A new opera to mark the centenary
This two-act opera, to a commissioned libretto by the author and playwright Juliet Jenkin, has its origins in a song cycle setting of eight Rupert Brooke poems, composed while I was living in Grantchester between 2006 and 2010, collectively entitled The Ungathered Blossom of Quiet.
Grantchester was where Brooke himself lived while studying at Kings College, Cambridge, and the long poem he wrote in 1912, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester, commemorates his love for both the house in which he lodged, and the area itself. The poem’s final lines
Stands the church clock at ten to three?
And is there honey still for tea?
have become some of the best known in the language.
To mark the centenary of The Old Vicarage, Granchester in 2012, Dame Mary Archer, whose home it has been for many years, kindly commissioned me to compose a setting of it. This was given performances in Cambridge and Rugby (at Brooke’s old school) in June and July of that year. Written for baritone soloist, chorus and chamber orchestra, the work evolved as a 20-minute cantata-like composition which soon afterwards gave me the idea of composing a full-length opera about Brooke himself, to coincide with the looming centenary of his death in 1915.
The opera’s title comes from fragmentary lines found amongst Brooke’s papers after his death. Anchored in the Aegean, en route to the Dardanelles in April 1915, he walked on the deck of his battle ship at night, observing his fellow officers. He noted their strength and beauty, but, presciently, also saw them as
perishing things and strange ghosts - soon to die
To other ghosts - this one, or that, or I.
In life an enigmatic and highly complex individual, the ghost of Rupert Brooke has hovered over his literary legacy, taking different forms according to who is writing about him, and at the mercy of how his admirers and detractors wish to colour him. Not as gifted as, for example, Wilfred Owen or Siegfried Sassoon, his reputation continues to flourish, and, as an emblem of doomed youth, the image of him lingers powerfully on.
Dying at 27, from blood poisoning following a mosquito bite, he had spent his adult years wrestling with conflicting inner principles, probably as a result of a puritanical upbringing. Possessed with unusually good looks, and by all accounts radiating an aura of irresistible charisma, he outwardly maintained a semblance of conventional social order and decorum. But from the earliest poems and letters onwards his writing often reveals an anarchic, cynical and, at times, bigoted view of life. At university he was drawn to socialism, and to a life-style described by Virginia Woolf as “neo- pagan” - living outdoors, a diet of fruit and no meat, swimming naked in the river. Later, after graduating, he was drawn into the more exclusive and largely conservative upper-class world of London high society; only to move away from that too, when traveling to the South Seas and discovering perhaps the one pure uncomplicated emotional liaison of his life.
For most of the twentieth century Brooke’s contradictory nature was kept carefully hidden by executors and certain biographers. His published poems had won admirers, and the early death meant that he was easy prey for iconic treatment, not least because of one particular sonnet he had penned shortly before joining the Royal Naval Division -
If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England.
The noble sentiment needed to belong to a noble son of England, and after his death Brooke’s mother, and others, did their best to ensure the unblemished facade was maintained. But like all creative individuals, mighty and less mighty, Brooke was as flawed as the best of them. It is this multi-faceted, beautifully human face of Rupert Brooke that I have tried to capture musically in Strange Ghost.
The opera does not attempt to cover all the meetings, relationships, friendships and other biographical details available. The libretto consists, rather like Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, of a series of key scenes: in this case ten different important moments in his life - or, at any rate, moments that build dramatically to a whole portrait.
A range of musical leitmotifs underpin the score. Sometimes they are heard individually, and at others they intertwine and develop to the extent of virtually forming new material. Chief amongst them are of course those associated with Brooke himself, as well as those for the principal women in the opera: his mother Ruth Brooke, Noel Olivier, Ka Cox, and Taatamata. There is also music which symbolises various elements of the narrative: letter-writing, death and dying, Brooke’s love of men, and, in particular, his love of nature.
Commemoration of the centenary of Rupert Brooke’s death
Easter Sermon at St Paul’s
Rupert Brooke Society
Sunday 26th April 2015, The Old Vicarage, Grantchester
Hosted by Dame Mary Archer
Rupert Brooke Society members were separately invited to the blue plaque unveiling at Orchard House on Saturday 25 April.
More about The Second I Saw You
In 2000, the British Library uncovered a cache of letters and a memoir documenting the previously unknown love affair between Rupert Brooke and Phyllis Gardner. Their story of love, conflict and loss - expressed with spirited vibrancy against a backdrop of impending war - makes these writings a fascinating insight into life on the eve of the First World War, as well as a powerful love story. This book tells the couple’s story for the first time. It gives a revealing insight into the life and personality of Brooke (1887–1915), still revered as a great British war poet, and uncovers the neglected life story of Phyllis Gardner, which has been almost lost from history. The story is told largely in the couple’s own words and has been sensitively compiled as part of a major research project by Lorna Beckett, Chair of the Rupert Brooke Society.
More about Rupert Brooke
“An excellent one-man show… we were enraptured by Race’s rendering of the life and work.” — The Spectator
Jonathan Race staged a special performance of Rupert Brooke for us at Grantchester. This was the last time he would perform this play. Mark Payton’s inspired and meticulous play is the story of the Brooke beyond the myth of a young, beautiful, fallen warrior. It is the story of a far more complex and radical man.
Following the legendary ‘war’ poet from his time at Cambridge to his death in the Aegean Sea, the play reveals a man with a tumultuous personal life, a man not afraid to shock his audience, and vulnerably reaching to be ‘forever England’.
The Fateful Voyage
Sunday 26th April 2015, 8:30 pm The Hall, King’s College, Cambridge
King’s College provided the perfect end to a Brooke-filled day with Kate Kennedy’s The Fateful Voyage.
A deeply moving sequence of music and words devised to commemorate the centenary of the death of King’s beloved alumnus Rupert Brooke en route to Gallipoli with friends and composers FS Kelly and William Dennis Browne, including newly discovered unpublished songs. Written by Kate Kennedy based on her forthcoming biography of Denis Browne.
Andrew Kennedy: tenor, Iain Burnside: piano, Matthew Cammelle: reader/narrator