The Lads in their Hundreds

So last night I had my first experience of this year’s Brighton Festival when I went to the Theatre Royal in Brighton to see a show called The Lads in the Hundreds, performed by a group from Comédie de Picardie which is situated in Amiens, capital of the Somme region of France. The cast for yesterday’s performance consisted of just four people: Tchéky Karyo (actor); Edmund Hastings (tenor); Michael Foyle (violin); and Edward Liddall (piano). The performance consisted of dramatic recitations by Karyo (mostly in French) interspersed with music, mostly settings of English poems by English composers such as Ivor Gurney and George Butterworth, as well as a couple of instrumental numbers including a beautiful pared-down version for piano and violin of The Lark Ascending by Vaughan Williams which  was, apparently, how it was first performed. The title The Lads in their Hundreds is taken from a poem by A.E. Housman which was among those set to music and included in this show.  Young Edmund Hastings performed this and the other songs with a bright clear and very English tenor voice, dressed in the uniform of a British soldier of the period. Overall the poetry and music create a very poignant blend that brings together moving expressions of loss and remembrance for the fallen of the First World War with stark descriptions of the horror and brutality of conflict.

I particularly wanted to see this show because I had studied (and much admired) the British poets of the First World War when I was at school, especially Wilfred Owen, but knew nothing of French war poetry of the same era and was very keen to find out more. Although I haven’t studied French since O-level, I am glad these verses were performed in their original language. Poetry can be translated, of course, but it rarely gains anything in the process and often loses a lot. Despite being at pains to drink French wine before the performance to assist my powers of recall, I did struggle a bit to follow some of the poems with my schoolboy knowledge of French, but that difficulty was far outweighed by the expressive sound of verse that can only be achieved when spoken in the language in which it was conceived. A couple of the poems were performed in English, including one with a musical accompaniment in the form of an arrangement of the beautiful Andante movement from Beethoven’s Seventh Symphony for violin and piano. That combination took me completely by surprise and had me at the brink of tears.

It’s interesting that the poems echo the savagery and futility of war in much the same way as the poems of Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, but the music chosen is quite different in that it draws greatly on English folk music and is consequently quite nostalgic in character. Perhaps the “English Pastoral” style particularly associated with Vaughan Williams was an attempt to cope with the trauma of the First World War by evoking an idyllic representation of the English countryside as a world apart from the horrific realities of the Somme. French poetry and English music together created a whole that was much more than the sum of its parts. It was an evening that was both fascinating and deeply moving and I’m glad I made time during a busy week to attend it.

To end with I thought I’d include the poem I mentioned earlier that was performed to music by Beethoven. The poem is called The Andante and is by Albert-Paul Granier, an officer in the French artillery, whose name was completely unknown to me until yesterday but who wrote poetry which bears comparison with that of any other poet of the Great War. He was killed in action in 1917. To prove that there are exceptions to every rule, this poem is exquisite even in translation (by Ian Higgins):

The rain, endlessly unravelling;
the rain, shovelling at the mud the whole sullen day;
the rain, unendingly sobbing its toneless chords;
and the whispering wind, crumbling the cloud into drizzle . . .

Why, this evening, am I haunted so
by that majestic andante
from the Seventh Symphony?

Its chords, as magnificently simple
as the triumphal arches of the ancients,
hold me in a vast enchantment.

Its harmony is velvet to my soul,
its murmur a caress that soothes
the melancholy as we pick our way
along the bank of this canal.

The rain has never stopped . . .

The mud is all long, snaking rivulets of agate
and clouded onyx, chopped into splashes
with every drawn-out hoof-fall of my horse.

The rain has never stopped, the whole lead-blue day.

The andante
gently eases my resentment
with its divine serenity . . .

Ah, those Sundays, not two years ago —
the Sunday afternoons,
the lamp-lit hall,
the huge orchestra a single mind and spirit
in every flying bow-tip:

The miraculous fluid
a fountain spreading up to the galleries, then
falling like snowflakes onto souls laid bare,
like springtime sunlight through stained glass
on a girl’s communion veil.

The andante,
the andante is gentle, with a touch of sadness,
like an autumn evening over ponds,
or the voix céleste of an organ;
and my chrysalid soul
weaves itself a wonderful cocoon
from this aching blessedness,
on the purple silk weft of the rain.

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