Surprisingly few poems by Ted Hughes (1930-98) have been set to music by contemporary composers. The most impressive is the song cycle The New World by friend of the poet, Gordon Crosse. He also devised Meet My Folks! for a children’s musical group. Nicola Le Fanu has included some fugitive lines in her Song for Peter for soprano, clarinet and cello. ‘The Hawk in the Rain’, ‘The Horses’, ‘Pennines in April’ and ‘September’ have been set by Hugh Wood. It may be that copyright issues discourage composers setting this poetry. Music inspired by Hughes’ writing is even rarer. Examples include Sally Beamish’s Cello Concerto No.1 based on the ‘River’ Poems and Benjamin Dwyer’s interpretation of the Scenes from Crow.
On 8 November 2008, two remarkable new works were heard in Todmorden Town Hall. The ‘Elmet Suite’ by John Reeman and the ‘Ted Hughes Suite’ by Lawrence Killian. They had been premiered a few days previously at the 2008 Ted Hughes Festival in Mytholmroyd (28 October 2008). Both works were introduced by their respective composers and this has been included in the CD.
The Town Hall concert also included Gustav Holst’s The Perfect Fool and Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No.5 in D major.
The Elmet Suite was commissioned by the Elmet Trust as part of the 10th anniversary of the Ted Hughes death commemorations. The composer reminds listeners that Elmet was the ancient name for the kingdom covering Calderdale and the surrounding Pennines. There are five descriptive movements in this work. ‘Remains of Elmet’ suggests the ancient history of this landscape. This is followed by a powerful scherzo, ‘Football at Slack’ depicting an amateur football match, complete with a final shout of ‘Goal!’. The middle movement, ‘In April’ is almost pastoral, describing a gentler Pennine landscape. There follows another roistering scherzo, ‘Weasels we smoked out of the bank’ that nods to Malcolm Arnold in its vivacity.
The final movement ‘There come days to the hills’ is a broad portrait of the Pennine landscape. This is positive, wide ranging music that is sometimes discordant as befits the scenery, but reaching a climax of considerable power. The composer quotes Thomas Tallis’ great 40-part motet ‘Spem in Alium’ (Hope in God) which was heard at the poet’s memorial service in Westminster Abbey. In an ideal world, the poems that Reeman used as his inspiration would be read at the start of the work or before each movement.
This is an inspiring Suite, that is musically sophisticated, well written and competently scored: it splendidly evokes the disposition of the landscape that was beloved by Ted Hughes. It is a perfect fusion of literature and music.
Lawrence Killian’s Ted Hughes Suite takes a different approach to Ted Hughes’ memory. Instead of concentrating on the visual and social aspects of the landscape as in ‘Remains’ Killian presents an impressionistic musical biography of the poet. The opening movement majors on Hughes’ presence in the landscape as a lad. The listener imagines ‘bubbling springs and a clear gusty wind’ and reflect on the young boy’s ‘Red Indian Camp’, and trails and adventures in the woods and hills. The second part is much more serious. It is a roller coaster ride through Ted Hughes’ often turbulent life: ‘excitement, passion, joy, children, then tragedy, overwhelming grief, utter devastation, numbness…’ however, the underlying trend is strangely optimistic. The final movement is a paean of praise to Hughes final years as Poet Laureate. It reflects prizes won and his second marriage. The coda of this movement comes full circle to the half-remembered images of boyhood.
Musically, this is a beautifully constructed tone poem, that is eclectic (look out for the amazing soft-shoe-shuffle in the middle movement) in style, but retaining a huge overall sense of purpose and unity.
The Todmorden Orchestra under Nicholas Concannon Hodges give a superb account of both works. John Reeman and Lawrence Killian’s tributes to Ted Hughes demand to be known by a much wider audience. It is no criticism of the present band to suggest that a full professional recording of these two pieces, along with other Hughes’ inspired music is an urgent priority.
John REEMAN (b.1946) The Elmet Suite (2008) [20:40] + Introduction [5:41]
Lawrence KILLIAN (b.1959) Ted Hughes Suite (2008) [18:54] + Introduction [3:05]
Todmorden Orchestra/Nicholas Concannon Hodges
Rec. 8 November 2008 Town Hall, Todmorden, Lancashire.
Elmet Trust Recording [48:20]