‘So great a beauty’—An English Winter’s Evening

Our year is drawing to a close—the days are growing longer and hotter, saturated in the scent of the flowers and crowned by the purple of the jacaranda. Summer and Christmas are almost here.

But in England, Autumn’s colours have blazed up, and died away; storms rage and batter coast, field and town. The country prepares for Winter’s chill—for long dark nights, hoarfrost and snow, when fields lie dormant, and man and beast seek shelter from the elements.

In our final concert for this year we will present works painting a timeless picture of pastoral England during the harvest and Christmas seasons.

Drawing on text from three well-known English, poets, the first work—Requiem da Camera—by Gerald Finzi, counterpoints delicately phrased impressions of autumn and harvest with reflections on the long shadows thrown by the War that had just decimated Finzi’s generation.

At the outbreak of the Great War John Masefield penned August 1914, building in words an indelible sequence of images: from the great beauty of pastoral England, filled with the gentle sounds of evening –birdsong, the music of the sheep bells in the fold, the whisper of the pines. Masefield then removes us to the ‘the misery of the soaking trench, the freezing in the rigging, the despair in the revolting second of the wrench when a blind soul is flung upon the air’ in a way that was almost prescient.

Masefield himself served as an orderly with the Red Cross during 1915-1916, his experiences at the front, and in writing reports about the Somme and Gallipoli campaigns, giving the proof to the shadows and growing darkness in this, his only war-time poem.

The second piece of text is from Thomas Hardy’s 1915 In time of ‘The breaking of the Nations’. It also alludes to the timelessness of the land, helping to build the picture that wars may rage, and men—and empires—may fall, but the cycles of the earth, of nature, will triumph and endure.

The Requiem concludes with A Lament from by Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, published in 1918, which poses the question that so many who endured and survived the 1914-1918 conflict must have asked themselves: How shall we look on these beautiful things without remembering those we lost who loved them too?

The second work by Finzi—In Terra Pax—juxtaposes text by English poet Robert Bridges with the story of the Nativity as told in St Luke’s Gospel. We are taken to a frosty, clear Christmas Eve in the English countryside, where the distant sound of bells echoes across the landscape and out into the starry firmament. From our solitary listener the story unfolds to tell of those long-ago shepherds, and their wonder at the heavenly chorus singing in glory of the Christ-child’s birth.

The concert will feature two works by Ralph Vaughan Williams, an important influence on, and mentor of, Finzi: the joyful The First Nowell, written late in Vaughan Williams life, and also the popular Fantasia on Greensleeves.

We hope you can join us for what promises to be a beautiful conclusion to a year of wonderful music.

 August 1914 – John Masefield (from Philip the King, and Other Poems, published 1914)

How still this quiet cornfield is to-night!
By an intenser glow the evening falls,
Bringing, not darkness, but a deeper light;
Among the stooks a partridge covey calls.
The windows glitter on the distant hill;
Beyond the hedge the sheep-bells in the fold
Stumble on sudden music and are still;
The forlorn pinewoods droop above the wold.

 An endless quiet valley reaches out
Past the blue hills into the evening sky;
Over the stubble, cawing, goes a rout
Of rooks from harvest, flagging as they fly.

 So beautiful it is, I never saw
So great a beauty on these English fields,
Touched by the twilight’s coming into awe,
Ripe to the soul and rich with summer’s yields.

 These homes, this valley spread below me here,
The rooks, the tilted stacks, the beasts in pen,
Have been the heartfelt things, past-speaking dear
To unknown generations of dead men,

 Who, century after century, held these farms,
And, looking out to watch the changing sky,
Heard, as we hear, the rumours and alarms
Of war at hand and danger pressing nigh.

 And knew, as we know, that the message meant
The breaking off of ties, the loss of friends,
Death, like a miser getting in his rent,
And no new stones laid where the trackway ends.

 The harvest not yet won, the empty bin,
The friendly horses taken from the stalls,
The fallow on the hill not yet brought in,
The cracks unplastered in the leaking walls.

 Yet heard the news, and went discouraged home,
And brooded by the fire with heavy mind,
With such dumb loving of the Berkshire loam
As breaks the dumb hearts of the English kind,

 Then sadly rose and left the well-loved Downs,
And so by ship to sea, and knew no more
The fields of home, the byres, the market towns,
Nor the dear outline of the English shore,

 But knew the misery of the soaking trench,
The freezing in the rigging, the despair
In the revolting second of the wrench
When the blind soul is flung upon the air,

 And died (uncouthly, most) in foreign lands
For some idea but dimly understood
Of an English city never built by hands
Which love of England prompted and made good.

 If there be any life beyond the grave,
It must be near the men and things we love,
Some power of quick suggestion how to save,
Touching the living soul as from above.

 An influence from the Earth from those dead hearts
So passionate once, so deep, so truly kind,
That in the living child the spirit starts,
Feeling companioned still, not left behind.

 Surely above these fields a spirit broods
A sense of many watchers muttering near
Of the lone Downland with the forlorn woods
Loved to the death, inestimably dear.

 A muttering from beyond the veils of Death
From long-dead men, to whom this quiet scene
Came among blinding tears with the last breath,
The dying soldier’s vision of his queen.

 All the unspoken worship of those lives
Spent in forgotten wars at other calls
Glimmers upon these fields where evening drives
Beauty like breath, so gently darkness falls.

Darkness that makes the meadows holier still,
The elm-trees sadden in the hedge, a sigh
Moves in the beech-clump on the haunted hill,
The rising planets deepen in the sky,

 And silence broods like spirit on the brae,
A glimmering moon begins, the moonlight runs
Over the grasses of the ancient way
Rutted this morning by the passing guns.

 In time of ‘The breaking of the Nations’ – Thomas Hardy, published in the Saturday Review, January 1916

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 cloud into night
Ere their story die.

A Lament – Wilfrid Wilson Gibson, published in Whin, 1918

We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun or feel the rain
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly and spent
Their lives for us loved, too, the sun and rain?

 A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings –
But we, how shall we turn to little things
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things?


This entry was posted in Background reading and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to ‘So great a beauty’—An English Winter’s Evening

  1. Inge Courtney-Haentjes says:

    Very interesting post, as always!
    Thank you for the information. As an orchestral player I appreciate the background of the work we play, -indeed find it as important as the music itself.
    Thanks again, and looking forward to another touching concert,



  2. Pamela Traynor says:

    My goodness! What a perfectly beautiful piece of writing.

    Thank you,


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s