Songs of War

Keenlyside reflects on war and its musical refractions

Author: 
Richard Lawrence

'Songs of War'

  • Sea Fever
  • (A) Shropshire Lad, Into my heart an air that kills
  • Songs of Travel, Youth and Love
  • Songs of Travel, The Infinite Shining Heavens
  • (A) Shropshire Lad
  • (A) Shropshire Lad, There pass the careless people
  • (The) Night
  • (A) Shropshire Lad, White in the moon the long road lies
  • Bredon Hill and other songs from 'A Shropshire Lad
  • (The) Vagabond
  • (The) Three Ravens
  • Let us garlands bring, Fear no more the heat o' the sun
  • Thy hand in mine
  • Songs of Travel, The Vagabond
  • (An) Incident
  • When Death to either shall come
  • In Flanders
  • (A) Shropshire Lad, The street sounds to the soldiers' tread
  • (4) Walt Whitman Songs, Beat! Beat! Drums
  • (4) Walt Whitman Songs, Dirge for Two Veterans (orch & pf vers: 1942-47)

At first sight, ‘Songs of War’ seems an odd title for this collection of songs by, mostly, 20th-century English composers. In a thoughtful booklet-note, Simon Keenlyside explains. After contrasting the ‘relative peace and stability’ of today with the sacrifices made in war by earlier generations, he cites ‘Sea Fever’ as reflecting ‘something of the restlessness of so many old soldiers once the conflicts are over’.

Perhaps the connection is tenuous but that will hardly impede enjoyment and appreciation of this excellent recital. The composer most generously represented is George Butterworth, who was killed on the Somme in 1916. A Shropshire Lad is here, as is – though, oddly, the title isn’t given – Bredon Hill and Other Songs. One can imagine a more poignant account of the ghostly voice in ‘Is my team ploughing?’ but ‘The lads in their hundreds’ is all the more moving for Keenlyside’s robustness. I was struck by the postlude of ‘Loveliest of trees’: it’s not Hugo Wolf but, as eloquently played by Malcolm Martineau, it does have a kind of Ravelian grace.

There is more Housman in four songs from the 10 of A Shropshire Lad by Arthur Somervell, not placed as a group. The vocal line in the first stanza of ‘Into my heart’ is all on one note: Keenlyside shapes it with feeling, as the piano recalls ‘Loveliest of trees’ (sadly not included here). Peter Warlock’s ‘The Night’ starts with an identical device, again coloured beautifully by the singer. The rest of the programme is equally rewarding and Keenlyside’s diction is perfect.

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