About this Recording
8.573426 - Choral Music - VAUGHAN WILLIAMS, R. / FINZI, G. / GURNEY, I. (Flowers of the Field) (City of London Choir, London Mozart Players, Wetton)

Flowers of the Field


All the composers gathered on this recording were affected by the carnage of the First World War. Vaughan Williams, Butterworth and Gurney served in that conflict; of them, Butterworth died and Gurney’s remaining life was scarred by mental instability, while the teenage Finzi lost his beloved teacher, Ernest Farrar. What binds together the music too is its elegiac character; it is music of regret and lost innocence, of love won and lost, of the Romantic idyll of the wanderer on the open road, of the young soldier, sacrifice and premature death.

George Butterworth is one of the tantalizing figures of early 20th-century British music. His loss was grievous since his was an outstanding talent and the handful of works he left indicates a composer of major stature. What might he have achieved had he lived? Educated at Eton and Oxford, he taught at Radley College, wrote music criticism for The Times, before briefly attending the Royal College of Music. He became a major force in the English Folk Dance and Song Society, notating songs and dances mainly in Oxfordshire and by repute he was a fine folk dancer himself. His principal legacy was his two song cycles to poems by A.E. Housman, Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (1911) and Bredon Hill and Other Songs (1912), as well as two orchestral works, A Shropshire Lad (1912) and The Banks of Green Willow (1913).

Butterworth enlisted only days after the declaration of war in 1914 as a private in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light infantry. Later he became a Second Lieutenant in the 13th Durham Light Infantry; he was killed by a sniper’s bullet at Pozières during the Somme offensive in 1916. His gallantry earned him the posthumous award of the Military Cross, and the naming of a trench after him. He was a close friend of Vaughan Williams who dedicated A London Symphony to his memory.

No other composer quite got under the skin of Housman’s bleak pessimism so much as Butterworth. The rhapsody A Shropshire Lad, was conceived as an epilogue to his Housman song cycles, and seems to encapsulate the sense of life’s transience that is the core of the poet’s sensibility. First performed by the London Symphony Orchestra at the 1913 Leeds Music Festival, conducted by Artur Nikisch, the work is based mainly on a fragment of melody sung to the opening words of the first song of the A Shropshire Lad cycle, ‘Loveliest of Trees’, whose descending melodic line is a brilliant musical image of the downward flutter of falling blossom. The cherry tree’s brief splendour is evoked through a majestic brass climax taken from the melody at the words ‘wearing white for Eastertide’. As the music becomes more restless it reaches a searing climax, laced with melancholy, which is briefly assuaged by a tender recollection of the main theme on violins. However, the rhapsody ends in desolation as the flute alludes to the opening line of the final song of the Bredon Hill cycle, ‘With rue my heart is laden’.

Too young to be a combatant in the First World War, Gerald Finzi, was undoubtedly profoundly affected by it. Fleeing from Zeppelin raids on London, Finzi and his mother settled in Harrogate in 1915, where for a brief time the shy teenager found in Ernest Farrar an inspiring mentor. All too soon, Farrar was on his way to the front, where he was killed within days of arrival. Finzi was shattered, and this, combined with the legacy of the deaths by this time of his father and three brothers, left an indelible mark on his art as a composer: the preciousness of life, the importance of unsullied innocence, the restless march of time, all became the core preoccupations of his music.

After Farrar’s death Finzi studied with Edward Bairstow and with R.O. Morris. He came to attention with the orchestral A Severn Rhapsody (1923) and during the 1930s the song cycle A Young Man’s Exhortation (1926–29), settings of his favourite poet Thomas Hardy, brought him to wider attention. His reputation was consolidated with the cantata Dies natalis (mid-1920s, 1938–39), a seraphic response to Thomas Traherne’s metaphysical poetry. Later works include the Clarinet and Cello Concertos (1949 and 1951–55 respectively), further important Hardy settings, for example, Before and After Summer (1938–49) and his large-scale choral setting of Wordsworth, Intimations of Immortality (late 1930s, 1949–50.)

Unquestionably the wellspring of Finzi’s Requiem da Camera was Farrar’s death, as the dedication ‘In memory of E.B.F.’ indicates and, by extension, it is a requiem too for other fallen artists such as Butterworth. However, the work may be viewed too as a metaphor—the permanence of the land, and centuries-old pattern of rural life, contrasted with the violent havoc and destructive dislocation wrought by war. In this it bears affinity to Edward Thomas’s The Trumpet and it is no coincidence that Finzi greatly admired the poet, as indeed he did Ivor Gurney, whose music and poetry he ardently championed.

Scored for baritone, mixed chorus and small orchestra, it was his first attempt at composing an extended work comprising several movements. Its musical origins are traced to Finzi’s 1923 setting of Thomas Hardy’s In Time of ‘The Breaking of Nations’ for male voices and piano. This would become the third movement of the Requiem da Camera, to which would be added in the following year two further settings of poetry written during the First World War—verses from John Masefield’s August, 1914, and W.W. Gibson’s Lament, from Whin—forming the second and fourth movements respectively, the whole being prefaced by an orchestral prelude. The concluding page is dated ‘Painswick, 1924’. Finzi had no success in his attempts to get the work published and at some point during the 1930s it seems he decided the Hardy setting was unsatisfactory since he wrote an entirely new version for baritone solo, conceived for orchestral accompaniment (although this was only partially completed).

Apart from its specific commemoration of Farrar, Finzi binds his work together with a motif heard at the opening of the prelude which also includes overt references to Butterworth’s song Loveliest of Trees from his A Shropshire Lad. In the oboe’s poignant solo towards the end, Finzi weaves in allusions to The Last Post, which recur hauntingly at the end of the work played by the flute. Apart from the final Hardy setting, Finzi’s voice for the majority of the work is still as if in a chrysalis, yet there are pointers to the mature composer—the use of Bachian counterpoint, dissonant clashes between sharp and flat notes against naturals for vivid word painting, and the slow, march-like tread of descending bass lines.

The only part of the Requiem da Camera to be performed during Finzi’s lifetime was the Prelude in 1925. The first performance of the full work, in an edition by Philip Thomas with his completed orchestration of the third movement, took place in 1990 in London, conducted by Richard Hickox. This recording is of a new edition and completion by Christian Alexander which was first performed in Australia in 2013. The first UK performance of this edition was given by the City of London Choir, conducted by Hilary Davan Wetton, as part of the 2014 English Music Festival.

Although not killed on the battlefields of France, the composer and poet Ivor Gurney was, nevertheless, another victim of the war, scarred through injury and the effects of gas. Born in Gloucester, he was a chorister at Gloucester Cathedral and a pupil of the cathedral organist Herbert Brewer. In 1911 he won a scholarship to the Royal College of Music where he studied with Stanford. By 1913 as well as composing he was writing poetry. His music legacy was almost entirely songs, for instance Five Elizabethan Songs (1913), which includes the masterly Sleep, two cycles to Housman Ludlow and Teme (1919) and The Western Playland (1920) as well as Lights Out (1926), setting poems by Edward Thomas, yet another victim of the slaughter.

Gurney volunteered for service on the declaration of war, but was rejected because of poor eyesight. The following year he was successful, joining the 2nd/5th Gloucesters. In 1917 he was wounded, then gassed at Passchendale. Invalided back to England, he suffered a mental breakdown and contemplated suicide. He was discharged from the army in October 1918. Despite periods of mental stability, during which he resumed studies at the Royal College of Music under Vaughan Williams, he was declared insane in 1922, spending the final 15 years of his life in an asylum. His first volume of poetry Severn and Somme, published in 1917, was widely admired; War’s Embers followed two years later.

In his Thomas cycle, Lights Out, he set the poem The Trumpet, which he had previously composed for chorus in 1921. This earlier setting is for 4-part choir with an accompaniment which the scholar Philip Lancaster surmises was intended for orchestral forces. However, Gurney failed to orchestrate the work which then languished until the première of the extant music at Abbey Dore, Herefordshire, conducted by Paul Spicer in 2007. Lancaster’s edition, with his idiomatic orchestral version, was first performed the following year.

Although they never met Gurney felt a strong affinity with Thomas through his poetry, both sharing a love of nature and the countryside. Thomas wrote The Trumpet in 1916 whilst training in Wiltshire, the words spurred by the trumpet calls which, he wrote to a friend, ‘go all day’. The poem is a cry from the heart that mankind must set aside the folly of war, and return to a saner world. With its fanfare-like opening rise, Gurney’s music in its majestic breadth and sweep appositely captures the spirit of Thomas’s metaphorical call to arms.

The première of the Fantasia on a theme of Thomas Tallis announced that a distinctive new voice had emerged in English music. Overnight Ralph Vaughan Williams became the spiritual leader of a generation of British composers including Gurney, Howells and Finzi. He studied at Cambridge and the Royal College of Music where his teachers included Parry and Stanford. Later he studied with Ravel. He began collecting English folksongs in 1902 and was editor of the English Hymnal (1906). For the roots of his style he turned to the English folksong tradition and the music of the Tudor period. His long compositional career included nine symphonies that formed the backbone of his achievement. Other significant works include the ‘masque for dancing’ Job (1927–30), the operas Sir John in Love (1924–28), and The Pilgrim’s Progress (completed 1949) and the choral Sancta Civitas (1923–25).

Despite being 42 in 1914 Vaughan Williams enlisted on New Year’s Eve that year as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. From 1916, he served first in France, then Salonika, as a stretcher bearer, before being commissioned in 1917 as an officer in the Royal Artillery when he returned to France. He responded to his experiences in his highly personal requiem for the fallen A Pastoral Symphony (1921–22) and the choral and orchestral Dona nobis pacem (1936).

In the latter stages of his career, Vaughan Williams experimented with unusual instrumental sonorities, for instance writing works for harmonica and tuba, and exploiting tuned percussion in his Eighth Symphony. The use of the spoken voice was also explored in An Oxford Elegy composed between 1947 and 1949, scored for speaker, small chorus and orchestra. He maintained his reason for using the spoken voice was because he was fed up of not being able to hear the words in choral works. It was first performed privately, the public première taking place in June 1952, appropriately in Oxford, under the auspices of the Oxford Orchestral Society, conducted by Bernard Rose, with Steuart Wilson as speaker.

The text is drawn from The Scholar Gipsy and Thyrsis by the Victorian poet Matthew Arnold, Vaughan Williams’s admiration for the poet dating back to his young manhood. He had long contemplated an opera on the tale of The Scholar Gipsy; indeed in 1901 had sketched some music for it, and one theme found its way into An Oxford Elegy. The story had its origins in the 17th century, telling of an impoverished student who forsakes the university and his friends to join the gipsies. Later recognised by some former friends, he tells them that when he has learnt all of the gipsies’ remarkable arts and powers he will come back to Oxford to write an account of their mysteries. However, he never returned, but the legend persisted that he had not died but lived on, occasionally, fleetingly, seen down the centuries. For Arnold both poems were recollections of the landscape around Oxford explored during the time of his student days in the companionship of friends including another poet, Arthur Hugh Clough, whose early death is commemorated in Thyrsis.

In An Oxford Elegy Vaughan Williams uses the voices as a wordless extension of the sound of the orchestra; from time to time they flourish into words as at ‘Soon will the Midsummer pomps come’, set to a ravishing melody and rocking rhythm. The scholar is evoked by a theme on the bassoon following the line ‘But came to Oxford and his friends no more’, and later this is developed into a wordless passage of serene vocal counterpoint. Throughout, the music is riven with nostalgia that befits the poetry but, as the great authority on Vaughan Williams, Michael Kennedy, has pointed out, surely the composer in this work, written long after the Great War, was recalling his own lost friends such as Butterworth, and the work is his elegy for them. This is emphasised in the most magical music of all at the close to the words ‘Thou art gone, and me thou leavest here…the light we sought is shining still’.

Andrew Burn

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