When I Was Man Alive
One of the most enjoyable things I do and love is singing.
It’s opened up new avenues of music which I wouldn’t have come across of my own volition. Certainly, appreciating choral music has alerted me to other types of music such as music hall, names of yesteryear such as Harry Champion, Gus Elen and Little Tich. As a child I revelled in stories of my Great Grandmother dancing as a girl to a monkey and barrel organ in Fulham, to barely known tunes such as ‘Roamin’ in the Gloamin’ by Sir Harry Lauder, and how her future husband would sing ‘Come Into The Garden Maud’ when they were courting. To listen to them now is a feat in itself, they’re so niche it’s hard to imagine that was what popular music was like a hundred years ago.
On occasion I’ve sung various pieces that our forebears probably would’ve heard a few times in their lives and enjoyed at a functional or enjoyable level. Purcell’s ‘Hear My Prayer O Lord’ which was expertly sung at Margaret Thatcher’s Funeral recently (and it’s a sexy piece to sing) to Rev. Cotterill’s ‘The Day Thou Gavest Lord Is Ended’, which was a staple at any Victorian funeral. The fact these pieces have been sung so many times over so many years by those no longer with us, and that they still endure, is staggering.
A. E. Housman, 26 March 1859 – 30 April 1936
One piece that resonates particularly strongly is a song which is a setting of a poem by A. E. Housman, which was released in 1896 in a collection called ‘A Shropshire Lad’. It’s the story in the style of traditional folk ballads, based firmly in mortality and that the end may come at any time. There are sixty-three poems in the cycle but the one that this entry is about is called ‘Is My Team Ploughing’.
The song itself has been set to music by several people including Ralph Vaughan Williams and Ivor Gurney, but perhaps the best known is the setting by George Butterworth. The poem is a conversation between a dead man and his living friend, the dead man wanting reassurance of all that he left behind is well: the living man heartening him. My friend Ian was preparing the song cycle for a recital he was giving at the church where he’s organist and choirmaster, and very keenly played it on his stereo.
I’ve not come across a piece of work that instilled such a silence in me after hearing it. Melodically it’s simple but so very, very haunting – the dead man sings quietly and meekly, the living man with a booming, confident voice. My own interpretation of it is that as the song progresses, the living man almost has an underlying ‘go back to being dead, there’s nothing left for you’ tone to his voice, with the dead man in a fearful tizz of what he’s left behind.
It wasn’t until the Boer War in 1899 that the song cycle gained notoriety for its depiction of rural life and the premature deaths of young men – this was also sustained through to the First World War. It’s a genuinely reflective piece which has a bittersweet ending that makes you feel everso slightly uncomfortable, as the last note is played from the piano you can sense the dead man just dissipates as he realises he has nothing left to exist for.
Have a listen.