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Under an English Heaven

As an English graduate I wanted to stay true to the original text, as a lyricist, I knew I needed to pluck the words and lines, rather as David Maxwell Fyfe had, to tell his story most effectively.

On the anniversary of his death, Sue Casson describes why the 1914 War Sonnets of Rupert Brooke, a favourite poet of Maxwell Fyfe, are the beating heart of her song cycle Dreams of Peace & Freedom.

Rupert Brooke

Dreams of Peace & Freedom began life as a soundtrack to Under an English Heaven – a film about the life of David Maxwell Fyfe that Tom Blackmore made for the Kilmuir Papers website. It took its’ name from the final line of Rupert Brooke’s famous sonnet The Soldier, which Fyfe had quoted in his closing at Nuremberg, and comprised five songs – musical settings of poetry that inspired him.

Of these, four were settings of the poetry of Rupert Brooke, The Soldier acting as a springboard to our inspiration. At this time, our daughter Lily was a chorister in the Southwark Cathedral Girls Choir, and Tom and I both loved the ethereal effect created in blending two strands of young voices. Inspired by that Southwark sound, I wrote to evoke ‘English music’ of the early 20th century, in 3 rather than 2 parts to enrich the harmony.

The Soldier

At the same time, I experimented with a setting of Brooke’s War Sonnet III – The Dead which ends with the word ‘heritage’, echoed by Fyfe in the same speech when he describes rights for all as the inalienable heritage of mankind. It opens with the lines –

‘Blow out, you bugles, over the rich Dead!
There’s none of these so lonely and poor of old,
 But, dying, has made us rarer gifts than gold.’

Defendants at Nuremberg War Crimes Trials

Brooke was writing about the First World War, but these lines take on a further resonance in a story telling how human rights evolved into law after the Second. The sound of the bugles blowing over the battlefield dead echo on in a musical herald to an unprecedented trial seeking to impose meaning on the waste of life; bringing gold out of the base metal and carnage of WWII – restoring Honour and Order to Chaos.

I began to realise that in attempting to bring out the sentiments in Brooke that had inspired Maxwell Fyfe, the words were likely to be subtly deconstructed. As an English graduate I wanted to stay true to the original text, as a lyricist, I knew I needed to pluck the words and lines, rather as Fyfe had, to tell his story most effectively.

‘These hearts were woven of human thoughts and cares’

Rupert Brooke’s Sonnet IV – The Dead

The Dead begins as a meditation on the humanity of the inert bodies lying on the muddy French battlefields. But it also suggests the obscene waste of life in concentration camps, film of the liberation of which was presented as evidence at Nuremberg. I subtly altered Brooke’s words from the first half of the sonnet to make what became These Hearts and took a line from the second half to ‘blow through’ the cycle thematically and drive the narrative of the story. This motif was ultimately extended to become another song.

There are waters blown by changing winds to laughter,

And lit by the rich skies, all day.

Rupert Brooke’s Sonnet IV – The Dead
David Maxwell Fyfe

These lines to me suggested the winds of change blowing through Europe after the war. Winds of change that David Maxwell Fyfe, as part of the Council of Europe, was very much responsible for fanning. After aggression, reconciliation to restore order and morality.

Using my lyricist’s licence, these lines formed Verse 1 of There are Waters whilst some from Brooke’s Sonnet II – Safety formed verse 2, the imagery of the ‘blown’ waters swelling to ‘dark tides’, before the ‘unshaken’ peace and rest of port. To echo the lack of formality of the setting, the melodic line has echoes of popular 1940s dance band, combined with the folk voice that in Dreams of Peace & Freedom became the other strand to the cycle.

Non Semper Imbres, a poem Maxwell Fyfe mentions in a letter sent to Sylvia from Nuremberg, which also invited a folk setting, completed Under an English Heaven. It was recorded by the Phoenix Singers under the direction of David Chapman in 2010.

But when we came to add to these songs to make Dreams of Peace & Freedom later, we turned again to Brooke looking for lines to express the defining moment of Fyfe’s career – his cross-examination of Hermann Goering at Nuremberg. The opening heartfelt prayer from his War Sonnet I – Peace perfectly expressed the moment when everything comes together – preparation, knowledge, and opportunity:

Now, God be Thanked, who has matched us with his hour’

Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet I : Peace

Though Brooke was writing of the moment of poise before going into battle, the words catch the spirit of ambitions for that post war trial, and this famous battle of wills. I set it in an antiphonal style with a solo and choir response, suggesting the lawyer and the courtroom reaction, perhaps anticipating that the baritone voice that had been a feature of the Phoenix Singers recording of Under an English Heaven, breezing through the piece singing There are waters might re-appear. We later put that to one side, but what with this song and another I wrote revisiting Sonnet II – Safety, all five of Rupert Brooke’s war sonnets, in six different songs, now formed a solid backbone to Dreams of Peace & Freedom.

To hear the Phoenix Singers’ performance of ‘Under an English Heaven’ click this link –


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