For the Fallen: James Macmillan’s All the Hills and Vales Along at Barbican Hall

There is nothing sentimental about Sorley’s own poetry which, like that of
Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, looks with sardonic objectivity upon
themes such as duty and the glory of war, and does not shy from examining,
with frank intensity and authenticity, violence and death in relation to
private and public commemoration.

This concert at the Barbican Hall was one such public commemoration. James
MacMillan’s oratorio, All the Hills and Vales Along, for solo
tenor, chorus, brass band and orchestra was commissioned by the London
Symphony Orchestra and 14-18 NOW.
It sets five poems by Sorley who, aged just 20, was killed by a sniper at
the Battle of Loos in 1915 (a smaller-scale version of the work, for string
quintet and solo winds was presented at MacMillan’s Cumnock Tryst festival
in Ayrshire last month).

The sight of the eighty or so members of the National Youth Brass Band of
Great Britain crowding around the London Symphony Orchestra and beneath the
London Symphony Chorus on the Barbican Hall stage was both tremendous and
somewhat troubling. After all, many of these young musicians are little
younger than Sorley himself and the millions of others who died in the

The opening moments of Macmillan’s setting of ‘All the hills and vales
along’ exacerbated this unease. The pastoral intimations of the poem’s
title are disregarded; landscape is an indifferent onlooker here. Macmillan
begins with an eerie ‘noise’ that brings to mind Owen’s image in his poem
‘Exposure’, of the ‘air that shudders with black snow’ as the men wait, in
terrible anticipation of the forthcoming battle: ‘Worried by silence,
sentries whisper, curious, nervous,/ But nothing happens.’ The bows of the
LSO strings seemed unmoving and no pulse gave life to the dry, grey
huskiness which emanated, until the still, cupped hands of conductor
Gianandrea Noseda opened and the brassy vigour of a march burst forth. The
summons of the side drum and the measured thump of the bass drum inspired
fortitude and focus, countered by crescendo-ing blares and rhythmic shifts
which conjured both excitement and peril. (At the Cumnock performance, the
ironic medley of marches and hymn-like melodies was played by the
Dalmellington Band, founded in 1864, in which MacMillan’s coal-miner
grandfather played euphonium.)

The unison entry of the male voices of the London Symphony Chorus were
lifted aloft by the beating drum, their marching song robustly declaimed
but lacking in hope: ‘And the singers are the chaps/ Who are going to die
perhaps’. The full choral voices rang with a stirring hymn, ‘So sing with
joyful breath’, though more honest spirituality was evoked by the quieter
description, accompanied by vibraphone, of an ‘Earth that knows of death,
not tears.’ The return of the title line, this time sung by the soft female
voices evoked the distance between those who march away and those who
remain, with only memories and echoes to comfort them: ‘Earth will echo
still, when foot/ Lies numb and voice mute.’

There is no deceit or denial in Sorley’s poem, which urges the marching men
onwards, ‘To the gates of death with song’, and which concludes with the
cynically trite couplet, ‘Strew your gladness on earth’s bed./ So be merry,
so be dead.’ Macmillan captures this unflinching honesty in his setting,
and in the subsequent movement ‘Rook’, for tenor and orchestra which was
sung by Ian Bostridge with soul-piercing focus. So often, in lieder
recitals, Bostridge seems to ‘live’ the experience of the poetic
protagonists; here, though his engagement and communication were no less
emotive or affecting, he retained a certain detachment and poise – the
experiences and lives described where not so much ‘lived’ as felt and
communicated. The vocal challenges that Macmillan presents are
considerable, and at the top and bottom of his range Bostridge did not
always seem at ease but, characteristically, the tenor did not once shy
from full commitment to the vocal embodiment of poetic meaning. The first
word, ‘There, where the rusty iron lies’, was a shout of pained
bewilderment, the sound ironically sweet and clean above tremulous string
fluttering. The violas’ counter-melody seemed to push the questioning,
wondering voice upwards – ‘Perhaps no man, until he dies,/ Will understand
them, what they say’ – as Noseda summoned ever greater intensity, driving
towards the climactic statement: ‘The world is half content.’ This
declaration marked a change: gentle, soaring explorations by the strings,
and the stuttering pianissimo triplets which whispered as the players
lightly dropped their bows onto the strings, suggested a motionlessness
which was complemented by the chiasmus of Bostridge yearning reflection on
‘the soul that flies/ From day to night, from night to day.’

These first two movements created a powerful and disturbing impact which I
did not feel was wholly sustained in the subsequent parts of the oratorio.
The thunderous bass drum roll that introduced Sorley’s sonnet, ‘When you
see millions of the mouthless dead’, was succeeded by a chamber group of
solo strings whose timbres and harmonies recalled the elegiac wistfulness
of the music of those – Howells, Finzi, Ireland – who themselves
experienced the conflict. However, Macmillan does inject growing energy,
and uses dynamic contrast effectively as the Chorus relay the
poet-speaker’s instructions to ‘Give them not praise … Nor tears … Nor
honour.’: ‘Say only this. “They are dead.”’ And, the distorted muted
‘fanfares’ at the close were aptly disconcerting, for: ‘Great death has
made all his for evermore.’

‘A hundred thousand million mites we go’ is quite cinematic in its initial
bracing string rush, and brutal snap-pizzicato representation of the curses
that ‘snap the air’. Both the rhythmic style and text-setting reminded me
of Britten. (Echoes of the timeless observations of the Male and Female
Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia seemed discernible in Macmillan’s
settings of the lines, ‘And nations, ankle-deep in love or hate,/ Throw
darts or kisses all the unwitting hour/ Beside the ominous unseen tide of
fate:’.) Indeed, it was Bostridge’s characteristically discerning and
intense delivery of the text which gave this movement its power. Elongated
vowels were weighted, as the soldiers set off ‘Wheeling and
tacking o’er the endless plain’, and later swayed ‘Writhing and
tossing on the eternal plain’. As the vocal line sank, Bostridge’s tone
became blanched, ‘Some black with death’; melodic ascents gained intensity,
accompanied by the strings’ horrid scurrying. Consonants were viciously
enunciated, ‘And some are mounted on swift steeds of
thought’; a violently rolled ‘r’ infused the poem’s final question with
agonised inconclusiveness: ‘Who brings us home again?’

In 1914, prior to taking up his place at Cambridge University, Sorley
visited Germany, and when war broke out he found himself troubled by
divided loyalties, which he made public in ‘To Germany’. This seemed to me
the weakest of the movements, redolent not just with a Shostakovich-like
bitterness – the angular unison string exclamations brought to mind the
Fifth Symphony – but also with an Elgarian nostalgia, even nobilmente in the hymn for chorus and tenor which dominates the
movement. Macmillan does return to the raspy whisper which began the
oratorio, disturbing the dry murmur with blasts of brass and string
tremolandos as Sorley describes ‘the storm,/The darkness and the thunder
and the rain’ which will precede the coming of peace. But, I did not feel
that Macmillan fully re-established the sardonic tone or emotional lucidity
of Sorley’s poetry, which shows just how profoundly the young Scottish poet
had grasped the truth about war – a truth he expressed with wariness and

There is much that is both sardonic and ‘heroic’ about Shostakovich’s
Fourth Symphony, which requires the largest instrumental forces of any of
the composer’s symphonies. It was begun in September 1935 and completed in
May the following year, during which time the composer came under attack
when Pravda accuses him of creating ‘Confusion instead of Music’
in Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk; Shostakovich withdrew the symphony in
December 1936, while it was in rehearsal, and it was not heard until the
Khrushchev era when, having been revised by the composer, it was premiered
in Moscow on 30th December 1961. Moreover, the
symphony represents the young Shostakovich’s ambitious endeavour to
reconcile his developing musical language with traditional symphonic form.

This is music that requires immense intellectual and physical effort, and
Noseda made these creative forces palpable in the Allegretto poco moderato, emphasising the quasi-mechanistic
relentlessness of the profusion of material, and balancing the motoring
rhythms with the espressivo violins and the bassoon’s wry but
elegant solo reflections (bassoonist Rachel Gough played superbly
throughout and thoroughly deserved the cheer of acclaim she received). The
long movement never felt disjointed – unruly at times, perhaps, but Noseda
suggested that he could tame the beast. This was a physical onslaught, even
assault, but there was delicacy too, and the woodwind – especially the
clarinet, bass clarinet and cor anglais – painted vivid colours. Noseda
took risks, pushing the sound towards vulgarity at times, and launching the
strings’ fugato at a crazily precipitous tempo – the terrific LSO
fiddles raced like a runaway train but amazingly stayed firmly on the
tracks. The more conventional form and lighter scoring of the short Moderato con moto ironically allowed the conductor to playfully
tug at the rhythm and tempo and knock the regular occasionally out of
kilter. And, Noseda did not try to hide the Mahlerian presence at the start
of the Largo while the final Allegro accrued an
unstoppable momentum into which Noseda integrated moments of lightly
scornful parody.

Perhaps Shostakovich’s Fourth Symphony embodies a ‘battle’, or several
battles, that cannot be won, its immensely imaginative but ultimately
unreconcilable discourse never fully ‘conquered’. But, Noseda and the LSO
communicated, almost viscerally, the truly heroic dimensions of that

The concert will be broadcast on BBC Radio 3 on Thursday 8 November at

Claire Seymour

For the Fallen: Marking the First World War Centenary

James Macmillan: All the Hills and Vales Along (Commissioned by
the London Symphony Orchestra and 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions,
with the world premieres taking place at The Cumnock Tryst festival
(chamber version) on 6 October 2018 and LSO (orchestral version) on 4
November 2018); Shostakovich: Symphony No.4 in C minor Op.43.

Ian Bostridge (tenor), Gianandrea Noseda (conductor), London Symphony
Chorus (Simon Halsey, chorus director), National Youth Brass Band of Great
Britain, London Symphony Orchestra.

Barbican Hall, London; Sunday 4th November 2018.

product_title=For the Fallen: Marking the First World War Centenary, Ian Bostridge (tenor), Gianandrea Noseda (conductor) London Symphony Orchestra, London Symphony Chorus, National Youth Brass Band of Great Britain at Barbican Hall, London.
product_by=A review by Claire Seymour
product_id= Above: Charles Hamilton Sorley