Friday, 11 November 2011

The Lads in their Hundreds

The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair,
There's men from the barn and the forge and the mill and the fold,
The lads for the girls and the lads for the liquor are there,
And there with the rest are the lads that will never be old.

There's chaps from the town and the field and the till and the cart,
And many to count are the stalwart, and many the brave,
And many the handsome of face and the handsome of heart,
And few that will carry their looks or their truth to the grave.

I wish one could know them, I wish there were tokens to tell
The fortunate fellows that now you can never discern;
And then one could talk with them friendly and wish them farewell
And watch them depart on the way that they will not return.

But now you may stare as you like and there's nothing to scan;
And brushing your elbow unguessed-at and not to be told
They carry back bright to the coiner the mintage of man,
The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.

George Butterworth's setting of A E Housman's poem The Lads in their Hundreds.from A Shropshire Lad.  Housman had a thing for doomed young men, and quite possibly Butterworth did too. He had a strange death wish, burning his unpublished music before joining up. I've written a lot about Butterworth including an EXCLUSIVE account of what I found in his Regimental War Diary, a minute by minute account of his last moments, written partly in pencil, at the front. Butterworth's war records were difficult to track until I realized he was enlisted under his mother's name. There's so much about Butterworth we haven't begun to fathom. Ironically, Housman outlived Butterworth by 20 years.

The absolute best recording is by Roderick Williams described HERE, it's astounding. But listen to the "mystery" voice above .It's a very unusual performance but one I've grown to love.  The singer has such range and power yet he's singing delicate sotto voce barely above a whisper.  A bit like a Lamborghini purring on idle. That takes much more skill than blasting away. Because the singer has such natural colour in his voice he  he sounds more operatic than the typical English singer. Yet he's restrained, because the song isn't theatrical,. Some notes are a little high for a bass baritone, but he manages them, and it adds to the song because it brings out its hush tension. It's achingly poignant, as if the singer is suppressing extreme horror, because he doesn't want  "the lads" to hear what will happen to them, or disturb their innocence. This is a surprisingly perceptive, sensitive performance though it's far from "English school", and has increased my respect for the singer no end.  Excellent matching of images to pictures The "friendly" lad is the only one smiling!

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


Quentin Vole said...

Thanks for your blog. I was drawn here by the performance this morning on R3 by Maltman - not the equal of the performance above and definitely not of Roddy, who remains my favourite, too.

I would like to point out that Housman published 'A Shropshire Lad' in 1896 and Butterworth his setting in 1911, so neither of them can have had the Great War in mind. Housman was most likely affected by the First Boer War.

Butterworth's tragic death on the Somme tends to forge the link in our minds, but of course, as with all great art, they have far wider applicability than their creator could have intended.

Doundou Tchil said...

Thanks so much ! Of course Housman and Butterworth were writing about the Boer war. No-one suggests anything else. But Butterworth, Ivor Gurney, RVW and their generation are inextricably connected to WW1 and will be even more so after 2014. I've been writing about Houseman and these composers and poets for years and done some original archive work on Butterworth's death which no one else has done before. Look at the labels on the right, they lead to lots more, Below is my review of Roddy Williams Butterworth Songs

Unknown said...

The singer in your clip is the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel. A large operatic Lamborghini purring on idle indeed. My favorite recording.