Re-Wilding The Waste Land

Martin Cullingford, Gramophone Editor
Thursday, April 22, 2021

To mark Earth Day, I Fagiolini performs a powerful programme built around T.S. Eliot’s epic poem

For all the places T.S. Eliot’s poem The Waste Land takes us – dry arid deserts, the River Ganges and the Himalayas – it is at heart, or so it feels to me, a London poem. Locations and allusions – the City real and unreal – thread through the work just as does the River Thames itself, all settings for scenes both prosaic and prophetic. 

To therefore hear it read with such clarity and care in the heart of the City, mere minutes from where ‘Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours’, is incredibly powerful. That it’s also a City still semi-silenced by the pandemic lends Eliot’s descriptions of doomed crowds flowing over London Bridge an eerie irony. 

St Anne and St Agnes, Gresham Street, isn’t mentioned in The Waste Land, but it feels very much part of its landscape. Its columns may be Corinthian, but they’re not so far removed from Magnus Martyr’s ‘Inexplicable splendour of Ionion white and gold’, which Eliot does describe. Since 2019, the Wren-built church, just round the corner from the architect’s mighty monument St Paul’s, has been the VOCES8 Centre, home to many of the broadcasts from the latest Live from London Festival. Created in the midst of the initial lockdown to offer some of our leading vocal ensembles an opportunity to connect with audiences, the online series has since taken on a life - and even a permanence - of its own. As festival three draws towards a conclusion, a new summer series is shortly set to be announced.

But before then, we have a powerful and polemical programme from I Fagiolini, created especially for Earth Day. At its heart is T.S. Eliot’s epic youthful masterpiece, around the five sections of which Director Robert Hollingworth has woven music old and brand new addressing our impact on the environment, and which I’m here watching in rehearsal.

The Waste Land is one of the 20th century’s most significant poems, and also one of its most complex. Steeped in the uncertainty – or rather written in response to the undermining of certainties – following World War One and the Spanish Flu, it’s an evocative tapestry of seemingly disjointed voices and themes. Eliot initially titled the work 'He do the Police in Different Voices', a quote from Charles Dickens, but a useful one, I’ve always found, to keep in mind when approaching the text. 

It’s here read by actor Tamsin Greig, and in a pre-performance conversation she talks of the importance when reading it of giving each of the different voices their dignity. Giving varied voices their dignity is not something, we might reflect, that our own age is always very good at doing - but it’s certainly something Greig does beautifully here.

Tamsin Greig, reading from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land


Trying to explain The Waste Land would exhaust the scope of this article – and, quite probably, my journalistic abilities. Though someone who did have a stab at stating what he thought it was about – and even he couched his claim in a slight air or nervousness – was E.M. Forster. ‘It is about the fertilising waters that arrived too late. It is a poem of horror. The earth is barren, the sea salt, the fertilising thunderstorm broke too late.’

Nearly a century on, such imagery has now acquired a literal meaning and urgency that leads us into Hollingworth's Earth Day programme, which he’s called Re-Wilding The Waste Land. ‘The main thing that keeps me awake at night,’ the conductor tells me, ‘is worrying about climate change, because it'll affect my kids more than it will affect me, and because it will disproportionately affect people who have little chance to do anything about it.’

The programme begins with one of Victoria's Tenebrae Responsories, drawn from the darkest depths of Holy Week, and Byrd's Deus, venerunt gentes – ‘apocalyptic’ is Hollingworth’s accurate description. The first of the programme’s commissions, by Ben Rowarth, emerges from Eliot’s line ‘I could not speak’. The word ‘speak’ is picked up and voiced repeatedly by the choir. An incantation? An invitation? Perhaps here is sown the seed from which the re-wilding grows. Later comes Kenneth Leighton's setting of Gerard Manley Hopkins' God's Grandeur – a work which offers a belief that, despite mankind’s disregard of the world’s beauty, ‘nature is never spent’ - that morning will spring. While Hopkins’ intention was more spiritual than environmental, this 19th century poem’s potency to today’s predicament is striking.

Further sections from The Waste Land and further music - including a new work from Shruthi Rajasekar exploring Eliot’s Hindu references - lead to a concluding commission from Joanna Marsh setting a poem by John F Deane, which in turn takes the opening line of Hopkins’ God’s Grandeur, ‘The world is charged’, and from it nurtures an uplifting hope. ‘Our Re-Wilding programme doesn't pretend to change the world,’ Hollingworth says. ‘It's just a way of trying to focus thoughts on this issue while responding (as T.S. Eliot did 100 years ago) to world-changing events.’  

There are many ways to respond to world-changing events. While some are strident, some step away from the noise to more gently observe the issue’s essence. Re-Wilding The Waste Land is of the latter sort. This isn’t environmentalism via placards and protests, it feels more like leaving London to head somewhere peaceful and remote, to gaze at the beauty of a bird at flight – or perhaps, to borrow from The Waste Land’s closing section, to sit upon the shore fishing – and quietly wonder at what's at stake. And it’s all the more moving for it.

Re-Wilding The Waste Land is broadcast this evening at 7pm. For details, and tickets, visit: Live from London

I Fagiolini performing their powerful programme for Earth Day

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