Six Sassoon Songs (2013)
Duration: 20:00 minutes
Instrumentation: bass-baritone and piano
Premiere: May 22, 2013 at The Juilliard School by Davone Tines, bass-baritone, and Siyi Fang, pianist
War has always occupied a central place in our culture. Whether we read and reread the Iliad or glance at antiwar graffiti still wet on the walls, the unmistakable sameness of it all overcomes distance and time and we simply respond to the humanity and the pity of it all. While civilization everywhere is scarred by the destructive power of war, there is some comfort in these humble attempts to understand and memorialize loss and render some semblance of humanity out of raw destruction. As Wilfred Owen, another soldier-poet said, “My subject is War, and the pity of War. The Poetry is in the pity.”
In 2005, when I began to look at Siegfried Sassoon’s poetry, I was struck by the similarities between war-hungry Britain at the beginning of World War I and the flag-waving patriotism of America as we began our second war in as many years. I was moved by Sassoon’s own disillusionment, as his poetry transformed from themes of triumph and glory to the horrors and grim realities of trench warfare, and by the biting contempt Sassoon had for cheering crowds back home, who knew nothing of the soldiers’ experiences. While I shared Sassoon’s anger and frustration, I also felt strangely reassured by his bleak poetry; it documented not only the shared experience of the war itself, but also the pessimism and disillusionment that inevitably comes with it.
As I began to explore Sassoon’s work, the project quickly grew beyond the scope of a song-cycle for voice and piano as I originally intended, and eventually Songbook of the War took shape as a dramatic cantata for solo voice, choir and ensemble. Since then, I have always wanted to return to my original plan and recast a portion of the work in a more modest setting for voice and piano.
The resulting song cycle, Six Sassoon Songs, begins with four songs lifted with little change from Songbook of the War (and rearranged for solo piano accompaniment). These songs deal directly with the horrifying images of the war, at times pleading and immediate, at times distant, or biting and sarcastic. A brief reprise of the opening poem bookends the war imagery and also leads into the final poem, Slumber-Song, which is entirely new to this song cycle. While Songbook of the War is about the soldier’s relationship to society at large, represented by the choir, the protagonist of Six Sassoon Songs must undergo a personal transformation. In the concluding lullaby, the larger questions of war and death remain unanswered, but we can find personal salvation in intimacy and love.