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‘Sing, Belgians, sing!’ – Elgar and Belgium — August 10, 2017

‘Sing, Belgians, sing!’ – Elgar and Belgium

The recent WW1 centenary commemorations in Belgium brought the English composer Edward Elgar to mind, together with three largely unknown works he composed in support of that beleaguered country.

The invasion of Belgium, at the start of the war in 1914, generated a substantial wave of sympathy in the UK. A range of artistic individuals contributed to an homage called King Albert’s Book which was published by The Daily Telegraph at Christmas 1914. Elgar’s contribution was Carillon, a work for narrator and orchestra. This was the first of three works using the same scoring.

Carillon, op.75 (version for piano and optional narrator)

Elgar Carillon front cover

In it, Elgar sets a highly patriotic text by the Belgian author and poet Emile Cammaerts . The carillon of the title refers to the Belgian bell towers (as depicted on the cover), and I can imagine them, still standing, amongst the ruins and devastation of the German offensive. It’s noticeable that none of the impact of the invasion is shown in the cover design. The work was hugely popular in the UK, playing in London and on tour.

Le Drapeau Belge, op.79 (version for piano and optional narrator)

Elgar Le drapeau belge front cover

Again setting a text by Cammaerts, Elgar composed Le Drapeau Belge in 1917. The last of three works, it is also the slightest – a meditation on the colours of the Belgian flag. It is interesting that the cover art by Frank Dicksee is dated 1914. To me, the stirring, heroic image is so redolent of the opening months of the war. Of course, the intervening two and a half years had seen much fighting, horror, loss, and a distinct change in the public’s mindset. The reception given to Carillon wasn’t repeated when the new work was premiered in April 1917.

Une Voix dans le Désert, op.77 (version for piano, soprano, and optional narrator)

Elgar Une voix dans le desert

This stark, dramatic cover for the second of Elgar’s compositions is in such contrast to the other two. Here is no patriotic or sentimental fervour, but instead, a hint of the awful, bleak reality of Flanders’ fields. A desert indeed, but a man-made one. An artillery piece in the centre of the page reminds us how it was created. As do the crosses marking makeshift graves. The reddish pink is what? Reflected light from the sun, burning fires, or a reminder of blood?

The text by Cammaerts is the same. The opening stanza of Carillon is proud and patriotic in defeat:

Sing, Belgians, sing!
Although our wounds may bleed,
Although our voices break,
Louder than the storm, louder than the guns,
Sing of the pride of our defeats
‘Neath this bright Autumn sun,
And sing of the joy of honour
When cowardice might be so sweet.

Contrast this with the opening text from Une Voix (both in translation):

A hundred yards from the trenches,
Close to the battle-front,
There stands a little house,
Lonely and desolate.

Not a man, not a bird, not a dog, not a cat,
Only a flight of crows along the railway line,
The sound of our boots on the muddy road
And, along the Yser, the twinkling fires.

John Pickard in his notes for a Hyperion recording, calls it ‘a haunting, miniature masterpiece of great restraint and delicacy’. He also quotes a contemporary review of a staging:

It is night … [a] cloaked figure of a man, who soliloquises on the spectacle to Elgar’s music. …  the voice of a peasant girl is heard …  singing a song of hope and trust in anticipation of the day the war shall be ended. … he comments again on her splendid courage and unconquerable soul.

Other works that Elgar composed during the war included Starlight Express, which was performed at Christmas 1915, and The Spirit of England, first complete performance of which took place in Birmingham in 1917.

 

 

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Songs from across the centuries 2 — May 18, 2017

Songs from across the centuries 2

There’s been a lot written and said about World War 1 recently because of the various centenary commemorations, but very little has focussed on the music. By this, I mean popular songs and piano music, not the well-known works by Elgar, Butterworth and others. From the examples we have in our collection, there was no room for doubt about the progress of the war at all in the minds of the composers and publishers. The outcome was certain – it was just a matter of time. Relentlessly upbeat would be a good description of a lot of them and the patriotism was applied by the bucket load.

I’m going to spend most of this blog looking at one sheet with particular Birmingham connections but, as I was looking for it, I came across this, a good example of a music hall song published in 1914.

God bless my soldier Daddy

IMG_20170503_160051

Although it’s written as a girl talking to her mother, to me, it immediately suggests a male music hall performer. I can just hear him milking the pathos of the chorus:

God bless my soldier Daddy, To war he had to go, Protect him from all danger, Because I love him so, Take care of him when fighting, Don’t let me pray in vain, God bless my soldier Daddy … And bring him safe home again.

The next song sheet is a much more home-grown affair, and also very different in its tone and purpose.

Britannia’s Glorious Flag

IMG_20170503_160146

Throughout the war, those who remained at home were encouraged to raise money either for the general war effort or for the soldiers at the front. This sheet was the project of two people called Brookes (presumably related)  from Birmingham – one composed the music and the other wrote the words. Their objective was to raise money for their named causes:

As The AUTHOR was also the publisher ie a private individual, it was presumably only meant for local distribution and sale. Certainly, there are no other obvious library copies held elsewhere. I’m curious to know how many copies were printed and sold – you’d have to sell a large number to make any significant contribution. Ten percent of the profits on the 6d selling price wasn’t so very much.

I suspect that the printer the Brookes used wasn’t a regular printer of sheet music – the music engraving is decidedly amateur at times:

IMG_20170503_160337

but again, as private individuals, they wouldn’t have had access to the engravers used by the big London publishing houses. Nor would they have wanted to spend a large amount of money getting it printed if the principal object was to raise money.

The song text is very patriotic (as you’d expect) but interestingly, it isn’t particularly anti-German. In fact, apart from a couple of mentions of the Kaiser and some commentary in the first verse, it concentrates entirely on the people caught up in the war effort, both those fighting and those at home. Here’s a sample:

“England’s in danger” was the cry: a million men replied – “We’ll rally round the good old flag” in life, in death, in pride: Our watchdogs on the sea alert, their eyes turned to the foe, Our airmen in the skies above, our submariners below … 

I’ll close with their dedication  – it shows the Brookes’ serious intent compared with the first song I looked at.

IMG_20170503_160351

 

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Get a flavour of the music collections of the Library of Birmingham - quirky, practical, historical, contemporary