04 March 2015

Through Lent with Vaughan Williams (15):
On Wenlock Edge, 3, ‘Is my team ploughing’

Trinity College Cambridge … Vaughan Williams was an undergraduate here and AE Housman a Fellow of Trinity College Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

For my reflections and devotions during Lent this year, each day I am reflecting on and invite you to listen to a piece of music or a hymn set to a tune by the great English composer, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958).

Throughout this week, I am listening to On Wenlock Edge, a setting by Vaughan Williams of six poems from AE Housman’s Shropshire Lad.

This morning [4 March 2015], I am listening to ‘Is my team ploughing,’ the third of the six settings by Vaughan Williams of these poems by AE Housman (1859-1936), published in 1896.

In reacting to the Boer War, in which his brother Herbert was killed, Housman powerfully anticipated the horror and futility of World War I, and his poems would find fresh relevance of with the outbreak of World War I.

His landscape is a mythical, idealised Shropshire, similar to the Wessex of the novels of Thomas Hardy. His dominant themes are love, and a post-industrial pastoral nostalgia, infused with expressions of disillusionment at the sacrifice of the young soldiers going to war, never to return.

Vaughan Williams composed On Wenlock Edge – a cycle of six songs for tenor, piano and string quartet – in 1909, a year after he had spent three months in Paris studying under Maurice Ravel, a composer three years younger than him. The first performance took place in the Aeolian Hall, London, later that year.

In the 1920s, Vaughan Williams made an arrangement of On Wenlock Edge for full orchestra that was first performed on 24 January 1924 by John Booth, with the composer conducting. Vaughan Williams preferred this version to his original.

The third of these songs, ‘Is my team ploughing,’ is a conversation between a dead man and his still living friend. Towards the end of the poem it is implied that his friend is now with the girl he left behind when he died.

While writing the poem, Housman borrows from the simple style of traditional folk ballads, featuring a question-and-answer format in a conversation.

The dead man asks first about his animals, then about football, but his girlfriend comes last. The text, along with other poems from A Shropshire Lad, has been set to score by several English composers, including George Butterworth and Ivor Gurney, as well as Vaughan Williams.

Vaughan Williams leaves out these two football stanzas, which Gurney and Butterworth retained in their settings:

‘Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?’

Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

Vaughan Williams omitted the third and fourth stanzas, to Housman’s annoyance, and wrote to his publisher, Grant Richards asking: “I wonder how he would like me to cut two bars out of his music?”

Years later, Vaughan Williams said he felt “a composer has a perfect right artistically to set any portion of a poem he chooses provided he does not actually alter the sense” of it. He added: “I also feel that a poet should be grateful to anyone who fails to perpetuate such lines as: “‘The goal stands up, the Keeper / Stands up to keep the Goal’.”

Vaughan Williams’s setting is superb, but the stanza does count, and he appears not to have grasped that here we have a coded reference to what is happening in the dead man’s sweetheart’s bed.

The music critic Ernest Newman of The Sunday Times claimed the omission of these two stanzas by Vaughan Williams destroys Housman’s effect of “a gradual, almost casual, transition from the ghost’s questions about the common things of life to the question about his sweetheart.” But Vaughan Williams was aiming at solemnity and sublimity in this composition, and decided to omit these stanzas so he could achieve this effect.

3, ‘Is my team ploughing

‘Is my team ploughing,
That I was used to drive
And hear the harness jingle
When I was man alive?’

Ay, the horses trample,
The harness jingles now;
No change though you lie under
The land you used to plough.

‘Is football playing
Along the river shore,
With lads to chase the leather,
Now I stand up no more?’

Ay, the ball is flying,
The lads play heart and soul;
The goal stands up, the keeper
Stands up to keep the goal.

‘Is my girl happy,
That I thought hard to leave,
And has she tired of weeping
As she lies down at eve?’

Ay, she lies down lightly,
She lies down not to weep:
Your girl is well contented.
Be still my lad, and sleep.

‘Is my friend hearty,
Now I am thin and pine,
And has he found to sleep in
A better bed than mine?’

Yes, lad, I lie easy,
I lie as lads would choose;
I cheer a dead man’s sweetheart,
Never ask me whose.

Tomorrow: 4, Oh, when I was in love with you

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