Dylan Thomas at the Gotham Book Shop in New York in 1952. Photo: Getty
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His master's vowels: on listening to Dylan Thomas's voice

Thirty years after his death, Richard Burton remains one of the very few actors, along with Ralph Fiennes, Viggo Mortensen and Stephen Dil­lane, able to deliver poetry in a high-impact way that also makes them seem like they somehow own it themselves.

The numerous Dylan Thomas centenary programmes on BBC Radio 3 included a special edition of The Verb (5 May, 10pm) for a live audience at Laugharne on the estuary of the River Tâf, where the poet used to live, and a series of The Essay (5-9 May, 10.45pm) in which the New Jersey-born activist Kevin Powell spoke about Thomas’s far-reaching influence on black American poets. An archive recording of Richard Burton reading “Fern Hill” was superb:

Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs
About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green . . .

Thirty years after his death, Burton remains one of the very few actors, along with Ralph Fiennes, Viggo Mortensen and Stephen Dil­lane, able to deliver poetry in a high-impact way that also makes them seem like they somehow own it themselves.

I recently spoke with Tom Hollander, who plays Thomas in a forthcoming BBC TV movie about the poet’s last excessive days in New York in 1953. The actor has a recording of Thomas at the house of a NYC socialite who increasingly plies the poet with drink while capturing him on tape reading from John Donne. Hollander said it was Thomas’s (“pretty pissed”) lines of in-between chat that gripped him most. Never particularly Welsh-sounding, Thomas had the kind of voice that does not exist any more: Home Service grand. It is worth noting how deep that voice went culturally, all through the British middle class as much as the upper classes and right into the 1970s. An arch, musical timbre that over the past 30 years has been brutally culled. “Every so often you do still hear it,” noted Hollander. “I was speaking to a friend the other day who went to a book launch in Nepal and said that literally everybody there sounded like that . . .”

The empire voice. When, on Bank Holiday Monday afternoon, we eventually heard Thomas reading “There Was a Saviour”, that august, over-freighted fruitiness was there; also, the great poet’s ability to disappear entirely into his lines, as Yeats or Tennyson could. A voice with tremendous reserves of patience. A voice that abolished everything but the ear.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, India's worst nightmare?

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Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue