I have considered three works in this paper. They are representative of the genre of music which could (and often is, identified) as ‘pastoral’ music.
Ivor Gurney’s A Gloucester Rhapsody is sunshine all the way. In spite of considerable suffering during the Great War, Gurney has written an optimistic work that furthers the ‘myth’ of an unspoilt pre-industrial revolution English countryside with Yeoman stock. It is a work that is purely descriptive of the landscape and the perceived, inherently good people that lived there.
Gerald Finzi’s Requiem da Camera uses many of the clichés of musical pastoralism, however this is a deeply introverted work that is more concerned with loss of life seen through the lens of the arch-typical English countryside. Finzi was too young to have fought in the First World War, but his Requiem is one of most thoughtful meditations on loss, and futility. Yet beauty of landscape and the pain of war cannot be disentangled in this work.
Ralph Vaughan Williams, in his Pastoral Symphony, has produced a masterpiece of reflection. He was present on the battlefield and saw for himself the tragedy of war. Yet his music does not seek to exorcise the evil of war nor to arouse pity or create a rose-coloured picture of foreign fields forever England. He is neither a musical Rupert Brooke nor a Wilfred Owen.
This music presents the thoughts of a man longing for his homeland and at the same time recognising that evil is an ever present feature of the Human Condition. More than the other composers he evokes the balance of a pantheistic attachment to the landscape with a deeply considered understanding of the inherently selfish, fallen (and sometime evil) nature of humankind. It is a perfect definition of that which is best and lasting in the genre. In this sense the Pastoral Symphony epitomises a genre which can be redefined as Cows, Gates and the Sob of Memory.
John France July 2014