Charles Hamilton Sorley (E)
scrt(Bb).solo crt(Bb).repiano crt (Eb).2crt(Bb).flgn.solo horn(Eb).2horn(Eb).bar horn(Bb).2ttrbn(Bb).btbrn.euph.2tuba(Eb,Bb)
strings can be optionally reduced (188.8.131.52.1)
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.
“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.”