The Torn Fields
Following the examples of Stravinsky and Hindemith, Mark-Anthony Turnage has not been afraid to let ideas from his operatic work spill over into related instrumental and vocal pieces. Most recently, his second opera The Silver Tassie, premiered by English National Opera on 16 February 2000, has been the gravitational centre for a pair of important satellite-scores that share elements of its sombre mood and subject.
One of them is the fierce meditation inspired by the military graveyards of the Somme, Silent Cities of 1998, an orchestral landscape complementary to the opera’s dramatic theme of the carnage of the Great War, and dedicated to the memory of a lifelong pacifist, Michael Tippett. Another is The Torn Fields, which approaches the same topic from the viewpoints of poets of the period. Birmingham Contemporary Music Group commissioned this song cycle for baritone and large ensemble, and gave the first performance at the Berliner Festspiele in September 2002. Most appropriately, the soloist was Gerald Finley, who in the role of the opera’s tragic hero, Harry Heegan, had won resounding plaudits at the London Coliseum two years previously.
A prologue of wind and brass fanfares introduces a brief, mordant text by Rudyard Kipling; not a war poet as such, but nonetheless a writer deeply traumatised by the death of his only son in action. Amid joyless phrases for bassoon, soprano saxophone and muted trumpet, the voice projects a mood of desolation that is deepened by the informality of quiet humming. In the second song, in contrast, to words by Isaac Rosenberg, an angry message is delivered against a background of harsh, staccato chords that build inexorably towards the ironical last line. Rosenberg was killed at Arras in April 1918, six months before Wilfred Owen; his poem Wounded is the narrative of a soldier who, like Heegan himself, survives the war but, severely maimed, experiences physical and emotional rejection. Such is its fury that only the purely instrumental outburst of the following Interlude, marked ‘Manic’, can offer sufficient release. Stability is restored, however, before the ghostly tread of The Mouthless Dead, fromMarlborough and Other Poems by Charles Sorley, killed in 1915 at the battle of Loos, tells a very different wartime story.
In the final song, the music of the prologue returns as accompaniment to one of the greatest of all war poems, Everyone Sang, which was invoked by Tippett at the conclusion of The Mask of Time. Here, it is likewise present as a symbol of humanity and hope, a transcendent concluding vision above and beyond the immediate horrors of the torn fields that are its context.
The work is powerful and moving, using the essentials of Turnage’s language to emotionally far-reaching effect.
London Evening Standard
Gerald Finley’s ringing baritone dug into settings of Owen, Sassoon, Sorley, Rosenberg and Kipling with a fiery commitment that left us in no doubt about the work’s heart and soul.
First performed by BCMG, conducted by Alexander Briger, at Kammermusiksaal, Berlin Philharmonie, Berlin on 17 September 2002.