Piece of the Week 67: A Swan, A Man

A Swan, A Man is a setting of a poem by Edmund Blunden (1896-1974), for baritone voice and piano. Blunden served in the First World War, seeing continuous action in the front line. He subsequently worked as a poet and writer, and became Professor of Poetry at the University of Oxford. I was introduced to the poem by The War Poets Association and the Edmund Blunden Society, who commissioned the song, which was first performed by William Coleman (baritone) and Anna Tillbrook (piano) in a concert entitled ‘Songs of War 1914-18’ which took place in London in 2009.

Blunden spent his later years in the village of Long Melford, Suffolk, where he wrote this poem in 1964: the mill-pond in the centre of the village reminded him of events of nearly 50 years previously, still clearly etched in the his mind.

The poet sets a seemingly calm opening mood:
Among the dead reeds, the single swan floats and explores the water-shallow under.

But as he ponders the scene, thoughts of the past start to surface:
the rain-storm beats the pitiful stream with battle pictures I had hoped to miss

And these anguished memories of the battlefield form a brief central climax, finally relaxing into a mood of superficial calm again. The dreadful memories are of course always there in the background of the poem.

My setting responds to this powerful imagery with troubled simplicity in the outer sections, often relying on unrelated bare fifths and a melodic structure in which the semitone is prominent. This music frames the short central climax in which the vocal intervals become wider and the piano more active, raging against the futility of war. The final section, although basically similar in mood and texture to the first, uses fuller and thicker consonant (yet still unrelated) chords to suggest some possible feeling of resolution to the troubled memories.

It’s always a good feeling for a composer to find a poem which really releases the creative juices, and I think this poem did that for me, and I am grateful to the Edmund Blunden Society for giving me permission to set it to music.

You can hear a performance on SoundCloud here

Details of how to obtain the score here