BUGLES SANG – commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales for their Summer 2014 tour.
For any composer, being asked to write a work is an honour in itself as it signifies a high level of trust between the commissioner, the performer(s) (if different) and the composer. To be asked to write for a performer or performers that one respects is an even greater honour and a privilege to be treasured. So, for me to receive a second commission to write for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales is not only a great honour but also something very special in my career.
My first commission for the NYOW, Invisible Cities, was premiered in 1999 under the inspirational conductor Christopher Adey who has since become a close friend. I was very fortunate to be invited to take part in the course that year (having been invited to the 1998 course in order to observe the rehearsals and get to know the orchestra) and the experience has stayed with me ever since. Composition for me is not just about writing the piece in isolation but also about getting to know the performers and setting out to tailor the new work not only to their strengths but also, in some way, to their personalities.
In both 1998 and 1999, I had a fantastic two weeks with the orchestra which were informative, motivating and, above all, fun. Being Composer-in-Residence in 1999 allowed me to not only attend all rehearsals but to discuss my work with the players, work with them in sectionals, receive useful feedback from the course tutors, take part in some composition sessions with young composers and have long discussions, often into the early hours, with both the tutors and Chris Adey. My attendance on the course afforded me the unusual luxury of being able to try out different ideas, make alterations and even, at the suggestion of Chris, to write a completely new part for offstage brass band to utilise some players who were not originally involved in the piece – this actually made a major difference, for the better, to the finished work.
To be asked, fifteen years later, to write another work for NYOW is very stimulating, if a little daunting, and the opportunity to work with Jac van Steen, for whom I have a great deal of respect, is fantastic. Jac and I have worked together at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales where he has conducted three of my pieces, including the premiere of Furnace of Colours, the commission for which he was largely responsible for championing. Jac has been a great support and inspiration to me and Bugles Sang is dedicated to him in recognition of this.
Of course, there is a natural pressure to come up with a work as least as good as the previous one and this can make the genesis of the new work difficult. The tyranny of the blank page is the hardest thing to overcome, especially when one doesn’t want to fall short of people’s expectations nor to let down those who have confidence in one.
It was with all of the foregoing that I approached the composition of what was to become Bugles Sang, my nineteenth piece for orchestra and the first orchestral piece to be completed since Furnace of Colours, although it was to be some time before this title and subject matter emerged.
My original thoughts for title and subject matter ranged from Welsh folklore to Dylan Thomas to Shakespeare with initial working titles including Captain Cat’s Dream, Twm Sion Cati and The School for Witches. I finally settled for On Llareggub Hill, a description of a day in a provincial Welsh seaside town. I was less than 30 seconds into the piece before I became aware that there were several other pieces being written on the Under Milk Wood theme and that mine wasn't going to offer anything new.
So, back to the drawing board and more time thinking before committing any notes to paper (actually to screen as I do not sketch and work straight into full score on the computer – I’m too lazy to make more than one copy of the score! That said, I should point out that I do not use the playback facilities that computers provide; they are seldom accurate - particularly in balance – and I prefer to keep all the sounds in my head) and much pacing around, reading, talking to myself and coffee drinking.
During all this time, I had been making a conscious effort to stay away from my other passion, poetry. I have written a number of works that have been inspired by poetry including a group connected to the poetry of Welsh poet and contemporary of Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins. Finally I relented and, returning to my teenage years, started re-reading the war poetry of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. This proved to be the solution to my problem with several poems suggesting a theme and a structure for the new piece. After a while, the ideas started to emerge from the mental mists and I settled upon the title of Bugles Sang.
Although the work is in one continuous movement, I conceived it as being in four sections which do not directly describe the poetry but do take it as their starting point. The first and third sections are a depiction of warfare and its horrors with scurrying semiquavers and explosive chords whilst the second section, an uneasy nocturne, forms the core of the work.
This nocturne is a tableau of the battlefield at night, an eerily quiet landscape that has been torn asunder by the ravages of warfare, calmly waiting for the horrors of the next day. My ideas when approaching this movement centred around two main themes - the stories of the thousands of men who marched through the Menin gate on their way to the carnage of the Battle of Ypres and how, with the exception of the years of German occupation in the Second World War, the Last Post is sounded there at every sunset. I have tried to allude to this without directly quoting this most distinctive of bugle calls although it is difficult to avoid comparison with its use in music relating to this period in our history.
The second idea came from the story that the Welsh soldiers, whilst in the trenches the evening before going into battle - cold, wet and fearing the worst - sang the Welsh hymn Cwm Rhondda and how the sound drifted across the silent battlefield. I have quoted the hymn in full, using the well-known Arwel Hughes harmonisation, but fragmented and at half speed in an attempt to give it a sense of other-worldliness, total weariness and foreboding. In addition, a solo violin sings out above the hymn, an evocation of the Angel of Mons looking down benignly on the soldiers.
The conclusion to the work presented another problem – to end it on a sombre note to reflect what we now know about the Great War and its horrors or to concentrate on what must have been the prevailing emotions of the time. After much thought I decided to go with the latter as, without knowing of the horrors to come two decades later, the carnage of the Great War would have been seen as justifiable and the conclusion of “the war to end all wars” would have been a triumph. There is, however, a slight allusion, in timpani, celli and bass, to the rhythm from Holst’s “Mars” from “The Planets” as a portent of the war that was to come twenty one years later.
The musical language of the work is derived from expanded tonality and contains a great deal of chromaticism but doesn’t use the idea of row rotation that I have used extensively over the past few years. I developed my own technique of row rotations as a way of moving on from the strict use of serial technique that I was using in the 1980s which, although highly logical, had led me down a compositional blind alley. Whilst I wouldn’t claim to have discovered the technique – it has been around since serialism began, I did adapt it (as did Alun Hoddinott before me) to suit my own compositional process within a tonal environment; Bugles Sang marks my departure from this technique and a return to free composition.
Another feature which Bugles Sang has in common with other recent works is that it contains a re-working of material from earlier works. It’s not necessary for me to identify where these are from as the influences behind the other works do not relate to this one, it is purely a continual working out of material. The Danish composer Per Norgaard believes that musical works have no beginning or end, we simply dip in and out of one musical continuum to create snapshots. In a similar, but much more simplistic way, I like to re-use and re-work material from my pieces in order to create a continuum between my works, as if they all belong to the same family.
I firmly believe that the process of creating a new work is a collaborative one between composer and performer(s) – I have tried to do my job to the best of my ability, I am looking forward immensely to the performances of Bugles Sang and can’t wait to hear what the talented players of the National Youth Orchestra of Wales and Jac van Steen make out of my scribbling.
Bugles sang, saddening the evening air;
And bugles answered, sorrowful to hear.
Voices of boys were by the river-side.
Sleep mothered them; and left the twilight sad.
The shadow of the morrow weighed on men.
Voices of old despondency resigned,
Bowed by the shadow of the morrow, slept.
It seems that out of battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped
Through granites which titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange friend," I said, "here is no cause to mourn."
"None", said the other, "save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil boldly, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Miss we the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even from wells we sunk too deep for war,
Even from the sweetest wells that ever were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now..."
Soldiers are citizens of death's grey land,
Drawing no dividend from time's to-morrows.
In the great hour of destiny they stand,
Each with his feuds, and jealousies, and sorrows.
Soldiers are sworn to action; they must win
Some flaming, fatal climax with their lives.
Soldiers are dreamers; when the guns begin
They think of firelit homes, clean beds and wives.
I see them in foul dug-outs, gnawed by rats,
And in the ruined trenches, lashed with rain,
Dreaming of things they did with balls and bats,
And mocked by hopeless longing to regain
Bank-holidays, and picture shows, and spats,
And going to the office in the train.
Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There's none of these so lonely and poor of old,
But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.
These laid the world away; poured out the red
Sweet wine of youth; gave up the years to be
Of work and joy, and that unhoped serene,
That men call age; and those who would have been,
Their sons, they gave, their immortality.
Blow, bugles, blow! They brought us, for our dearth,
Holiness, lacked so long, and Love, and Pain.
Honour has come back, as a king, to earth,
And paid his subjects with a royal wage;
And Nobleness walks in our ways again;
And we have come into our heritage.