Strange Joy

I have known Matt Hardy since we worked together on a couple of projects as students at Guildhall School of Music and Drama. When earlier this year his newly-founded ensemble East London Music Group performed its debut concert in the Octagon, Queen Mary, University of London, I was coincidentally living just down the road in Bethnal Green, and very much enjoyed their compelling performance on Stravinsky’s The Soldiers Tale. I was delighted, therefore, when Matt approached me earlier this year to commission me to write a companion piece for William Walton’s Façade, to be premiered at Queen Mary on 24th November. This concert will mark the start of my involvement with Queen Mary, where I have been appointed Composer in Residence for 2015-16. Other events in my residency will include the world premiere of my song cycle In the Desert given by the Ossian Ensemble, and the world premiere of a set of arrangements of traditional Vietnamese songs.

One of the great joys of this project for me has been becoming more closely acquainted with William Walton’s Façade. Façade is fun, witty and at times unsettling, and really is one of the masterpieces of twentieth-century English music. In Façade, however, Walton notates exact rhythms for the spoken voice, which to my ears makes the narration sound extremely mannered. While this is entirely appropriate for the very individual expressive world which Walton was creating, and for the unusual text which he was setting, I quickly decided that I would take a rather different approach in Strange Joy, my new piece for East London Music Group. My score gives an approximate guide for how the text should fit with the music, but leaves the narrator a great deal of interpretative liberty. This leaves the narrator free to follow natural speech rhythms rather than being tied to strict musical rhythms.

I am a little embarrassed to admit that my acquaintance with First World War poetry had not previously extended very far beyond the most famous poems of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon which I had studied for GCSE English the best part of fifteen years ago. I was therefore most intrigued when Matt introduced me to Isaac Rosenberg. Rosenberg was born in Bristol in 1890, but his family moved to Whitechapel in 1897, and it is, appropriately in the context of the current commission, East London with which Rosenberg is most closely associated. Rosenberg left London to fight in France in June 1916, and was tragically killed on 1st April 1918.

Matt, Joe Hardy and I together settled on three of Rosenberg’s poems: ‘On Receiving News of the War’, which was written in Cape Town in 1914, where the poet was convalescing; ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’, which was written in France in June 1916, a few days after Rosenberg arrived on the front line; and ‘Returning, we hear the larks’, written in 1917, again in France. The three poems combine to give a varied and sometimes surprising account of Rosenberg’s experience of the war.

Rosenberg’s work has a vividness and immediacy which seems to me quite unique, as well as a knack for finding striking turns of phrase. Take, for example, the first line of ‘Break of Day in the Trenches’:

‘The darkness crumbles away.’

Or this, from ‘Returning, we hear the larks’:

‘Death could drop from the dark

As easily as song – 

But song only dropped’

Despite the palpable horror of the subject matter, Strange Joy is a predominantly gentle piece, and frequently adopts a rather elliptical approach to dealing with the text. This is due partly to my feeling that the audience does not need to be told how awful soldiers’ experience of fighting in the trenches would have been – this is obvious and can remain implicit – and a sense that any music I write will fail to do justice to the violence of some of the verbal imagery in the texts. Any composer who sets in a direct manner the phrase ‘O! ancient crimson curse! Corrode, consume!’, for example, is braver than I am. Instead, the overriding emotion is one of melancholy and regret, and a yearning for the ‘pristine bloom’ which the war seemed to destroy, and, finally, despite everything, the ‘strange joy’ of life itself.

Edward Nesbit