Poet, War and Composer: Colin Riley discusses his new work setting the poetry of Edward Thomas, ahead of its London premiere in our "Song Shards" concert on 17 September
Born in 1878, Edward Thomas developed a love of the countryside as a boy, and decided to become a writer after some of his nature essays and a book were published while he was still a student. He was known as a prolific biographer, nature writer, essayist and critic, but it was only in late 1914 that he began to write poetry, encouraged by his friend the American poet Robert Frost, who recognised Thomas’s poetic potential from his prose works. In less than three years Thomas produced a large number of poems which later twentieth-century poets such as W.H. Auden and Philip Larkin acknowledged as greatly influential.
In his book The Old Ways, Robert Macfarlane describes Thomas’s writing as “a kind of dream-map… an ongoing exploration of his interior landscapes, told by means of the traverse of particular places and the following of certain paths.” Although Thomas’s poetry often centred on the natural world and those places, like the South Downs, that the poet loved, he used it “as a means to express what exists at the cusp of consciousness.”
Thomas enlisted in the army in 1915, and in 1917 he was sent to the French front at Arras. He died on 9 April 1917 when a German shell directed at the British lines passed so close to him that the vacuum it created sucked the air from his lungs and stopped his heart. In Thomas’s pocket was found a slip of paper containing three lines of verse:
Where any turn may lead to Heaven / Or any corner may hide Hell / Roads shining like river up hill after rain
Composer Colin Riley kindly shared some of the story behind the composition of Roads Shining Like River Up Hill After Rain with Pegasus member James Baer. Colin’s work receives its London premiere on 17 September at St George’s Church, Hanover Square, given by Pegasus and cellist Gabriella Swallow, under the direction of Matthew Altham. For more details, including tickets (which are free of charge), visit this page.
How did you discover Edward Thomas, and why is he important to you?
I had set a short poem by Thomas, Snow, as part of a cycle of winter songs commissioned by the National Youth Choir of Great Britain. That made me want to do more with Thomas’s poetry. I was reacquainted with him through Robert Macfarlane’s book The Old Ways, which talks about Thomas and his relationship to the South Downs. It revealed a quirky thing about his death, and being left with an unfinished poem. It was particularly poignant because it was found in his breast pocket and was sent back home with his personal effects. Then I noticed that the anniversary of Thomas’s death, in 1917, was coming up, and the stars seemed to be aligned.
In this work you’ve chosen to set portions of Thomas’s poems rather than whole ones – why is that?
I decided to set a few poems and make it a suite, but as the last poem that Thomas wrote was unfinished, it appealed to me to set a series of fragments rather than complete poems. I wanted to create a fragmented dream world, which many of the poems seem to have. That’s why the subtitle of the work is “Five ghost shards for choir and cello”. Though it didn’t cut down the overall length of the piece as much as I expected!
I found it was harder than just arranging five poems in a sequence. I contacted Robert Macfarlane to discuss it, and I thought it would be great if he would fashion the libretto for it. He agreed to, and very quickly emailed me a draft libretto. I did a bit of haggling to make sure that a few verses I really wanted to be in there were included. But Robert did most of the work!
How is the piece structured?
Robert used one poem – Roads – as the guiding spine of the piece. Each of the five movements ends with one stanza of the poem. The idea of the road was an escape for Thomas, and it serves as a metaphor of his movement towards his impending death. The piece is a ghostly journey from light to dark, or from life to death, from the chalk of the South Downs to the chalk of Arras on the Western Front. So we had the poetry and ambiguity, but also a solid structure.
Why did you choose to set the poems for choir with cello?
I used the cello rather than an organ or piano because it mostly plays a single line, acting as an additional voice, a song without words. The cellist plays continuously because it illustrates the journey, it provides the travelling, foot-stepping pathway in each movement. Its phrasing also echoes the landscapes – rising and falling. At times it begins the thread which the choir takes over, and then the cello picks it up again. Another reason is that I’m a cellist, and last year I ended up writing a number of pieces for cello. It allowed me to indulge my love for the instrument – and get it out of its case and reacquaint myself with it. The part is difficult to play in some places, but the cello doesn’t do anything flashy, it’s woven into the choir.
How did you go about setting the texts?
I set the excerpts from Roads first, with the lines of the poem being passed around between soloists. That’s the inner road. I wanted it sung by solo voices to emphasize the vulnerability. The fragments of poems that make up each movement represent a kind of standing back and taking in the view – reflecting on one’s life.
I tried to thin the texture out by having one instrument, and also by not having all the choral voices singing all the time. I wanted to create space around the poem fragments. I hoped that this would intensify the sensitivity and bring the listener in. I don’t want lush sounds that make the audience sit back – I want them to be drawn in and taken somewhere. The texture also allows us to hear the words more, and the words lead the work.
Is the piece a musical portrait of Thomas?
I like to think that it is. He was clearly at times despondent and even suicidal, and for him walking was a way of escaping his depression. If you’re trying to portray that, it’s going to be quite intense, and I’ve tried to be that in the piece. There’s a closing in within each movement, and by the fifth one you’re almost hovering above yourself. But it’s also a portrait of anyone communing with their memories.
One place where the text is very biographical is near the end of the fourth movement, where a bass soloist sings “Coo-ee!” several times. This is what Thomas and his wife called out to each other in greeting whenever he was approaching their house. But he did the same thing on the day he left home to go to the war in France – so this was the last word his wife ever heard him speak.
Is the piece in some way also a commemorative work about the first world war?
I was very aware of that, as we’ve been hearing a lot about World War I the past few years. It is a kind of elegy for that, but not too specifically.
How do you suggest that listeners approach the piece when hearing it for the first time?
With Thomas’s poetry people talk about an “intensity of seeing”. I wanted to translate that into an intensity of listening. The work is melancholy, but I tried to draw the listener in to the meaning of the words. I saw my job as being to colour in the poetry and provide as much nuance as possible.
I’m asking the audience in the silences and thin bits to think about the lines they’ve just heard. They’re not on a jet flight, but on an amble, with places you can sit and reflect.
When I finished the work, I thought, “It may not be an immediate crowd-pleaser, but I hope it might be moving.”