2011.11.11 BBC RADIO 4 FRONT ROW
BBC RADIO 4 FRONT ROW
Friday 11 November 2011
Interview with Simon – interviewer: Kirsty Lang
Transcription by Gwyn Davies
KL: Simon Keenlyside is one of Britain’s most successful international opera stars – an award winning baritone, much admired for his acting skills as well as his voice. He’s much in demand in opera houses around the world. His latest CD, which is being released in time for Armistice Day, is called Songs of War. Recorded with the pianist Malcolm Martineau, Keenlyside has hand-picked a selection of principally English songs which is not entirely what you’d expect. I asked him why he’d wanted to make war the focus of this recording.
SK: This is what I do for a living, of course, and we live in a time of war and I think this project reflects the times – and my place is not to justify or critique any position, but what I at least should do is have the courtesy to look straight in the face and note that young men and women are coming back hurt, injured, some permanently. So if anybody were to buy this record, then it would be no different to buying a poppy. It would….. the proceeds, as far as I’m concerned, go to Healing the Wounds – for servicemen and women who have been injured – in Wales, which is home for me, so I chose that charity.
KL: Let’s start with how this stemmed from your habit of reading military obits – and I wondered how you’d developed that and what drew you to these?
SK: It’s just by virtue of travelling. You know when you’re on the aeroplanes they give you a free paper. In some planes it’s the Telegraph and the Telegraph happens to have a good military obituary section – and I wanted to read anything in English. And I’d come across these incredible men and women – and the derring-do of their lives in the war was like reading a John Buchan book- that what they did after the war was just so uplifting. They couldn’t be normal, many of them, they would give back by opening hospitals or helping people with digging wells and all sorts of things and their lives were so rich that I found that reading the obituaries was an uplifting thing.
KL: Now many of your Songs of War are war poems set to music. Did you immerse yourself in war poetry when you were putting this together?
SK: Well, that’s the age-old question of whether it’s prima la musica or doppo le parole – the words or the music, which is first? Both! That’s the marvellous thing about songs – some of these songs will be probably be better known in their musical form. Some of the Butterworth settings of Housman are probably more popular through the Shropshire Lad cycle.
Extract from Look into my Eyes played
KL: I wanted to ask you about the Shropshire Lad, because it’s wonderful, wistful evocation of rural youth ploughing the fields, but it’s not really about war as such, is it?
SK: No, no, it’s not. I’m not a soldier and I cannot answer for soldiers, but it seemed to me that what soldiers were often thinking about in these poems was the same sorts of things that they miss – the things that they love – home, fires, pubs, friends, love, girlfriends, wives, kids, so that was what gave me the confidence to put in things which I felt were akin to what soldiers and soldier-poets had already written about.
Extract from The Lads in their Hundreds played
KL: You’ve got that Hillaire Belloc poem which is set to music by Peter Warlock, The Night, which again doesn’t have anything to do with war – it’s about a man who can’t sleep..
SK: True, but I think that that Belloc poem reflects the times – of uncertainty, of anxiousness – it was what I perceived soldiers might think about..
Extract from The Night played
SK: and some of the Robert Louis Stevenson Songs of Travel, songs such as Sea Fever or Vagabond, not war songs at all, but they’re songs of the wanderer.
Extract from Sea Fever played
KL: Many soldiers can’t settle, can they? They’re always seeking adventure and so on..
SK Yeah, that’s what I found so often in reading those old second world war obituaries.
KL: Because you’re quite a restless person yourself, aren’t you? I mean, you were on the road for a very long time.
SK: Well, perhaps I respond to that aspect of this poetry possibly because of that. My entire life has been wandering and my adult life has been on the road almost entirely, up to 10 months a year. That’s the nature of a singer – it’s a travelling life.
KL: And do you, a little bit like Butterworth’s Shropshire Lad – I know you’ve got a place in Wales – do you find yourself on the road dreaming of your farm in Wales?
SK: Mm, I do. Every one of my scores has a little drawing at the front, at the back, in the middle. Every blank page has the hill behind me. Every day I think of it – what are the trees doing?, what are the hedgerows doing?, what I have planted that’s been eaten by the rabbits? (he laughs)
KL: Now war for many soldiers is not just about injury and death. There is a thrill, an excitement about it and I was wondering if that was why you chose the Kurt Weill setting of the Walt Whitman poem Beat!, Beat! Drums! ?
SK: Yeah – I didn’t – you’ve put your finger on something interesting.. I could’ve chosen many more songs that were jingoistic, more upbeat, about how positive war is. I don’t feel that myself, and so I didn’t put them in, that’s the bottom line. But there’s a hard-edged sarcasm, a bitter satire, in that Whitman poem Beat! Beat! Drums! – don’t let the bridegroom be quiet any more, no pity for the child, nor the mother weeping, in prayer, nor for anything – just the blast and whir of cannon and drums. The music sounds jingoistic – the poem is bitterly critical of all the so-called collateral damage, that we appallingly euphemistically call it.
Extract from Beat! Beat! Drums! Played
KL: I was very struck by the Walt Whitman piece of prose that you included entitled An Incident about a dying soldier in the American Civil War, who lies in this field for three days before he finally dies. It’s a very powerful piece..
SK: Gruesome, isn’t it? – it’s gruesome – a young, beautiful man reduced to guts, tendons and his intestines, in the sunlight, drying up.
Extract from An Incident played
SK: A journalist wrote to me recently and said Is it not depressing, not just for you and the pianist making this record, but also for the listener? Well, my response to that is, you don’t think that when you listen or go to a war requiem by Verdi or Benjamin Britten – that’s what it is and if you don’t want to address absolutely in the white arc lamp heat of truth, if you do not want to address war, do not go to the section in the record shop that says war songs! Go and find something that’s a nice crossover, with some lovely, pretty Tosti songs. And to avoid the graphic poems, songs about the horror of war, would have been unrealistic.
Extract Beat!Beat!Drums! played
KL: Simon Keenlyside – and his album Songs of War is released today and he’ll be donating his proceeds to a Welsh soldiers‘ charity called Healing the Wounds.