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Ho, What a Beano! – Why set the same poem twice?
- Posted on 17 October 2018
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by David Power
David Power is a former PhD student. His latest project is the CD ‘A Hundred Years of British Piano Miniatures’ which goes on worldwide release on the Naxos Grand Piano label on Friday 12th October 2018 and includes his own ‘Eight Miniatures from the late 1990’s. Full details here – https://www.naxos.com/
I first came across E.H. Visiak in the early 1990’s in Colin Wilson’s book Eagle and Earwig. This was a collection of essays about writers Wilson regarded as under-rated and, in the book, Visiak found himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of John Cowper Powys, Ayn Rand and L.H. Myers. If I recall, I checked out virtually all of the writers in this book at the time but only Visiak and David Lindsay made a strong impression on me. Both went on to influence my compositional work, albeit in markedly different ways.
With Visiak, it was his poetry that made the impression. Visiak has a way of writing that makes it seem one is seeing things with the intensity of a first impression, rather than the jaded perception of the all too familiar. It is this aspect of his work that suggests music to me.
He was born Edward Harold Physick in London in 1878 to wealthy, arty upper-middle class parents. His early life was largely idyllic. Childhood trips to the seaside made a strong impression and he retained a lifelong love of the sea which, in his creative writing, he came to endow with an almost mystical quality.
When his studies were complete, he found employment at the Indo-European Telegraph Company – (the Indo) – where his job was to send and receive telgrams between London and Calcutta and the various intermediate stations. He was also writing. He published a short novel and three volumes of poetry before the outbreak of World War One. There is something rather innocent about these early works concerning themselves as they do with pirates and sea adventures. When general conscription was introduced in 1916, Visiak was exempted because of this work at the Indo. However he was, by now, a passionate pacifist and he felt this exemption effectively meant that his job was war work. So he resigned and registered as a conscientious objector. The same year, he published a fourth volume of poetry – The Battle Fiends – which was markedly more political and anti-war that his previous work. The age of innocence was over.
When the Ebor Singers asked me to write a new choir piece for a York Late Music Concert, I decided I wanted to do a multi movement work that told the story of Visiak’s journey from idyllic early years to the crisis of conscientious objection.
I decided to start with an extract from his poem The Battle Fiends as that is his most vividly anti war poem as well as the most ambitious and lengthy poem he ever wrote. This is the text I set.
The tides of time run low; and terrors past
Return to plague us. Phantom idols rear,
And devil-gods, which set the world a dreaming,
Fearful fields deliver ‘neath the moon, and procreate
In livid dread. I saw, though terror veiled,
And horror overcast them, images
As grisly sculptures wrought in thunder-dark
And baseless promont’ries, which merged and changed
To shapes inhuman, meagre-shrunk, declined
To crooked shadows, thronged in shrouded halls
And labyrinths of darkness shuddering
With hollow sound, that rumbled null, and ceased.
Dread fell the summons of the Battle Fiend
I was struck by the power of the imagery in this poem. I realized that the words ‘I saw’ in line four refer to everything that follows up to ‘rumbled null, and ceased.’ Therefore it would be both acceptable and effective to have the male voices repeat the phrase ‘I saw’ at various times throughout the setting of this passage and, each time, have it answered by the next phrase of this passage by the female voices. This would emphasize first person immediacy of the poem and be musically effective. Most of this setting uses parallel tritones and the singers are asked to over-emphasise the consonants at the beginning of words to add to the sense of shock and anger felt by the narrator.
Next I wanted a poem from an earlier, more innocent time in Visiak’s life and settled on this one, partly because I liked the repeated phrase ‘Ho, what a beano.’ Here is the first part of its text.
I’m going to the seaside, to lovely Herne Bay.
Ho, what a beano!
I’m going with the school on the second of May.
Ho, what a beano!
I dreamt that the sand was a frothing gold cup
And a scorching great cat came and drank it all up.
My setting of this was a single, simple tune that the whole choir sings in unison. I asked that they perform it like a good amateur choir – i.e. to tone down the more trained aspects of their singing style and sing in a more natural/folk style.
Perhaps Visiak’s angriest anti war poems is The War Ants. In this poem he contemplates divine violence as a way to end wars. Here is its text
Once I saw in converging bands,
Ants on a war-path swarming.
I took a clod in my two hands
And made a great disarming.
Now would I were among the gods
I’d break the moon and make two clods . . .
The starting point for this setting was the image of the swarming ants. Having a choir at my disposal, I asked them all to whisper the phrase ‘ants on a war-path swarming’ with each singer whispering as fast as possible and making no attempt to synchronize with any of the other singers. Against this, from time to time, a phrase of the poem was sung conventionally. So, as well as conveying the swarming ants, this gave the setting a strong timbral contrast to the previous movements.
The question now was how to finish the cycle. The piece seemed to need one more movement but none of Visiak’s remaining poems seemed right for the task. So I returned to The Battle Fiends itself. This time, that poem’s lines ‘the tides of time run low and terrors past return to plague us’ suggested another approach to the text. In this new setting, instead of repeating the phrase ‘I saw’, I omitted it altogether. In the first setting, the terrors are witnessed in vivid immediacy by a first person narrator. In the second setting, they are presented as terrors recurring periodically throughout history. A very different perspective requiring a very different musical setting. Consequently, this new setting is markedly slower and more consonant than the first one and is just for the male voices. The female voices sing fragments from the two previous movements against this. Gradually the music slows leaving just the phrase ‘Ho, what a beano!’ The excellent music writer Paul Conway, reviewing the concert in Musical Opinion, wrote about this movement far better than I can:
‘Unusually, but very effectively, Power then presents another setting of the opening poem . . this time recalled in hindsight and with elements of the other two settings breaking through the textures. The recurring cry of ‘Ho, what a beano!’ first heard in the innocent second setting gains added poignancy upon each repetition until its final starkly unaccompanied iterations at the end of the work sound as if from another world.’
The Ebor Singers’ performance of Four Visiak Settings can be heard here – https://soundcloud.com/dave-power-1/four-visiak-settings
The effectiveness of Four Visiak Settings as a whole got me thinking more about doing multiple settings of the same poem. After all, if a poem is multi-faceted in its meanings – as The Battle Fiends clearly is – why should the musical responses to poems not be equally multi faceted?