One of the finest of First World War poems must be Thomas Hardy’s In Time of “The Breaking of Nations” and of the handful of settings that have been attempted surely Finzi’s is the best known. The poem has been a favourite of mine since I discovered it in an old poetry book belonging to my late father.
It is a poem which deals with the futility of war, although the poet’s methodology is to use 'suggestion' rather than ‘shocking’ description. It is up to the reader to supply the ‘horror.’
The present song was originally used as the third movement of the early Requiem de Camera which was composed for baritone, chorus and orchestra. This work was penned in 1924. Apparently Finzi was not happy with the suitability of this piece. He later sketched out a ‘superior’ version for piano and soloist, but this seems to be cued for orchestra. A later partial orchestration of this song was found in the composer’s hand writing.
However it was the version on Hyperion’s 'War’s Embers' that recently caught my eye. It is sung here by Stephen Varcoe with Clifford Benson as the accompanist.
The Requiem and the present song were dedicated to Finzi’s erstwhile teacher of composition, Ernest Farrar, who was one-time organist at Harrogate. Farrar had been killed on active service in France in September 1918.
ONLY a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk,
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.
Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch grass:
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.
Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by;
War's annals will fade into night
Ere their story die.
This is certainly a bleak and ‘gaunt’ song. It lacks warmth although the last stanza has a little more light than what has preceded. In some ways the conclusion of the poem is actually quite optimistic – war’s come and go, yet the ordinary things of mankind must remain. The vocal part reflects the intropsctive mood of the text. Interestingly the piano interludes between stanzas are considerably longer than would be deemed as ‘proper.’ Yet surely this adds to the reflective nature of these fine words.
The scholar, Stephen Banfield seems to suggest that Finzi’s setting is weak and ineffective – that he had attempted to respond to a poem before he was technically able to produce an adequate setting of it. However, I must disagree with such a learned authority. And for two reasons – firstly, this setting moves me, and secondly I can hear intimations of the composer’s later style in a number of places, especially in the last stanza.
Listen to this song performed by Stephen Varcoe and Clifford Benson on Hyperion or as part of the Chandos issue of the Requiem de Camera