Simon Keenlyside

The baritone talks to us about his new disc, Songs of War

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To coincide with this year's Remembrance Day on 11 November, Simon Keenlyside has recorded Songs of War, a disc which includes settings by Vaughan Williams, George Butterworth and Peter Warlock of poems by AE Housman, Walt Whitman and John Masefield, all connected with warfare in some way. We spoke to him about the recording.


Why did you choose to record this music?
I chose to record this disc for quite prosaic reasons. We live in a time of war and projects such as mine only reflect the time in which we live. I do not concern myself with the business of justifying or protesting against those wars. I'm with Wilfred Owen in saying that ‘my subject is war and the pity of war.’ But I would like at least to have the decency to look at it square in the face, to note that many soldiers are returning dead and injured from theatres of war. My contribution is nothing more than that of anyone when they buy a poppy at this time of year for Remembrance Sunday. For my part I will donate my proceeds to a charity called ‘Healing the Wounds’ which helps injured service personnel.

What would you like the listener to take away from the disc?
I think that the sort of people that attend song concerts at the Wigmore Hall or elsewhere, or who buy classical song discs such as these, are already interested in chamber music, in a beautiful marriage of poetry and music – just as I am. Perhaps they might buy this much in the same way they would a poppy. In addition, I think that this music and poetry is stimulating in and of itself.

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Some of the poems are very well known, such as 'Loveliest of Trees' by AE Housman or 'Sea Fever' by John Masefield. What do you think these musical settings add to them?
Pieces such as ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun’ [by Shakespeare] are a part of British theatrical bedrock, of course. But then, great works of literature have always tempted other writers, composers and poets to pay homage by forging the work in their own creative furnaces into something different. The original will always remain and survives intact. But some will, more likely, have been encountered in their musical setting than in the original poems. The Vaughan Williams setting of Stevenson’s ‘Songs of Travel’ has been extremely popular since it was first published. How many people are familiar with the original poems?

How much were you thinking about modern warfare when you made this disc?
I am not a soldier, but I would venture to say that the currency of all wars is heartache, death, injury and destruction. The breakdown of normal human behaviour, man to his fellow man, defines all wars. I'm not interested in modern warfare: I'm interested in people and the way that they express themselves with respect to their circumstances. The song I included by Ned Rorem, set to a civil war poem by Walt Whitman, is in fact dedicated to the fallen in Vietnam. The accents are different, the wars too. But humanity doesn't change.

Many of the works are incredibly sad – how did you avoid the recording becoming simply too upsetting for not only you and pianist Malcolm Martineau but also the listener?
Anyone who is genuinely interested in classical music will not be afraid to discourse the subject of war: one wouldn't expect a tap-dance in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem. Whilst some avenues of ‘classical’ music have taken an odd and very superficial direction in recent years – and good luck to them – I'm happy to know that there are still wonderful audiences in these islands, and all around the world: like-minded people who are hungry for an eclectic range of programmes and discs, this being only one of them. All societies with a deep tradition of serious culture are never afraid to mine all aspects of our national life. To avoid war and the fact that it hurts, would be fatuous.

Songs of War is available now on Sony Music (88697 94424 2).

Interview by Elizabeth Davis