Duration: 18 minutes
In recent years I have written a number of works that have been inspired by poetry including a group connected to the poetry of Welsh poet, and contemporary of Dylan Thomas, Vernon Watkins. Having made a conscious effort in succeeding works to draw inspiration from sources other than literature, finally, whilst considering the subject matter for this commission, I relented and, returning to my teenage years, started rereading the war poetry of Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon. This proved to be the solution to my problem with several poems suggesting a theme and a structure for the new piece. After a while, the ideas started to emerge from the mental mists and I settled upon the title of Bugles Sang.
I was introduced to the war poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon in my midteens and it immediately made an impression upon me. My childhood was dominated by films and stories of the Second World War and it was only through this poetry that I began to develop an appreciation of the horror and carnage of the Great War.
In approaching the genesis of this piece, I wanted to encapsulate some of the feelings and atmosphere from these poems without actually providing a narrative representation. It is for the listener to form their own mental pictures from the music although I will suggest, in no particular order, some of the influences I drew on during the composition process.
In addition to the poetry of the Great War, I was also struck by three other stories.
The first was the idea of the Angels of Mons which tells of apparitions that watched over the Allied soldiers and protected them. The story originated from a fictitious story about the bowmen of Agincourt appearing to fight the Germans but it suited the Allied leaders to allow the story, albeit changed to angels rather than bowmen, to be repeated as fact.
The second story is a true one and that is of the Welsh soldiers singing Cwm Rhondda in the trenches the night before going into battle. This sound of men singing must have proved an eerie experience as it floated across the scarred battlefield.
The third story is of the Menin Gate through which hundreds of thousands men passed on their way to the battle of Ypres. The Menin Gate is now a memorial to the fallen and The Last Post is sounded there every day.
Although the work is in one continuous movement, I conceived it as being in four sections which do not directly describe the poetry but do take it as their starting point. The first and third sections are a depiction of warfare and its horrors with scurrying semiquavers and explosive chords whilst the second section, an uneasy nocturne, forms the core of the work.
This nocturne is a tableau of the battlefield at night, an eerily quiet landscape that has been torn asunder by the ravages of warfare, calmly waiting for the horrors of the next day. My ideas when approaching this movement centred around two main themes - the stories of the thousands of men who marched through the Menin gate on their way to the carnage of the Battle of Ypres and how, with the exception of the years of German occupation in the Second World War, the Last Post is sounded there at every sunset. I have tried to allude to this without directly quoting this most distinctive of bugle calls although it is difficult to avoid comparison with its use in music relating to this period in our history.
The second idea came from the story that the Welsh soldiers, whilst in the trenches the evening before going into battle at Mametz Wood on the battlefield of the Somme - cold, wet and fearing the worst - sang the Welsh hymn Cwm Rhondda and how the sound drifted across the silent battlefield and was taken up by the opposing German soldiers.
The objective of the 38th (Welsh) Division, Mametz Wood was attacked by the Welsh on 7 July 1916. They never made it and many were mown down by Germany machine gun fire. A few days later, they tried again with even greater numbers committed to the attack. Heavy fighting, often hand-to-hand with bayonets, saw the wood eventually relinquished to the Welsh Division. Almost 4,000 Welshmen were killed or wounded at Mametz Wood.
I have quoted the hymn in full, using the well-known Arwel Hughes harmonisation of John Hughes’ hymn, but fragmented and at half speed in an attempt to give it a sense of other-worldliness, total weariness and foreboding. In addition, a solo violin sings out above the hymn, an evocation of the Angel of Mons looking down benignly on the soldiers.
The conclusion to the work presented another problem – to end it on a sombre note to reflect what we now know about the Great War and its horrors or to concentrate on what must have been the prevailing emotions of the time. After much thought, I decided to go with the latter as, without knowing of the horrors to come two decades later, the carnage of the Great War would have been seen as justifiable and the conclusion of “the war to end all wars” would have been a triumph. There is, however, a slight allusion, in timpani, celli and bass, to the rhythm from Holst’s “Mars” from “The Planets” as a portent of the war that was to come twenty-one years
The musical language of the work is derived from expanded tonality and contains a great deal of chromaticism but doesn’t use the idea of row rotation that I have used extensively over the past few years.
I developed my own technique of row rotations as a way of moving on from the strict use of serial technique that I was using in the 1980s which, although highly logical, had led me down a compositional blind alley.
Whilst I wouldn’t claim to have discovered the technique – it has been around since serialism began, I did adapt it (as did Alun Hoddinott before me) to suit my own compositional process within a tonal environment; Bugles Sang marks my departure from this technique and a return to free composition.
Another feature which Bugles Sang has in common with other recent works is that it contains a re-working of material from earlier works. It’s not necessary for me to identify where these are from as the influences behind the other works do not relate to this one, it is purely a continual working out of material.
The Danish composer Per Norgaard believes that musical works have no beginning or end, we simply dip in and out of one musical continuum to create snapshots. In a similar, but much more simplistic way, I like to re-use and re-work material from my pieces in order to create a continuum between my works, as if they all belong to the same family.
Bugles Sang was commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales with the encouragement of Jac van Steen. Jac and I have worked together at the BBC National Orchestra of Wales where he has conducted three of my pieces, including the premiere of Furnace of Colours, the BBC Radio 3 commission which he was largely responsible for championing. Jac has been a great support and inspiration to me and Bugles Sang is dedicated to him in recognition of this.