Text by Alan Seeger, M.R., Robert Nichols, Harold Monro, Laurence Binyon
10 Nov 2018, Grace Episcopal Church, Providence RI
Collegium Ancora; Vince Edwards, conductor
The composer writes: I composed Five Poems From the Great War (2018) for the Collegium Ancora of Providence, Rhode Island, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. Between 1914 and 1918, an astonishing amount of poetry was written about “The Great War” – the largest and bloodiest conflict the world had yet seen. This body of poetry is diverse in the extreme: including works of pro-war patriotism and glorification, and anti-war poems about the horrors and futility of the conflict. For this cycle of a-cappella choral miniatures, I chose four poems that present the thoughts and experiences of soldiers in battle; the fifth poem offers a retrospective voice in remembrance of the fallen troops. The texts are by the American Alan Seeger, a New Zealander identified only as “M.R.” and the English poets Robert Nichols, Harold Monro and Laurence Binyon. Seeger was killed in France in 1916, before the USA entered the war: when the war began, in 1914, he joined the French Foreign Legion. His poem “I Have a Rendezvous With Death” contrasts the grimness of battle and his own fate against the pleasantness of spring. Little is known about “M.R.”, except that he fought at Gallipoli, in Turkey, with the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (ANZAC). His “Snowflakes Thickly Falling,” is his response to a battle after which dead soldiers could not safely be recovered from the field, due to the threat of enemy fire. Nichols served in France, in the British Army’s Royal Artillery, and was “invalided out” in 1916, suffering from shell shock. His “Dawn on the Somme” imagines the ascent of dead souls rising to meet the sun. Monro was not a soldier; during the war years, he was proprietor of the Poetry Bookshop, in London. Yet his portrayal of the confusion of battle in “Retreat” – including his inclusion of ironically altered song fragments – is insightful and vivid. Binyon was too old to enlist in the British Army, but he served as an orderly in field hospitals in France. Excerpts from his poem “For the Fallen” are often presented under the title “Ode To Remembrance.” Here, I have chosen the second, third and sixth stanzas. TEXTS I: Rendezvous With Death I have a rendezvous with Death At some disputed barricade, When Spring comes back with rustling shade And apple-blossoms fill the air— I have a rendezvous with Death When Spring brings back blue days and fair. It may be he shall take my hand And lead me into his dark land And close my eyes and quench my breath— It may be I shall pass him still. I have a rendezvous with Death On some scarred slope of battered hill, When Spring comes round again this year And the first meadow-flowers appear. God knows ‘twere better to be deep Pillowed in silk and scented down, Where love throbs out in blissful sleep, Pulse nigh to pulse, and breath to breath, Where hushed awakenings are dear... But I’ve a rendezvous with Death At midnight in some flaming town, When Spring trips north again this year, And I to my pledged word am true, I shall not fail that rendezvous. II: The Unburied Now snowflakes thickly falling in the winter breeze Have clothed alike the hard, unbending ilex And the grey drooping branches of the olive trees, Transmuting into silver all the lead. And in between the winding lines in No-Man's-Land, Have swiftly covered with a glittering shroud The unburied dead. And in the silences of night, when winds are fair, When shot and shard have ceased their wild surprising, I hear a sound of music in the upper air, Rising and falling till it slowly dies – It is the beating of the wings of migrant birds Wafting the souls of these unburied heroes Into the skies. III: Dawn on the Somme Last night rain fell over the scarred plateau And now from the dark horizon, dazzling, flies Arrow on fire-plumed arrow to the skies Shot from the bright arc of Apollo's bow; And from the wild and writhen waste below, From flashing pools and mounds lit one by one, O is it mist or are these companies Of morning heroes who arise, arise With thrusting arms, with limbs and hair aglow Toward the risen god, upon whose brow Burns the gold laurel of all victories, Hero and hero's god, the invincible Sun? IV: Retreat That is not war – oh it hurts! I am lame A thorn is burning me. We are going back to the place from which we came. I remember the old song now, Soldier, soldier, going to war, When will you come back? Mind that rut, it is very deep. All these ways are parched and raw. Where are we going? How we creep! Are you there? I never saw – Damn this jingle in my brain. I’m full of old songs – Have you ever heard this? All the roads to victory Are flooded as we go. There’s so much blood to paddle through, That’s why we’re marching slow. Yes sir; I’m here. Are you an officer? I can’t see. Are we running away? How long have we done it? One whole year, A month, a week, or since yesterday? Damn the jingle. My brain Is scragged and banged – Fellows, these are happy times; Tramp and tramp with open eyes. Yet however much you will, You cannot see a tree, a hill, Moon, stars, or even skies. I won’t be quiet. Sing too, you fool. I had a dog I used to beat. Don’t try that on me. Say that again. Who said it? Halt! Why? Who can halt? We’re marching now. Who fired? Well. Well. I’ll lie down too, I’m tired enough. V: Ode to Remembrance They went with songs to the battle, they were young, Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow. They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted; They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old: Age shall not weary them, nor the years contemn. At the going down of the sun and in the morning We will remember them. As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust, Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain; As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness, To the end, to the end, they remain.