Songs of War

Music and Texts of  GARY BACHLUND

Vocal Music Piano | Organ Chamber Music Orchestral | Articles and Commentary | Poems and StoriesMiscellany | FAQs


Songs of War - (2004)   
Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, 

Isaac Rosenberg, Rudyard Kipling and Rupert Brooke

Seven songs for baritone and piano

i.   In Time of 'The Breaking of Nations' - Thomas Hardy [ 5 pages, circa 3'30" ]

Only a man harrowing clods
In a slow silent walk
With an old horse that stumbles and nods
Half asleep as they stalk.

Only thin smoke without flame
From the heaps of couch-grass;
Yet this will go onward the same
Though Dynasties pass.

Yonder a maid and her wight
Come whispering by:
War's annals will cloud into night
Ere their story die.

ii.   The Send-Off - Wilfred Owen [ 5 pages, circa 3'10" ]

Down the close, darkening lanes they sang their way
To the siding-shed,
And lined the train with faces grimly gay.
Their breasts were stuck all white with wreath and spray
As men's are, dead.

Dull porters watched them, and a casual tramp
Stood staring hard,
Sorry to miss them from the upland camp.
Then, unmoved, signals nodded, and a lamp
Winked to the guard.

So secretly, like wrongs hushed-up, they went.
They were not ours:
We never heard to which front these were sent.
Nor there if they yet mock what women meant
Who gave them flowers.

Shall we return to beatings of great bells
In wild train-loads?
A few, a few, too few for drums and yells,
May creep back, silent, to village wells
Up half-known roads.

iii.   Attack - Siegfried Sassoon [ 5 pages, circa 2'40" ]

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow'ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O Jesus, make it stop!

iv.   Dead Man's Dump - Isaac Rosenberg  [ 16 pages, circa 11'35" ]

The plunging limbers over the shattered track
Racketed with their rusty freight,
Stuck out like many crowns of thorns,
And the rusty stakes like scepters old
To stay the flood of brutish men
Upon our brothers dear.

The wheels lurched over sprawled dead
But pained them not, though their bones crunched,
Their shut mouths made no moan.
They lie there huddled, friend and foeman,
Man born of man, and born of woman,
And shells go crying over them
From night till night and now.

Earth has waited for them,
All the time of their growth
Fretting for their decay:
Now she has them at last!
In the strength of their strength
Suspended - stopped and held.

What fierce imaginings their dark souls lit?
Earth! have they gone into you!
Somewhere they must have gone,
And flung on your hard back
Is their soul's sack
Emptied of God-ancestralled essences.
Who hurled them out? Who hurled?

None saw their spirits' shadow shake the grass,
Or stood aside for the half used life to pass
Out of those doomed nostrils and the doomed mouth,
When the swift iron burning bee
Drained the wild honey of their youth.

What of us who, flung on the shrieking pyre,
Walk, our usual thoughts untouched,
Our lucky limbs as on ichor fed,
Immortal seeming ever?
Perhaps when the flames beat loud on us,
A fear may choke in our veins
And the startled blood may stop.

The air is loud with death,
The dark air spurts with fire,
The explosions ceaseless are.
Timelessly now, some minutes pass,
These dead strode time with vigorous life,
Till the shrapnel called 'An end!'
But not all. In bleeding pangs
Some borne on stretchers dreamed of home,
Dear things, war-blotted from their hearts.

Maniac Earth! howling and flying, your bowel
Seared by the jagged fire, the iron love,
The impetuous storm of savage love.
Dark Earth! dark Heavens! Swinging in chemic smoke,
What dead are born when you kiss each soundless soul
With lightning and thunder from your minded heart,
Which man's self dug, and his blind fingers loosed?

A man's brains splattered on
A stretcher-bearer's face;
His shook shoulders slipped their load,
But when they bent to look again
The drowning soul was sunk too deep
For human tenderness.

They left this dead with the other dead,
Stretched at the cross roads.
Burnt black by strange decay
Their sinister faces lie,
The lid over each eye,
The grass and coloured clay
More motion have than they,
Joined to the great sunk silence.

Here is one not long dead;
His dark hearing caught our far wheels,
And the choked soul stretched weak hands
To reach the living world the far wheels said,
The blood-dazed intelligence beating for light,
Crying through the suspense of the far torturing wheels
Swift for the end to break
Or the wheels to break,
Cried as the tide of the world broke over his sight.

Will they come? Will they ever come?
Even as the mixed hoofs of the mules,
The quivering-bellied mules,
And the rushing wheels all mixed
With his tortured upturned sight.
So we crashed round the bend,
We heard his weak scream,
We heard his very last sound,
And our wheels grazed his dead face.

v.   Gethsemane (1914-18) - Rudyard Kipling  [ 5 pages, circa 3'00" ]

The Garden called Gethsemane
In Picardy it was,
And there the people came to see
The English soldiers pass.

We used to pass - we used to pass
Or halt, as it might be,
And ship our masks in case of gas
Beyond Gethsemane.

The Garden called Gethsemane
It held a pretty lass,
But all the time she talked to me
I prayed my cup might pass.

The officer sat on the chair,
The men lay on the grass,
And all the time we halted there,
I prayed my cup might pass.

It didn't pass - it didn't pass -
It didn't pass from me.
I drank it when we met the gas
Beyond Gethsemane!

vi.   Danny Deever - Rudyard Kipling  [ 10 pages, circa 4'50" ]

'What are the bugles blowin' for? Said Files-on-Parade.
'To turn you out, to turn you out," the Colour-Sergeant said.
'What makes you look so white, so white?' said Files-on-Parade.
'I'm dreadin' what I've got to watch,' the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they're hangin' Danny Deever, you can hear the Dead March play,
The Regiment's in 'ollow square - they're hangin' him to-day;
They've taken of his buttons off an' cut his stripes away,
An' they're hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'.

'What makes the rear-rank breathe so hard?' said Files-on-Parade.
'It's bitter cold, it's bitter cold,' the Cokour-Sergeant said.
'What makes that front-rank man fall down,' said Files-on-Parade.
'A touch o' sun, a touch o' sun,' the Colour-Sergeant said.
They are hangin' Danny Deever, they are marchin' of 'im round,
They 'ave 'alted Danny Deever by 'is coffin on the ground;
An' 'e'll swing in 'arf a minute for a sneakin' shootin' hound -
O they're hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'!

''Is cot was right-'and cot to mine,' said Files-on-Parade.
''E's sleepin' out and far to-night,' the Colour-Sergeant said.
'I've drunk 'is beer a score o' times,' said Files-on-Parade.
''E's drinkin' bitter beer alone,' the Colour Sergeant said.
They are hangin' Danny Deever, you must mark 'im to 'is place,
For 'e shot a comrade sleepin' - you must look 'im in the face;
Nine 'undred of 'is country an' the Regiment's disgrace,
While they're hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'.

'What's that so black agin the sun?' said Files-on-Parade.
'It's Danny fightin' 'ard for life,' the Colour-Sergeant said.
'What's that that whimpers over'ead?' said Files-on-Parade.
'It's Danny's soul that's passin' now,' the Colour-Sergeant said.
For they're done with Danny Deever, you can 'ear the quickstep play,
The Regiment's in column, an' they're marchin' us away;
Ho! The young recruits are shakin', an' they'll want their beer to-day,
After hangin' Danny Deever in the mornin'!

vii.   The Dead - Rupert Brooke  [ 5 pages, circa 3'20" ]

These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvelously with sorrow, swift to mirth,
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.
These had seen movement, and heard music; known
Slumber and waking; loved; gone proudly friended;
Felt the quick stir of wonder; sat alone;
Touched flowers and furs and cheeks. All this is ended.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter
And lit by the rich skies, all day. And after,
Frost, with a gesture, stays the waves that dance
And wandering loveliness. He leaves a white
Unbroken glory, a gathered radiance,
A width, a shining peace, under the night.


Total cycle [ 52 pages with cover and texts, circa 32' 05" ]


This cycle of seven songs for baritone and piano - Songs of War - was composed in Verona, Italy, in November 2004, with a thought to the horrors of war as were catalogued by these seminal World War One poets and as the same repeated horrors, albeit in in far smaller numbers statistically, are exposed in the news of these days. And yet life and love continues.


Thomas Hardy, Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Isaac Rosenberg, Rudyard Kipling, Rupert Brooke

Therefore, the sentiment is reprised musically in the final song, with the clear thought that "a gathered radiance, a width, a shining peace, under the night" comes from war, not because we shirk from its horrors, but rather endure them with cause and reason and even our art.

Thus the cycle is both a litany of horrors drawn from the ugly beauty of these poets' works and a statement of faith as well, by which the horrors of war themselves are mitigated by the abiding truth that life continues, and perhaps the world becomes a little better as the venues for war recede and become fewer and fewer historically. 

What should be noted is that many of these poets writing on the grim realities of war were themselves soldiers. In today's antiwar rhetoric, the phrase "war is not the answer" does not offer another answer, for peace is never assured by simply calling for peace itself, but by war's ending, and each war must come to an end agreeable to the world's betterment. No one can rightly argue that war should have ended with national socialism ruling Europe or an imperial Japan in control of China and its other neighbors. Rather the horrors of war remind us, as Hardy so well reminds,  that new lives and loves do indeed go on is apt, as he writes that "War's annals will cloud into night ere their story die."

So is my outlook on our world.  Certainly having lived in Germany and having worked in both Italy and Japan, both nations which shared a fascist ideology only sixty years ago, is a wondrous demonstration that not only lives and loves continue, but that the world indeed becomes a better and more peaceful place as the years pass and the need for war diminishes -- because some wars resulted in the triumph of the good over evil. Those who believe war is evil refuse to see the evils beyond war itself, and some of them are the greater evils which cannot be tolerated for a people and their culture to prosper.

4 November 2004

The score for Songs of War is available as a free PDF download, though any major commercial performance or recording of the work is prohibited without prior arrangement with the composer. Click on the graphic below for this piano-vocal score.


Songs of War

8 ½ x 11 format