill-health debarred him from active military service and who, later in life, was to bear his own domestic tragedy with the death of his young son. Howells’s Elegy for Viola, String Quartet and String Orchestra taps an elegiac strain in his character and it was movingly played by Philip Dukes and the orchestra strings, the quartet parts taken by the principals. Gordon Jacob was a survivor and a grief-bearer (his enlisted brother was killed) whose music has a restraint – or a lack of original spark – one associates with all those veterans who never talked about their experiences. The second movement of his Symphony No. 1 is a pretty ordinary funeral march, and indicative of how sometimes nothing, not even music, can adequately express the awful and ineffable. The relentless perpetuo driving a lot of Roussel’s music is there in Pour Une Fête De Printemps, a piece from a French surviving combatant that nevertheless asserts, with Delius, the rejuvenation of Nature, though with more retrospective anger and defiance at points where the score lets fly.

None of these shorter works stretched the BBC NOW, whose typically best playing was reserved for the Delius and the opening Rhapsody For Orchestra (A Shropshire Lad) by George Butterworth, killed in action at Pozières and arguably English music’s greatest loss of the war. Partington shaped the music to give it a sense of bulging potential that grew from colours influenced by Debussy and non-pastoral nostalgia derived from Wagner. The woodwind section excelled itself. English pastoral tradition, derided as ‘cowpat’, is informing not descriptive. In this work, Butterworth put us right about that, as the orchestra’s refulgent playing emphasised. The performance lingered in the air, a presage of things that might have been but were not to come. They did arrive almost ten years later with Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No 3, inspired by his wartime service. It must have been difficult to keep RVW out of this programme.