Forthcoming concert: Songs of Farewell

For our summer concert this year, we will be returning to St Vedast alias Foster, to perform a programme marking (almost) a hundred years since the end of World War I.

The centrepiece of our concert will be Sir Hubert Parry’s Songs of Farewell, written right at the end of his life. 

Please come and join us if you are free on Friday 29th June! The concert begins at 7.30pm and tickets can be purchased either in advance, here, or on the door.

Parry himself died in 1918 and he wrote his set of six Songs of Farewell between 1916 and 1918, probably conscious that his own death was approaching. Drawing on both English poems and biblical texts, his chosen texts all share the same theme: the transitory nature of human existence, and hope for what may be to come. Although Parry, in his 60s when World War I broke out, was far too old to fight, he was clearly deeply troubled by the losses. As his biographer Jeremy Dibble describes it, Parry experienced “an incredulity, combined with a profound sense of betrayal, that a nation of artistic heroes who had taught him everything… could be capable of such carnage”.

The Songs of Farewell include some of Parry’s best-known settings such as My soul, there is a Country and Never Weather-Beaten Sail, but they are best heard as a complete set. Parry’s scoring becomes gradually richer with each song, moving from a four-part choir in the first two movements to a grand double-choir setting of Lord, let me Know Mine End in the final one. This last song was completed only three months before his death in October 1918.

St Vedast Alias Foster, looking towards the altar.
By Diliff - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, Link

Sir Hubert Parry
By No credited photographer. - printed in and scanned from The Musical Quarterly, July 1919, p. 300.

Parry had been great friends with Charles Villiers Stanford: they were both distinguished composers and teachers, and instrumental in the renaissance of English music which occurred in the second half of the nineteenth century. Unfortunately they fell out bitterly during the war years, and became reconciled only right at the end of Parry’s life, partly through the efforts of Stanford’s wife. In response to their reconciliation, Stanford dedicated to Parry his epic Magnificat for Eight-part Chorus, which he completed in 1918, but tragically Parry died before the work was published and never heard it performed. This is a grand work, reminiscent in many ways of J.S. Bach’s setting of the same text, and will also feature in our summer concert.

Like Parry, Stanford was too old to serve in the war, but was still badly affected by it. Many of his former pupils were involved in the fighting – Ivor Gurney was gassed and George Butterworth killed – and he lost much of his teaching income. He also moved to Windsor to escape air raids on the capital.

Stanford is best known today for his sacred music and our programme also includes his Three Motets, which date from the turn of the 20th century. However, in his lifetime his contributions to other genres were much more fully recognised, and we will also be performing his witty setting of the Irish air Quick! We have but a Second and his famous partsong The Blue Bird

Ralph Vaughan Williams served in World War I despite being old enough to have been excused active service – a major sacrifice from someone who was already an established composer and one who enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle. He served as a medical orderly in Greece in 1915 and on the Western Front in 1916. In 1917 he was appointed as an officer to an artillery regiment, responsible for firing 60-pound shells, and this commission may well have been responsible for the deafness he experienced later in life.
Vaughan Williams went on to live until 1958 and rarely spoke about his war experiences. But it is hard to imagine that his subsequent music was unaffected by the war. His Mass in G minor was written in 1922 and the prayer for peace in the final movement of the mass would have been particularly poignant so soon after the war had ended. Vaughan Williams set the text of the mass for unaccompanied double choir and a quartet of soloists. While the music owes much to composers of the English renaissance like Byrd and Tallis, it also contains many of his own trademarks.

Ralph Vaughan Williams as an officer in the Royal Garrison Artillery (1917)
No credited photographer.  Reproduced from the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society

Vaughan Williams dedicated the mass to his close friend Gustav Holst, who also features in our concert programme. His Nunc Dimittis for double choir was written in 1915, though it was neglected for many years and not published until the 1970s. Both this work and Vaughan Williams’ mass were intended for liturgical use and were first performed at Westminster Cathedral, though today they are more frequently performed as concert pieces.

World War I cut short the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men, including many promising composers who were never able to reach their potential. While others survived, they were profoundly affected by their experiences and often felt a deep sense of guilt. Those of us lucky enough to be alive today are fortunate to have a rich musical heritage from the time on which to draw, to give us some understanding of the terrible experiences of those who lived through it. We hope our concert will be an uplifting as well as a solemn occasion, and an opportunity to reaffirm for our own time the heartfelt prayers for peace of a previous generation of musicians.

Advance tickets are available here.

Author: John Kennard

I design computer systems for central government. My background is web design/development so I look after the choir's website and other internet stuff. I'm a drummer, predominantly rock, but with swing roots. I actually live in Bradford, West Yorkshire (where I have a family), but work in London during the week. Clare Scott Booth is my partner. She and I also sing with a smaller choir, Felicitas.