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 Interview, Ian Bostridge on Requiem: The Pity of War

Ian BostridgeOne of my personal recording highlights from 2018 was Ian Bostridge and Antonio Pappano’s imaginatively-programmed and superbly performed commemoration of Armistice Day, Requiem: The Pity of War, which includes song-cycles by two composers who died in the conflict – George Butterworth and Rudi Stephan – as well as music by Mahler and Kurt Weill. Shortly before Christmas (on the afternoon of their Barbican recital of a similar programme), I spoke to Ian about how the project came into being, the contrasts and parallels between Stephan and Butterworth, and why settings of poetry from World War One are comparatively scarce.

How did the programme for this album (and the related concerts) come together?

Quite a lot of it was repertoire I’d done before, but the reason I thought of fitting it all together was that I was trying to settle on an idea for a new book: I was initially thinking of writing a book on Monteverdi and then I moved on from that, and I remember sitting in a performance of Britten’s War Requiem and thinking ‘Why don’t I do a book about this?’. I’ve sung it so many times and there’s so much to be said about the poetry and the piece itself, so I decided to make that the culmination of a book which would look at the various ways that musical settings of poetry responded to war from the period immediately before World War I through to World War II. The idea was to start with Mahler, who shows us Europe as an armed camp before World War I, followed by two cycles by composers who were killed in the fighting - one of those being George Butterworth, whose Shropshire Lad settings are in part reflections on war.

You mention the War Requiem, and it occurs to me that that is one of the few musical settings of poetry from World War One that's become part of the mainstream repertoire: why do you think composers were so reluctant to tackle Owen, Sassoon, Rosenberg et al?

It's an interesting question, and I’m not entirely sure: I think there was a certain reluctance to set these texts or to engage directly with what was happening during World War I and immediately after it, often by the composers whom we see as really central figures of this period. Take Stravinsky, for instance, writing A Soldier’s Tale in 1918: you think this is going to be something about World War I and of course it’s not, it’s a complete displacement activity. Perhaps it was partly down to the fact that people simply didn’t want to think about it, and partly because a lot of the poetry is probably quite difficult to set: Britten’s settings of Wilfred Owen in the War Requiem are amazing, but they’re not a song-cycle as such…that is, they are a song-cycle in a sense, but one that’s embedded in something much bigger.

You have two cycles by composers who fought and died in World War I, one English and one German – are there any faultlines where you’re aware that these men came from opposing sides, or do they both occupy a largely apolitical space?

What’s interesting is that neither of them really engage with the issue directly: the Housman poems have war and death in the background, of course, but Butterworth was a military hero (he was awarded the Military Cross after his death) and I don’t think he was a protester against war in any sense, despite the pathos of those Housman settings. Rudi Stephan, I think, was much more of a radical, certainly before the War: he writes in a letter that ‘It’s ironic that I’m trying to compose a work about universal peace just as war is breaking out’.

How does that radicalism play out in this song-cycle?

The poet’s a woman, Gerda von Robertus, and that’s partly what strikes me as so unusual: they’re not exactly erotic, but they are sensual in a way that’s quite surprising for a woman of that time writing poetry and a man setting it to music in 1914. Stephan was living in Schwarbing on the outskirts of Munich immediately before the War, and you definitely get the sense that he came out of a Bohemian milieu – that’s the real difference between him and someone like Butterworth, with his moustache and Old Etonian background, going off to be a military hero. It’s quite daring stuff in that way; the only sense that I get of Stephan really engaging with war is that he’s had to leave something behind to go off and fight, and that (rather than warfare per se) is what he’s writing about.

When I first listened to them I heard flashes of Berg and Debussy…

They certainly come out of that sort of Expressionist period, but I think they have a very individual language, and quite a strange language at that: I’ve been rehearsing them today for a concert with Tony Pappano, and when you listen to some of the chord sequences without singing along it’s quite startling. I think he would have become a very individual and interesting composer if he’d lived a normal life-span.

The Mahler and Butterworth songs are generally the province of low voices: do you think that says anything relevant about how we think about warfare and masculinity, and on a more prosaic level did you transpose any of them?

Of the Mahler I actually only transposed Der Tambourgesell: on the recording we used a transposition that’s made available in the orchestral version by the composer and publisher. Of the three songs on the album, two of them are really in tenor keys anyway: Revelge and Wo die schönen Trompeten blasen are often sung by baritones, but actually lie quite high. The Butterworth songs were originally written in baritone keys: it’s that old thing about baritones being associated with lieder, and particularly with songs about war, maybe because that hard-edged masculinity is reflected in a sort of gruffness (notably in that wonderful recording by Bryn Terfel). But I think they work very well in tenor keys too; even transposed up a notch, the tessitura is still pretty middling.

Do you approach the Mahler songs differently when you’re singing them with piano rather than orchestra?

I suppose it’s easier to play with different colours when you sing them with piano, but having said that I just did them with the wonderful Osmo Vänska and the Seoul Philharmonic, and it felt just as easy to be subtle - so a lot depends on how the orchestra’s working, and of course Mahler’s orchestration itself is so clever. Sometimes the orchestration is in fact so clever that you miss the simplicity of the piano, though there are also colours that you miss when you do them with piano…But with wonderful pianists like Tony Pappano and Julius [Drake], something like the cor anglais solo in Der Tambourgesell can be just as beautiful with the piano it is in the orchestral version.

The Kurt Weill/Walt Whitman settings are interesting in terms of the gap between the poetry and when it was set …

They’re interesting musically because of Kurt Weill coming from a similar milieu to Rudi Stephan, but trying to incorporate an American voice into song composition, and also because he’s writing during World War II yet setting poetry which came out of the American Civil War - which was the first mechanised war, the first war to use the machine-gun. I find them amazingly powerful. I’m surprised they aren’t part of the mainstream repertoire, and I think they should be, because one tends to associate Kurt Weill so much with musical theatre (especially during his American period, with Die Dreigroschenoper and Happy End and all the Brecht/Weill collaborations) but I think these are something very special. These songs have a wonderful American harmonic edge to them which is very moving: the end of the last song, Come Up From the Fields, Father in particular is incredible, I think.

Mahler – Stephan – Butterworth – Weill

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Sir Antonio Pappano (piano)

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