I wasn’t particularly planning to do any more Housman settings, but this one suddenly demanded my attention. It does require more work – some guitar, at least – but I think the melody is mostly there. And if you’re going to set Housman, I suppose you have to consider the ‘Land of lost content’. And having (half) done this one, there are two or three more I think I’d still like to put music to. We’ll see.
‘A Shropshire Lad’ XL
Into my heart an air that kills
From yon far country blows:
What are those blue remembered hills,
What spires, what farms are those?
That is the land of lost content,
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways where I went
And cannot come again.
A setting of Housman’s poem. I came across an alternative version I’d forgotten. I didn’t like the vocal much, but I did like the synth and guitars, so I’ve done a little splicing and remixing, though the vocal needs redoing. (The alternative version below is better sung.) To be honest, I’m not altogether sure how I feel about the poem, but it does have a certain power, and may fit into another project.
An older version with much better vocal:
And a backup:
Another of my settings of Housman’s poems, this time one from Last Poems.
This 1917 poem refers to the British Expeditionary Force, which German propagandists referred to as ‘mercenaries’ because at the outbreak of war, Britain’s army consisted of professional soldiers rather than conscripts or the later volunteers of ‘Kitchener’s Army‘. The BEF was practically wiped out by 1916.
A poem by Hugh MacDiarmid, ‘Another Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries’ takes a very different view, regarding the BEF as ‘professional murderers’.
The setting by Geoffrey Burgon sung by Gillian McPherson on the soundtrack to the Dogs of War is much more dramatic, and very effective (even though some might doubt whether the poem is entirely appropriate in terms of this particular novel and movie). This is much simpler and fits a song cycle I have in mind better. Still, I might rethink that.
Here’s the Housman poem:
Epitaph on an Army of Mercenaries
These, in the day when heaven was falling,
The hour when earth’s foundations fled,
Followed their mercenary calling,
And took their wages, and are dead.
Their shoulders held the sky suspended;
They stood, and earth’s foundations stay;
What God abandoned, these defended,
And saved the sum of things for pay.
Words by A.E. Housman, from ‘A Shropshire Lad’. Music copyright David Harley – All rights reserved.
This is just a one-take version with vocal and guitar, as I do it live.
2. Here’s an unaccompanied version from the 1980s. Recording quality isn’t great, but the vocal is better.
3. ‘Carpentry’ is an instrumental version of ‘The Carpenter’s Son’. The song was originally intended to be sung unaccompanied, but it somehow developed a guitar accompaniment with a slight Middle Eastern/North African/desert lute feel, and the first section of the instrumental is very much based on that.
The faster second section was meant to sound more medieval, and includes overdubbed dulcimer and bouzouki. Cittern would have been more appropriate, perhaps, but I didn’t have one to hand. 🙂 Strangely, it seems to have finished up sounding a bit like the Philip Glass Ensemble (but with much less time between pattern changes), but I like it.
And here are the words, since we may as well have the whole thing in the same place…
`Here the hangman stops his cart:
Now the best of friends must part.
Fare you well, for ill fare I:
Live, lads, and I will die.
`Oh, at home had I but stayed
‘Prenticed to my father’s trade,
Had I stuck to plane and adze,
I had not been lost, my lads.
`Then I might have built perhaps
Gallows-trees for other chaps,
Never dangled on my own,
Had I left but ill alone.
`Now, you see, they hang me high,
And the people passing by
Stop to shake their fists and curse;
So ’tis come from ill to worse.
`Here hang I, and right and left
Two poor fellows hang for theft:
All the same’s the luck we prove,
Though the midmost hangs for love.
`Comrades all, that stand and gaze,
Walk henceforth in other ways;
See my neck and save your own:
Comrades all, leave ill alone.
`Make some day a decent end,
Shrewder fellows than your friend.
Fare you well, for ill fare I:
Live, lads, and I will die.’
Copyright David Harley, 1976. All rights reserved.
This is an instrumental version of my setting from a poem from ‘A Shropshire Lad’. The song was originally intended to be sung unaccompanied, but it somehow developed a guitar accompaniment with a slight Middle Eastern feel, and the first section is very much based on that.
The faster second section was meant to have a more medieval feel, and includes an overdubbed bouzouki. Cittern would have been more appropriate, perhaps, but I didn’t have one to hand. Strangely, it seems to have finished up sounding a bit like the Philip Glass Ensemble (but with much less time between changes), but I like it. Still a work in progress.