Four baritones or rather one main baritone and three others as chorus. At first, a kind of Dad's Army at sea. "The first mate hails from Wales and fights in top and tails"....and "The Engineer is 58, so he's prepared to meet his fate". "A'rovin, a-rovin' the Lord knows where" Jolly! Jolly! But the poems were written, by Rudyard Kipling, in 1915, so "the game is more than the players of the game and the ship is more than its crew".
Here are some of the earliest depictions of modern technology in art song. In Submarine, long, mysterious lines evoking the idea of a submarine lurking in the depths. We're used to submarines now. For Kipling, Elgar and their audiences they must have been fearsome indeed. The mirth of a seaport dies,...we rise, we lie down and we move ...in the belly of death. The Sweepers describes minesweepers busily clearing the passage so ships can move freely. The song sounds jaunty, punctuated with the sound of ship's bells, but we know there are U boats out at sea. The last performance at the Coliseum took place in December 1917. Charles Mott, the leading baritone, was called up, and killed in France in May 1918. He's the man in the dark clothes at right in the photo.
You can hear the first recording since 1917 (the original with Charles Mott isn't easily available) HERE on BBC Radio 3 online (starts around 39 mins). It's part of a series about Elgar and the First World War very much deeper than the usual composer of the week series. The focus is not simply on Elgar in 1914-18 but the way society was changing. Real historians, not chatshow hosts, talking about the experience of war, and in a non-sentimental, analytical way."Alcoholism", says one, was the big danger on the home front, so licensing laws were introduced.
Even better still, get the CD by SOMM. It is an important release because this material is "new", rescued and re-edited by Tom Higgins. There's quite a story behind it, so please read about that HERE. The CD is recommended as it contains many rarities, chosen carefully to complement each other, like Big Steamers both by Elgar and by Edward German. Roderick Williams sings, so it's perfect. (read what I wrote in 2009) It took a while for me to appreciate this CD for the patriotic songs aren't usually my thing, but gradually I've grown to love it and Fringes of the Fleet above all.
You might also like from past years : Wilfred Owen Dulce et decorum est, Ivor Gurney Strange Hells, Bach and the Sentry, To the Prussians of England
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues, --
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.