Sentinel

Secular anthem commemorating the fallen of World War One

forces: Choir, SSAATTBB Choir
duration: ca 9'00"
2013
published by: Composer

Francis Pott talking about the composition of this work, filmed during sessions for the recording by Convivium Records:

             

 

Programme Note

The rain has been and will be for ever over the earth.
The heavy black rain falling straight through the air
that once was a sea of life.

God’s blood is shed.
He mourns from His lone place
His children dead.

Wan, fragile faces of joy,
To you I stretch my hands.
You yearn to me, lure and sadden
My heart with futile bounds.

I am alone in the dark still night,
and my ear listens to the rain …roaring
softly in the trees of the world.

The summer is gone, and never can it return.
Memory, the last chord of the lute, is broken.

The desolate land of France.
There they lie huddled,
Man born of man, and born of woman.
Earth has waited for them,
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay.
None saw their spirits’ shadow shake the grass.

Now there is neither life nor death.
The rain has been and will be for ever over the earth.

_

Text collated from

[i] Edward Thomas: Rain [prose picture from The Icknield Way, written in 1911 and published in 1913; shown in italic print]

and

[ii] Isaac Rosenberg: On Receiving News of the War [extract], Home Thoughts from France [extracts], Dead Man’s Dump [extracts].

Programme Note

Composers' Note

Sentinel was commissioned jointly in 2013 by Winchester College and the Oxford-based chamber choir Sospiri (whose name confers a certain aptness upon tonight’s pairing of the new work with The Dream of Gerontius, since it is the title also of a hauntingly nostalgic short work for string orchestra by Elgar). The commission formed part of a project commemorating the fallen of The Great War, with Winchester College furnishing the first public performance and Sospiri presenting the work on CD (they made their recording last August and released it last month).

Sentinel merges text by the poets Edward Thomas (killed at Arras in 1917) and Isaac Rosenberg (a fatality exactly a year later, a few miles to the north-east). This conflation embraces various tensions. First, the Thomas lines are prose, while Rosenberg’s come from three separate poems. Secondly, those by Thomas date from 1913 and owe their premonitory intensity partly to an innate existential anguish from which he suffered throughout his adult life (unending night rain is a recurrent metaphorical reflection of this in both his prose and his verse), whereas Rosenberg’s agony springs from the ghastly immediacy of the trenches, his sanity seemingly imperilled by a constant circumstantial denial of the sanctity of individual life. An autodidact from a relatively humble background in Bristol and London’s East End, Rosenberg arguably exceeded all his public school contemporaries in the outwardly Classical formality of his poetry, yet frequently conjured grievously memorable effect from its brutal collision with nightmare images of the Western Front.

Like Chopin in 1839, composing his ‘raindrop’ Prelude in the wintry Mallorcan monastery at Valdemossa, I imagined rain as a sombre continuum, spread here among divided choral parts and implicitly present beneath more agitated music, always re- emerging with stealthy persistence. At the end, where this seems to pass beyond hearing rather than fall truly silent, I was responding to a line about rain in November, a poem by John Burnside, which I had recently set: It won’t stop until you listen. This aptly reflected also the death wish of Thomas, for whom only extinction in the field of battle could ever bring about the peace which he craved.

Conceiving a work suitable for both large and small choral ensembles presents its own particular challenges. In trying to rise to them, I hope that I may also have found a suitable reflection of such a contrast in texts which bring together bleak individual introspection (specific to its own time and place) and a more universal tone of passionate outcry against the perennial futility of all human conflict.

© Francis Pott, 2014.

Composers' Note

Reviews

Hampshire Chronicle:

Winchester Music Club – Elgar: The Dream of Gerontius and Pott: Sentinel, 20th November 2014:

The nave of Winchester Cathedral was full for this concert commemorating the outbreak of World War One, in which Elgar’s choral masterpiece was placed alongside a new piece by Francis Pott, .

Sentinel has texts by Edward Thomas and Isaac Rosenberg, both killed in WW1, and is set for unaccompanied choir. Pott’s skilful merging of the texts of the two poets brings out not only the universal futility of war but also highlights the bleakness and inner anguish that pervades their writing. An experienced choral singer, Pott exploited vocal textures to good effect, with dissonances, soaring lines and blocks of sound expertly manipulated to create a dramatic soundscape. Edward Thomas’ bleak recurrent vision of night rain was effectively captured in the low-register repetitions of the word ‘rain’. Congratulations all round: to Winchester College for their involvement in the commission, to Francis Pott for adding to the repertoire of World War One commemorative pieces and to the performers for tackling this challenging piece.

Duncan Eves

Reviews