Charles Hamilton Sorley (E)
All the Hills and Vales Along is an oratorio based on poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley who was killed at the Battle of Loos in 1915. He was born in Aberdeen in 1895 and his body of work is small, although John Masefield and Robert Graves thought of him as one of the most significant war poets.
My work takes five of his poems and sets them for tenor solo, chorus, strings and brass band. There are two versions; one for a quintet of solo strings, the other involving a full string section.
A main theme, long notes accompanied by sad chords, is presented on quiet strings before various marching themes strike up in the band. The first text (All the Hills) is martial, defiant and sardonic with matching music. This is followed by a short movement for singer and strings on their own, the nocturnal and reflective Rooks. When you see millions of the mouthless dead is a slow chorale-like movement for choir and band, but a quartet of high solo strings interject with free, floating music at crucial punctuation points.
A fast 'aria' for solo voice and strings follows, A Hundred Thousand Million Mites We Go. It evokes the chaos and fury of battle, but in the background there is the forlorn "sounds of hymns of praise" which clash with echoes of curses, snapping the air. The last movement To Germany points hopefully to a coming peace and resolution with old enemy, in music which brings the various different vocal and instrumental forces together in a more integrated way. Various threads from earlier movements are brought together with a new hymn-like melody, and the work ends with the main theme, this time blared out in the band, with distant chords on humming voices and strings.
Programme note © James MacMillan 2018
This programme note can be reproduced free of charge in concert programmes with a credit to the composer.
Choral level of difficulty: 3 (5 greatest)
This is a First World War centenary work premiered in October 2018 at MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival in its smaller-scale (chamber) version and followed the next month by the premiere with full orchestra at the Barbican Hall in London. It is scored for tenor solo, chorus, brass band and strings, or in its reduced version the strings can be a string quintet. The text is a series of poems by Charles Hamilton Sorley who died at the battle of Loos in 1915 (MacMillan used his poetry also in When you see the millions of the mouthless dead). Despite a small body of work he was highly regarded as a major war poet and certainly his work provides MacMillan with a rich vein of descriptive poetry which clearly excited his imagination.
The interesting thing about this work is how essentially simple it is. It is as if he wants Sorley’s message to be as clear as possible. The orchestration is luminous and unfussy and the use of the brass band ignites feelings of the colliery band (MacMillan’s grandfather was a coalminer) and the ordinary man who went out, as so many did, in hope but simply met their death. The work is full of powerful resonances in this way.
The vocal parts are remarkably straightforward which, again, connects with the idea of the local choir, or the band of military men singing as they march. The six movements are varied. The first is purely orchestral, the second brings the choir in in what MacMillan describes as ‘martial, defiant and sardonic music’. The third is for tenor solo and strings, ‘nocturnal and reflective’. The fourth is choral again with the choir singing chorale-like music while the strings punctuate with free, floating phrases. The fifth for tenor solo and strings, is quick, ‘evoking the chaos and fury of battle’ while the sixth, ‘To Germany’ is a remarkable poem addressed to the enemy looking forward to a time beyond all the mayhem when both countries can be friends and allies again. The work ends, as MacMillan has stated ‘with the main theme, this time blared out in the band, with distant chords on humming voices and strings’.
This really is a work to be investigated. It is well within the reach of reasonably accomplished choirs and I can do little more than echo the comment in The Times’s review of the work which stated that it is ‘a work to touch your soul and keep you transfixed’.
Repertoire Note by Paul Spicer
“Like so much of the music that looks back to the war, it sets poetry from the battlefield. Where Britten turned to the visionary writing of Wilfred Owen for his War Requiem, MacMillan has chosen poems by a fellow Scot, Charles Hamilton Sorley, killed aged 20 by a sniper… It is a work of high extremes, from the thundering tread of men “marching to the gates of death” to the circling rooks that know the yearning of the soul.”
“...a work to touch your soul and keep you transfixed... MacMillan’s signal achievement in this new oratorio is to treat his topic directly and simply. No thicket of notes obscures the power of the five poems… No fancy orchestration either: simply strings and a homely brass band… Throughout the work’s 38-minutes, MacMillan wields his forces like a master dramatist, especially in the final tutti… blaring war and hopeful peace are precariously balanced.”