Bridgenorth - Shropsire - Paul Sandby
Bridgenorth, Shropshire - P. Sandby
George Orwell says in his essay Inside the Whale (1940):

Among people who were adolescent in the years 1910-25, Housman had an influence which was enormous and is now not at all easy to understand. In 1920, when I was about seventeen, I probably knew the whole of the Shropshire Lad by heart.

This quote tells us about the popularity of A Shropshire Lad, a volume of poetry published by Alfred Edward Housman in 1896. Housman didn't consider himself a poet; he was a scholar, a man devoted to research on classical languages. Nevertheless, previous years had been hard for him and he felt compelled to write that poetry collection which talks about loneliness, loss, unhappy love and premature deaths, while evoking an idealized landscape, a kind of lost paradise. The volume was rejected by several publishers and Housman himself paid the first edition, which was sold very slowly. A few years later, however, coinciding with the Second Boer War (1899-1902), the book became more popular. Those young people who went to war and their families found some consolation in those verses. During the Great War the poems were essential (Housman, who was aware of that, took care that a cheap edition was available to the soldiers) and nowadays, they are still published. We can find a relatively recent reference in the film Out of Africa: during the burial of Denys Finch Hatton, Karen Blixen reads some verses from To an athlete dying young, one of poems from A Shropshire Lad.

The composers were familiar with the impact made by Housman's poems. A few years after the first edition, in 1904, Arthur Sommervell wrote the first song cycle; Later some others arrived, among them, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney, John Ireland, John Duke (from whom we listened to Loveliest of trees), Samuel Barber or, in the late twentieth century, Ned Rorem. Only nine out of sixty-three poems weren't musicalized, I don't know if I should add "yet"; among the hundreds of songs that have been written from A Shropshire Lad the best known are, no doubt, those of George Butterworth.
Butterworth was born in 1885 in London but grew up in Yorkshire, where his family moved a few years later. His passions were outdoor activities, sports and music, and maybe that's why he devoted himself to recover English folk music (as his friend Ralph Vaughan Williams, among others, did), travelling around the country and gathering songs that were carefully catalogued. He compiled about five hundred songs; he published some of them with piano accompaniment as Eleven Folk Songs from Sussex, arranged two more for choir and quoted some others in three orchestral pieces: Two English Idylls and The Banks of Green Willow.

The eleven songs from A Shropshire Lad, composed between 1909 and 1911, also have an unmistakable air of traditional music, the detailed music by Butterworth enhances the pastoral atmosphere implicit in the verses, although tunes collected by the composer aren't quoted. The songs, premiered in Oxford in May 1911, were published in two series: Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad and Bredon Hill and other songs from A Shropshire Lad. They were well received not only because its beauty (at least I think so, I have a weakness for Butterworth) but also because at the early 20th century, England was trying to find its place in music after the German domain during the 19th century, and that young man’s music suited the idea of cosmopolitan music with traditional origins that Vaughan Williams promoted; Butterworth was welcomed as a promise.

But the war broke out in 1914 and the composer enlisted. Before leaving to the front, he put his affairs in order. He destroyed some of his compositions and entrusted the rest to Vaughan Williams. In addition to the works that I mentioned, he only kept another less known song cycle, Love blows as the wind blows; after the war, a couple of works that his father had at home were recovered. Butterworth died on 5 August 1916 at the Battle of the Somme, that nonsense which caused a million casualties. Lieutenant Butterworth and his barely started work became a symbol of a lost generation; those songs composed in peacetime from poems written from someone who was never in the war turned into a premonition and the reflection of an era and a way of life that no longer existed.

Some time ago, we listened to The lads in their Hundreds, one of the songs from the first cycle, Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad, which talks about handsome, good, brave young men that "will die in their glory and never be old". Today we're listening to the song that ends Bredon Hill and other songs from A Shropshire Lad, who insists on the same matter but looking at the past; With rue my heart is laden is a gorgeous elegy for dead friends, it's difficult to say more with less notes. We're listening to an also beautiful performance, that of baritone John Cameron and Gerald Moore.
With rue my heart is laden

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had,
For many a rose-lipt maiden
And many a lightfoot lad.

By brooks too broad for leaping
The lightfoot boys are laid;
The rose-lipt girls are sleeping
In fields where roses fade.


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