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TREVOR HOLD has dragged
from oblivion some music
you will not know.

4. The A.E. Housman settings of Elgar, Smyth and Boulez


Most of us are acquainted with the settings of A Shropshire Lad by George Butterworth and Vaughan Williams, but how many know that Housman's famous sequence of poems has also attracted the attention of Sir Edward Elgar, Dame Ethel Smyth and - surprise! surprise! - Pierre Boulez? Elgar's A Shropshire Lad song-cycle is one of those 'O that it were so!' works which tease and tantalise throughout musical history. He had long wanted to compose a large-scale song-cycle with a passionate love element and, noticing that many younger British composers were using Housman's poems, thought that he'ld have a go himself. Despite warnings from Alfred Jaeger and Mrs Elgar - who had clearly read the poems more thoroughly than Edward - he set to work with gusto. It was not until he was halfway through the third song that he became uncomfortably aware that the poems were not quite the sort of love-story that he had imagined. The project was quickly (and quietly) aborted and the manuscript destroyed. Elgar managed, however, to recycle some of the music in later works, notably 'The Merry Doll' in The Nursery Suite.

Dame Ethel's song-cycle (not, it must be admitted, one of her most characteristic works) has the unique distinction of being the only Housman song-cycle specifically written for a female singer. In most of the songs she manages to get away with any gender difficulties that this gives rise to, though there are some bizarre moments. Take, for example, the final verse of 'Is my team ploughing?':

        Yes, lad, I lie easy,
        I lie as lads would choose;
        I cheer a dead man's sweetheart,
        Never ask me whose.

Coming from a soprano, this could sound a bit rum.

Boulez's setting - which he calls Housman, qu'est-ce que c'est - dates from the same period as Le Marteau sans Maître with which it shares many similarities. In both pieces the composer is concerned not so much with clarification of the text, but with lifting the text 'to another level of experience'. He chooses one of Housman's lesser-known poems, 'What, still alive at twenty-two?', and subjects it to a complex pattern of 'allusion, commentary, perspective and refraction'. The result is an impressive six-section piece:

  1. Avant 'What, still alive at twenty-two?'
  2. Commentary I on 'What, still alive at twenty-two?'
  3. Trope II on 'What, still alive at...?'
  4. Miroir-Constellation on 'What, still alive...?
  5. Pli selon Pli on 'What, still...?'
  6. Derrière 'What...?'

Scored for mezzo-soprano and an ensemble of three percussionists playing 18 instruments apiece, it is one of Boulez's most approachable works and always goes down well with audiences.


Copyright © Trevor Hold, December 16th 1999


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