Gregory Wiest and Nicole Winter perform "There Will Come Soft Rains" in Munich, Germany, on March 26, 2009.
Politicians declare wars and generals wage them. Reporters tell us what happens and analysts explain why. Long after the last shot is fired, historians decide if the wars will be remembered and how. Artists, too, play a role in documenting war. They make us feel war's pain more viscerally than even the most excruciatingly detailed reportage can. They are frequently among war's greatest critics. Sometimes partisan, sometimes not, they extol the soldier's bravery while eloquently pointing out war's terrible ironies. Foremost among the artists who have commented on war are the poets. Hundreds, if not thousands, of war poems have been written in English alone, and most of these in the 20th century, a century of war and genocide unequalled in human history.
From this vast collection of English war poetry, I chose seven poems that I find especially moving and whose qualities I consider essential to a song cycle—brevity, simplicity and variety. Concision ensures the text can be efficiently turned into song; simplicity allows the music to add a layer of meaning; and sufficient variety in content permits each poem to complement the others.
The seven poems—the majority written in the first half of the 20th century—are by six writers from America, England and Canada. They not only address different wars, including the First World War and the Spanish Civil War, but do so from a multiplicity of perspectives. In these poems we hear the voices of a foot soldier, a distant observer, of Time and Nature, and even a crude instrument of war itself—a bullet.
The cycle opens with Bret Harte's "What the Bullet Sang", a parody of unrequited love that ends not just badly but lethally. The music, a buoyant waltz, is designed to challenge the listener's expectation that war can only be approached in a direct, sombre tone. A softer irony continues in the next song, a setting of Thomas Hardy's "The Man He Killed", about the tragedy of an infantryman who kills an enemy soldier who in any other circumstance could have been his drinking buddy. The next two songs, "Grass" by Carl Sandburg and "There Will Come Soft Rains" by Sara Teasdale, offer the cautionary perspectives of Time and Nature. "Soft Rains", like the first song, is not what one might expect in a war cycle: the beauty of its flowing melody and cascading arpeggios hardly conjures up images of death and destruction; but then, neither does its message—that animals and plants will live on even after we self-destruct. Set in cabaret style to a seductive and hypnotic rhythm, "Iron", another Sandburg poem, describes the almost sexual allure of the machinery of war and the well-dressed marines who operate it. This leads without break to "The Drum" by John Scott of Amwell, an 18th-century cry against the recruitment of youth as canon fodder for distant wars. The cycle concludes with the Canadian war surgeon Norman Bethune's "Red Moon", a meditation on the Spanish Civil War: here, the poet suggests that despite war's horrors, some are just and worth fighting.
Nov 15 & 16, 2011—Justin Welsh & Talisker Players (Peter Longworth, Peter Stoll, John Brownell), Toronto, ON
Apr 20, 2011—Stephanie Domingues, Joy Lee S. Domingues Graduating Recital, U of T
Mar 29, 2009—Gregory Wiest, Nicole Winter Movimento (Munich, Germany)
Nov 22, 2008—Melanie Conly, Peter Longworth Robert Rival Doctoral Recital, U of T
Aug 8, 2008—Alexander Dobson & Talisker Players (Gregory Millar, Peter Stoll, John Brownell), Festival Vancouver
[Nos.1,2,4,6,7] Jul 26, 2007—Melanie Conly, Peter Longworth Ottawa International Chamber Music Festival
" ... an unequivocal hit. There's nothing particularly subtle about Rival's grizzly cabaret idiom, but his music, heavy ironies and all, is memorable and effective." — David Gordon Duke (Vancouver Sun) on the chamber version
Complete Audio & Score
Open the SECURE PAGE to download the complete recording (mp3) and score (pdf). You will need an assigned user name and password. To request access, or to obtain a printed copy of the score, contact Robert Rival.
The complete voice and piano score appears in The Toronto Songbook, a collection of songs and song cycles by nine living Toronto composers. The volume is available for purchase online directly from the publisher.