I have never been able to read any of Ted Hughes’ poetry without seeing a dead sheep in my mind’s eye: it was something to do with one of the images (page 42, opposite a poem entitled ‘The sheep went on being dead’) in his book Remains of Elmet (1979). I guess that this somewhat morbid image sums up the darkness of much of Hughes poetic output. However, praise where praise is due: there is nothing of the rotting carcasses in these poems set by Gordon Crosse in his excellent The New World: Six Poems by Ted Hughes. In fact, these poems were written especially for the composer. The liner notes state that they have not been separately published without the music –however, I have checked the Collected Poems (2003) and discover that they are included there in the ‘Uncollected (1971-1973)’ section. Additionally, there are some discrepancies between the text in the book and those published in the liner notes. For example, ‘When the star was on her face’ is given in the book and ‘When the star was on her brow’ in the song. The track listing gives ‘I said goodbye to the earth’: the Collected Poems omits the word ‘the’ as does the printed poem in the liner notes. However, the singer includes the word ‘the’! Not serious stuff, but it makes one wonder if there was a new rescension of these poems when they were published.
There is depth to these words, and considerable bleakness, however, every so often there is a flash of light – of hope. Appropriately, this work was written in 1969 the year that man landed on the Moon.
I was very impressed by the music. As Peter Aston has noted, the composer has managed to find a musical equivalent for every emotional nuance of the text: Crosse has created a magical sound world that truly compliments the poetry. Without a perusal of the score, it is impossible to analyse the form of this cycle –however with just a couple of hearings it is clear that the work is tightly knit. The musical texture at times feels Spartan. Nevertheless, there are moments of considerable effusion and drama. This work is another ‘classic’ example of why Gordon Crosse should hold a far higher place in the pantheon of British composers than has so far seems to have been the case. ‘The New World’ was commissioned by Lord Dynevor and is dedicated to Meriel and Peter Dickinson. The work was first performed at the 1972 ‘Three Choirs Festival’ in Worcester.
The Stevie Smith Songs can be heard on the Heritage Label (HTGCD240) with Meriel Dickinson and Peter Dickinson.