T.S. Eliot and The Human’s in the Telling

TS Eliot was a poetic contemporary of David Maxwell Fyfe, living like him in central London through the chaos of the Blitz. His wisdom, and poetic vision of that time, with the spiritual struggle it induced in him, provide both atmosphere and a frame to our ghost story.

As Ralph Fiennes begins a limited run of his extraordinary tour de force performance of T S Eliot’s Four Quartets in London’s West End, Sue Casson explores the themes that resonate with The Human’s in the Telling.

The inspirational writing of poet and philosopher T S Eliot casts a long shadow over The Humans in the Telling.

The Human’s in the Telling logo

Its’ logo, white on black with a dancing flame depicts the symbol conjured in the final lines of Little Gidding, the closing poem of Eliot’s monumental poetic meditation on time and salvation, Four Quartets‘the fire and the rose’ made one.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom, the song cycle at its’ heart, closes with a setting of lines by the 14th century mystic Julian of Norwich quoted in the same poem, ‘All shall be well’, whilst the immersive performance opens with a quotation from Burnt Norton, projected on a photo of roses taken at Kew Gardens.

In this way, lines from Four Quartets clearly bookend our story of David Maxwell Fyfe’s journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg, a story we tell in his own words and through musical settings of poems he found inspiring. But as the writers who tell that story, T S Eliot’s Four Quartets, largely written whilst the world was at war, are an inspiration that stretches beyond the beginning and the end.

T S Eliot

Eliot was a poetic contemporary of Maxwell Fyfe, living like him in central London through the chaos of the Blitz. His wisdom, and poetic vision of that time, with the spiritual struggle it induced in him, provide both atmosphere and a frame to our ghost story.

In Little Gidding, which in Section IV references the Battle of Britain in its’ imagery, Eliot tries to see an unseen, unknowable future.

‘History may be servitude / History may be freedom’

Little Gidding III

The war through which he is living as he writes, its’ overwhelming physical and mental darkness, clouds his thinking and freezes expectation for the future. ‘Where is the summer’ he asks in Little Gidding, published in 1942, ‘the unimaginable, zero summer’. His spirit longs for salvation, purifying ‘pentecostal fire / In the dark time of the year’. The longing for spring in the depths of frozen, lifeless Midwinter.

Little Gidding

Four Quartets documents a very personal struggle, but what happened after the war, which is the largest part of our story, needs to be seen in this context. The attempts made to reassert order out of chaos and attempt to put right what has gone catastrophically wrong.

As part of Winston Churchill’s wartime cabinet, and the immediate post-war parliament, David Maxwell Fyfe was in the position of having the power to shape what happened next. First at the trials at Nuremberg, where he was part of the team identifying those culpable and establishing evidence to prove their guilt and the opportunity to confront their crimes in a courtroom. And later, as part of the United Europe Movement which ultimately led to the European Convention on Human Rights, which Fyfe championed and drafted.

‘History is a pattern / Of timeless moments’

Little Gidding V

Here are two not taught in school, which is disturbing, for those who lived through these events are dwindling year by year and the result is they have become widely unknown and worse, misunderstood.

“Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

George Santayana

Throughout his meditation on the nature of Time in Four Quartets, Eliot makes us aware that the consequences of our actions and decisions live on in the future they create. ‘In my beginning is my end’ he writes at the beginning of East Coker. Or in the very first poem in the sequence, Burnt Norton, published in 1936, three years before war broke out.

Time past and time future
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end which is always present.

Burnt Norton I

Which is why Eliot’s words seemed a fitting beginning to our Dreams of Peace & Freedom performance, in which Maxwell Fyfe expresses his distress that ‘the hopeful enthusiastic beginnings’ of the European project ultimately dissolved into ’doubt, hesitation and pain’.

Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose garden.

Burnt Norton

The Four Quartets centre on resolution and struggle, and the tension between these, has marked Britain’s recent relationship with Europe, which has been the unfortunate background to our telling. It may never have been ‘a rose garden’ (to use Eliot’s symbol), but in the wake of Brexit, the Convention that countries who had only recently been at war worked so hard to create together in its’ aftermath, has lost its’ significance. In such a political climate, can ‘All be well’, as Dame Julian of Norwich hopes, or has the ground shifted?

‘… what you thought you came for/ Is only a shell, a husk of meaning’

Little Gidding I
Etching in Salisbury Cathedral

Eliot, searching for reconciliation after a struggle of the spirit concludes Four Quartets with cleansing Pentecostal fire.

All manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flames are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one                         

Final lines of Four Quartets

The Humans in the Telling tells the story of how a lasting peace is wrought from the fires of war. That fashioning, with international co-operation and diplomacy, of what Fyfe called ‘a simple, safe insurance policy’ from the ashes of holocaust and barbarity, leading to 75 years of peace deserves to be celebrated by fortunate generations untouched by the trauma of war. Only by confronting the stories of the past can we hope to build a secure future.

What we call the beginning is often the end.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from.

Little Gidding V

A livestream performance of Dreams of Peace & Freedom is now available to watch on demand at C the Arts. Book tickets here.

Dame Laura’s Nuremberg

Dame Laura Knight’s picture of the Courtroom at Nuremberg, was a realistic portrayal of the defendants, prosecutors and court proceedings that dissolves at its’ edges into scenes of destruction that define the purpose of the trial – a ruined city with fires still burning and heaps of bodies reaching for retribution.

The Nuremberg Trial by Dame Laura Knight RA, 1946, now part of the collection at the Imperial War Museum © IWM. Original

A letter Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe wrote to her husband in May 1946 describes a painting of the Nuremberg Trials by Dame Laura Knight, which she had recently seen at the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition. Sue Casson explores the story behind the painting, which is now part of a collection at the Imperial War Museum.

…I went to see Dame Laura’s Nuremberg. It is tremendously impressive I think, and her portraits of the prisoners are terrific – so frightfully characteristic. Maybe it is more interesting if one has been there and knows the position in which they sit. The symbolic backcloth effect seems right to me. I felt all that distinction so much a part of the court. Unfortunately, no lovely picture of you…

Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe to her husband 4th May 1946

Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe was amongst the first to see the Summer Exhibition at the Royal Academy which opened on 4th May 1946. Amongst the paintings was Dame Laura Knight’s picture of the Courtroom at Nuremberg, a realistic portrayal of the defendants, prosecutors and court proceedings that dissolves at its’ edges into scenes of destruction that define the purpose of the trial – a ruined city with fires still burning and heaps of bodies reaching for retribution.

Laura Knight at work

Ten years earlier, Dame Laura Knight had been the first woman to be elected to full membership of the Royal Academy, and was part of the hanging committee for their annual  exhibition in 1946. During the war, she had created several works for the British War Artists’ Advisory Committee including a series of memorable portraits and wartime scenes depicting women at work – land girls, officers of the WAAF, and groups tethering barrage balloons or mending parachutes. As the war ended, she proposed the Nuremberg war crimes trials as a subject to the Committee. They agreed and Dame Laura duly travelled to Germany in January 1946 to spend 3 months observing the trials. She later described her experience of the courtroom to the BBC :

‘A dial is … beside every chair, by which one can switch on to immediate translation into whatever language one understands. From my box I only get a vague impression of what is being said – the headphones there are the kind one must hold to one’s ears, and my hands are busy. With my natural ears I am aware of scraps – confused as the tower of Babel.’

Laura Knight

If the soundscape in the courtroom was indistinct, her observational skills were sharply honed, and attending day to day, she was attuned to the ‘atmosphere’ generated by the defendants, depending on the statements of the witnesses. This is clear from the diary she kept whilst she was there, which records her responses to what she is seeing, around revealing pen and ink sketches of what was in front of her. This fascinating personal record of the proceedings is now held in the National Archive (Nottinghamshire). What she notices reveals her skill as a portraitist. For example, she writes of the physicality of Hermann Goering :

Page from the diary now in the Nottinghamshire Archives

‘His great mouth stretched across his face, his nostrils pinched…He must take eights in hats and his face also is enormous…’

Laura’s Knight description of Goering from her Nuremberg diary

Such attention to detail is the mark of each of the depictions of the Nazi war criminals sitting in the dock which are the centrepiece of what became the large oil painting she was working on, that Sylvia later saw – The Nuremberg Trial. In this respect, they are as realistic as her earlier wartime portraits. The painting departs from this in their setting – the rear and side walls of the courtroom are missing to show a still ruined city. She explained this composition in a letter to the War Artists’ Advisory Committee :

“In that ruined city death and destruction are ever present. They had to come into the picture, without them, it would not be the Nuremberg as it now is during the trial, when the death of millions and utter devastation are the sole topics of conversation wherever one goes – whatever one is doing”.

Laura Knight, in a letter to the War Artists Advisory Committee
The Rt Hon Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, KC, Nuremberg, 1946 by Laura Knight Copyright: © IWM. Original

In his autobiography David Maxwell Fyfe echoes the truth of this description :

‘The old walled town was a heap of ruins. Machine-gun cartridges littered the streets… There were even some in the precincts of the courthouse and the adjacent prison. People peeped at us from bunkers under partly shattered houses…’

David Maxwell Fyfe, in A Political Adventure published 1964

Had there been a similar ‘lovely picture’ of her husband as Sylvia Maxwell Fyfe hopes in her letter, what would be the images on its’ ‘symbolic backcloth’ that might define Maxwell Fyfe’s world on a canvas of his life? Their grandson, Tom Blackmore makes this suggestion:

Fyfe was born in 1900, so there are early photographs of the late Victorian Age, of early improvements in the urban landscape. Here are pictures of the barbarity and destruction of the two great wars, followed by huge material change in communication, transport, comfort and convenience. There are hospitals built by a national health service for the first time. There are figures returning imperial colonies to independence. Then there is protest, as satire, sex and strides in technology empower the booming population of young people to seize their freedom and turn the spotlight onto their own needs, identities and ambitions. There is a modern courthouse for the European Court of Human Rights designed by Richard Rogers on the fringes of Strasbourg and opened in 1998, and a copy of the Human Rights Act, which incorporated the European Convention into British law in the same year.

Just as Laura Knight’s ‘symbolic backcloth effect’ contextualises the significance of the Nuremberg courtroom, Maxwell Fyfe’s canvas reflects the century of change in which he lived.

Find out more from the links below…

The Nuremberg Trial, 1946 | Imperial War Museums (iwm.org.uk)

Welcome to the Official Dame Laura Knight website – Dame Laura Knight

Who is so safe as we?

In the light of the fact that many people now believe that the terror of world war is confined to history and could never happen again, there is an unacknowledged fragility to the peaceful bucolic picture Brooke paints.

In the last of her blogs describing how Dreams of Peace & Freedom developed, Sue Casson looks at the inspiration behind her setting of Rupert Brooke’s Sonnet II – Safety which was specially written for Human Rights Day 2013, and asks – ‘are we as safe as we think?’

When the Kilmuir Papers website was launched in the Conference Centre at St Matthew’s Church Westminster in 2013, the afternoon was given over to a series of talks and showings of the films that made up Under an English Heaven. With the beautiful Oxford movement church just next door it was decided that a fitting end to the afternoon, like a secular evensong, would be a short performance of the pieces that formed a soundtrack to the films, interspersed with readings from David Maxwell Fyfe. As the songs had originally been inspired by the sound of the Southwark Girls Choir, I was thrilled that its Director, Stephen Disley, ‘lent’ me a group of his singers, led by Lily, for this performance.

The Freedom Choir at St Matthews Church, Westminster

The event was held on International Human Rights Day, so I added a setting especially written to celebrate. It was to follow Maxwell Fyfe’s words describing how the concept of human rights had evolved and taken shape during the Nuremberg Trials.

I looked to Rupert Brooke, with whom I already knew he had an affinity, for inspiration, and his War Sonnet II – Safety seemed a good place to start, as Fyfe describes The European Convention on Human Rights, as

‘a simple, and safe, insurance policy’

For me these words of Brooke’s –

‘We have found safety with all things undying,
The winds, and morning, tears of men and mirth,
The deep night, and birds singing, and clouds flying…’

Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet II, Peace

evoked a musical setting akin to a hymn of thanks. They summoned a carefree natural world, where peace reigned, birds sang.

In Maxwell Fyfe’s story, after six years of wartime fear and uncertainty, they served as a paean of praise and relief that those years were over, and perhaps begged the question – how can such ‘blest’ peace be preserved?

I set the first four lines of his sonnet aside, (including the opening My Dear! which I wasn’t sure what to do with) and plunged straight in. ‘We have found safety’ – we’ve enjoyed it ever since the Second World War ended, and we don’t even stop to appreciate our luck. In Brooke’s sonnet his soldiers are dead – released from worldly cares. We’re living the dream. Brooke continues –

We have built a house that is not for Time’s throwing.’

Sadly, in my reading this was much less certain. This ‘house of safety’, embodied by the ECHR, may very well be built on sand. Intended by Maxwell Fyfe and his team after the war to prevent, in so far as they could, such suffering every happening again, since the Conservatives had returned to
power in 2010, the Human Rights Act, incorporating the ECHR into British law, had been under threat of repeal. Ironic really, given that Maxwell Fyfe was a Conservative politician, and the ECHR was drafted and signed under a
Conservative government.

‘War knows no power.’

Rupert Brooke writes in the second half of the sonnet – a line that I had borrowed for There are Waters. In the light of the fact that many people now believe that the terror of world war is confined to history and could never happen again, there is an unacknowledged fragility to the peaceful bucolic picture Brooke paints.

‘Who is so safe as we?’

he asks, voicing the complacency of the dead. But what of the living? There is an unresolved tension at the heart of this celebration of a life that, as a generation so far from war, we have come to take for granted. As the verse closes, I literally introduce a questioning note, an unresolved cadence. To finish, it is resolved to perfection. Everything’s fine now. But I hope it leaves an underlying unease. Are we as safe as we think?

You can hear ‘Part IX – Safety’ from the new recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom here – http://thehumansinthetelling.org/part-ix/4594760796

The Humans in the Telling

Intentionally or not, we all bring our own talents and interpretation to a telling. In performing our story as a family, singing Fyfe’s favourite poetry, adding projections of photos – both our own and from an archive, and introducing his great grandson to stand up and speak his words we have made our personal histories part of the way we tell David Maxwell Fyfe’s story.

If our histories shape the person we become, how do those histories shape the individual ways we tell a story? In this companion to last week’s blog, Sue Casson explores how the histories of the newest generation of David Maxwell Fyfe’s family have defined the development of Dreams of Peace & Freedom: The Human’s in the Telling.

Our performance at St Luke’s had explored how the histories of Maxwell Fyfe shaped the man he became, centring on three separate histories that mark our difference: our educational and study history, personal and family history and the historical times in which we live, and these subtly altered our final draft of Dreams of Peace & Freedom. But if we are each the product of our little histories, how do those histories affect the way the storyteller presents a history?

For history is no straight factual account, but a series of accounts, facets to the fact. The words we use, the words of others we choose, what we leave out, where the emphasis falls – all of these are part of building a story. When we began to tell Maxwell Fyfe’s story by weaving Tom’s selection of his inspirational words, through my musical settings of poetry that had
inspired him, our shaping of his story was dictated by inclusion, exclusion and my melody.

And intentionally or not, we all bring our own talents and interpretation to a telling. In performing our story as a family, singing Fyfe’s favourite poetry, adding projections of photos – both our own and from an archive, and introducing his great grandson to stand up and speak his words we have made our personal histories part of the way we tell David Maxwell Fyfe’s story.

But other histories Tom identified that evening have also influenced the way our project has developed. The technological times in which we live have contributed immensely, for with history, even history in the making, the availability of information at the time a story is told is key. Tom began with the gift of letters exchanged during the Nuremberg Trials, and he read widely to put these into the context of events at the Trial.

The Tack found amongst Maxwell Fyfe’s possessions

Over years of research however, more source material emerged. With our trips to the north of Scotland we discovered the significance of some of the other papers amongst those letters, notably the copy of the Tack of Tain, which led to research into The Napier Commission. The evidence given at Bonar Bridge of the injustice served on Fyfe’s great uncle, given by his uncle Hugh Fraser only became readily available online in 2015 – fifteen years after the letters were discovered.

Whilst the song Fyfe quotes in his Brussels speech, ‘to which we used to listen in more carefree days’ Ne Dis Pas, Tom discovered after years of searching, uploaded to YouTube in 2016.

We have drawn on our own educational histories to embellish our
storytelling. At school Fyfe found the poetry of Rupert Brooke ‘trumped’ Wordsworth. But for Tom and me, the poet who ‘trumped’ all others was T S Eliot. We were both entranced by The Four Quartets, and I found the words of 13th century mystic Julian of Norwich which he quoted in the climax to Little Gidding so comforting, it became my private mantra whenever things were difficult.

‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well’

Julian of Norwich, Revelations of Divine Love
Four Quartets by TS Eliot

There seemed no better way to us than setting these peaceful, hopeful words, written whilst the Second World War was still raging, to follow a statement of Fyfe’s personal credo. There was no evidence that he found the solace we did in Eliot’s Little Gidding, but to us they seemed a fitting close to a story exploring the rebuilding of Europe after its’ destruction.

When we were looking for a way of expressing Natural Law and how Maxwell Fyfe’s dedication to the idea had grown, we could find no poem to set, so gathering images from the Shakespeare he loved and the atmosphere of the Waverley storybook, I plainly imposed the voice of the storyteller, blending them with lines from John Donne (with which he may or may not have been familiar) in an unaccompanied three voice anthem, breathing Maxwell Fyfe’s romantic Celtic spirit.

Later, behind the words, in the projections that now accompany the song cycle, we introduced the landscape of his childhood that flows through his instinctive love of natural law.

As Dreams of Peace & Freedom grew to The Human’s in the Telling, Sylvia and David Maxwell Fyfe’s story became part of our family story. We have spent time together exploring and recording the places they lived, interpreting them in strings of images, until the generations have gradually intertwined to blur the lines between subject and storyteller. Our story is one of a man who championed humanity out of the embers of inhumanity. And in relating it in our own way, we have become the humans in the telling.

The History that Shapes us

Here was a perfect opportunity to explore David Maxwell Fyfe’s difference – the history within him that inspired his passion to embark on creating a living law that would keep Europe safe after the war.

David Maxwell Fyfe is one of the architects of the post-war world. But although we all live with his legacy, he is now largely forgotten. How do you introduce him to a modern audience? Sue Casson describes how she and Tom Blackmore, the writers of Dreams of Peace & Freedom, found the answer lay in bringing the history that shaped him to life.

‘So while the light fails on a winter’s afternoon in a secluded chapel 

History is now and in England’ 

TS Eliot – Little Gidding 

Tom Blackmore introduced a performance of Dreams of Peace & Freedom for the patronal festival of St Luke’s, Sevenoaks at the end of 2015 with these words, and a question – ‘What history is within us that shapes us and makes us different?’  

Poster for St Luke’s Patronal Festival 2015

Following our Big Year for Freedom tour, we were looking at ways to introduce David Maxwell Fyfe, a man who is now all but forgotten, but who played such an important role in post war peace, to a larger audience. This invitation offered a perfect opportunity to explore his difference – the history within him that inspired his passion to embark on creating a living law that would keep Europe safe after the war. 

It had been suggested that a short programme of songs and readings before the main performance was a good way to acquaint the audience with David Maxwell Fyfe and the period in which he lived. What we discovered in putting this together, nourished the development of our show in surprising ways.  

Complete Works of Shakespeare

In a short preamble, Tom identified three separate histories that shape us, and these were the basis of our introduction. The first was educational history. The books Maxwell Fyfe read with his English master HJ included Shakespeare, Wordsworth and Brooke, and quotations from them peppered speeches throughout his lifeHe even says in his autobiography that ‘any power of speaking would have been infinitely weaker’ had he not been taught by him, and over and over we saw him draw on his wide reading at school and university, in his speeches. His time at Oxford studying the ‘Greats’ fed his knowledge of natural law. He quoted Horace in his speech to The American Bar Association, which gave a context to the inclusion of Magna Carta in the song cycle. 

It was in presenting the second, personal history – where the circumstances of our birth and early life feed into the person we become – that the song cycle changed into the piece it was to become. We knew that Fyfe’s mother had been a huge influence in his life, and that in turn her history, as part of a family affected by the Highland Clearances, had fed into her only son, shaping his life-long commitment to human rights, and our title reflected this.  

But Tom had just discovered Hugh Fraser’s account of the clearance of Migdale in the transcript of the Napier Commission (established in 1883 to explore eviction injustice across the Highlands), from which he was able to choose excerpts. That evening, we threaded these through the haunting traditional Scottish melody ‘Mist covered Mountains’ alongside Jim McLean’s lyrics of protest. When we later included the song in the cycle, at a stroke the words ‘Dreams of peace and freedom’ were voiced within it, and with them the unspoken message that these dreams began at Fyfe’s grandmother’s knee.  

We’d taken time to consider whether to include music that wasn’t original in the cycle, but it opened the door to Ne Dis Pas when it became known to us a couple of years later.  

Wartime sheet music

This evening also came to mind as we were developing the projections that were to become a central part of our performance. In exploring what Tom had called the ‘third history to shape us’, we had put together a medley of wartime songs to evoke the historical background to Maxwell Fyfe’s life. Until he was forty-five this was one of world war and Depression. As we devised a picture show to illustrate how his life changed over those years, we put aside the wartime tunes and chose instead to stay true to the emerging Scottish spirit we were depicting. It was a dialect poem from the evening – Sergeant o’ Pikes by Neil Munro, quoted by Fyfe in an introduction to the autobiography of the Duke of Sutherland, that I finally chose to set.  

Munro’s lines on the warlike clansmen echoed the ‘brave spirits’ of the past that set alight Fyfe’s romantic imagination. For them ‘the Hielan’s’ were forever at their back driving them on, keeping them true to Scots tradition wherever they were fighting. And so it was with David Maxwell Fyfe. He remained true to his Scottish heart and history as he went out to try to change the world. 

Listen to Dreams of Peace & Freedom now at http://thehumansinthetelling.org/song-cycle/

Dreams of Peace & Freedom

Having regularly performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the obvious next step for us was to take the show there the next summer. Being the birthplace of David Maxwell Fyfe, it seemed right. Taking him home.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom premiered at C South on the Edinburgh Fringe 2014. It would have returned this year, to launch a series of commemorative performances marking the anniversaries of the Nuremberg Trials and the signing of the European Convention. A week away from what would have been the first performance, composer Sue Casson reflects on why Scotland is the show’s natural home.

The performance of Under an English Heaven at the launch of Kilmuir
Papers in December 2013, with Robert reading the words of his great
grandfather, was really the birth of Dreams of Peace & Freedom. It was
so well received as a live performance, it seemed odd to leave it there, and
having regularly performed shows at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the
obvious next step for us was to take it there the next summer. Being the
birthplace of David Maxwell Fyfe, it seemed right. Taking him home.

C South, St Peter’s, Lutton Place

At the same time, the song cycle was moving beyond an English heaven to a Scottish one. It would be expanded and changed for the festival, so we began to look around for a new name.

Our research into the origin of the title he chose when he was ennobled, Viscount Kilmuir, had taken us to the very north of Scotland that
autumn, and during our trip we had stumbled across a CD of Celtic
women singing traditional folk songs, which seeped into our bones along
with the dreek mist as we drove through the Highlands. One of those
songs, Jim McLean’s evocative ‘Smile in your sleep’ included the
repeated refrain

‘dreams o’ peace and o’ freedom’

The lyrics tell of the Highland Clearances, the time when crofters who
had spent generations on the land had been summarily evicted.
We discovered during those same travels how Maxwell Fyfe’s family was
directly affected by this.

‘The old tales were very close’ Fyfe writes in his autobiography, remembering not only how his great uncle took his own life under the threat of eviction from the family home in Creich during the late Clearances, but how his grandmother provided the blankets to construct a tent for the first service of the Free Church of Scotland in Sutherland.

These events related to him at his grandmother’s knee shaped his
lifelong hunger for justice. At the same time, the refrain resonated
with a life spent pursuing dreams of maintaining peace after the
Second World War and striving for fundamental freedoms.

At this stage we were committed to the song cycle remaining
original, so all we took of Jim MacClean’s song was the refrain, but
adopting a Scottish title was just the beginning of grounding our
extended story of Maxwell Fyfe into the land of his childhood. We
included Non Semper Imbres, by Scots dialect poet James Logie
Robertson in Under an English Heaven, as Fyfe had copied out
this poem about the cycle of renewal in nature, in a letter to Sylvia
from Nuremberg, saying that it ‘rather expresses our mood just now.’

With its implicit message of hope – ‘not always raining’ it looked
forward to better times to come. Now I extended the folk inspired
music to set further verses. Their language conjures Fyfe’s familiar
landscape; trees, mountains and lochs that dramatically reinforce
his Scottish heritage, as well as poetically expressing his belief in
Natural Law.

View from Croich Church

For our Scottish performances the sound changed subtly as well. With a three week performance commitment, the choir we had
hoped to assemble proved tricky to pin down. So the singing, by default but perhaps appropriately, took on a Celtic feel, sparse, misty, minimalist, as it the spirit of Maxwell Fyfe’s forefathers breathed through the settings.

This virtue born out of necessity created a balance in the developing piece. The very formal English sonnets of Rupert Brooke had been the point of inspiration for music. Informal folk inspired settings, expressing Maxwell Fyfe’s personal history seemed a perfect foil to round out a telling of the seminal early events his life. The more intimate, less choral, altogether dreamier atmosphere of the performance garnered some splendid reviews, but also influenced the further development of the show.

Listen to Dreams of Peace & Freedom on SoundCloud now at https://soundcloud.com/english-cabaret/sets/dreams-of-peace-and-freedom

The Law is a Living Thing

The influence of Magna Carta on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was acknowledged by Eleanor Roosevelt, when she described it as the International Magna Carta. While the UDHR defines the rights, The European Convention, as an international treaty under which signatories agree to be bound by its’ requirements was a natural successor to Magna Carta, so it seemed right to commemorate the two – the ancient and modern side by side.

As we approach the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta later this month, Sue Casson looks at the relationship between the Great Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights as part of her series exploring the development of her song cycle Dreams of Peace & Freedom. 

The subtle, pared down sound of Dreams of Peace & Freedom that by necessity defined our Edinburgh Fringe performances in 2014, made the idea of a pop-up tour to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights the following year more possible, as with a narrator and three singers, one of whom doubles on piano, we could, and did, turn up to sing in as many places with connections to Magna Carta as we could, with very little fuss.

Hold on – Magna Carta? That’s something quite different, surely? But in fact, it was just this happy coincidence that prompted our big idea that 2015 was a Big Year for Freedom

Magna Carta

Magna Carta Libertatum (to give it its’ full name – the Great Charter of Liberties) historically enshrined natural rights and freedoms into British law for the first time. It offered access to swift justice, outlawed illegal imprisonment, limited feudal payments to the king and protected the rights of the church. It has been described as the

foundation of the freedom of the individual against the arbitrary authority of the despot.

Lord Denning (1899 – 1999)

The influence of Magna Carta on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was acknowledged by Eleanor Roosevelt, when she described it as the International Magna Carta. While the UDHR defines the rights, The European Convention, as an international treaty under which signatories agree to be bound by its’ requirements was a natural successor to Magna Carta, so it seemed right to commemorate the two – the ancient and modern side by side.

65 years since the signing of the ECHR and 800 years since King John signed the Magna Carta

When we laid out our plans for our Big Year for Freedom, we were only vaguely aware of the British government’s decision to make major changes to the Human Rights Act, which incorporates the ECHR. But as the year progressed, what had seemed a historic commemoration gradually took on the guise of political activism.

David Maxwell Fyfe provided a link between Magna Carta and the ECHR. In his speech to The American Bar Association as they unveiled their monument in Runnymede in 1957, he laid out his belief in natural law – law derived from nature or ethical reason, that exists independently of a given political order, that is at the heart of the great Charter. Just as Magna Carta protected rights that existed beyond the King’s jurisdiction, so the European Convention, which Fyfe was instrumental in drafting, provided recourse for citizens beyond the nation state, who believed their human rights were infringed.

We highlighted this when we opened our Edinburgh show with a musical setting of some of the closing lines from Magna Carta translated from the original Latin, sung alongside excerpts from this speech. There are Waters, which closed the show, was accompanied by a draft list of all the fundamental freedoms that made up the European Convention.

However, during our tour, an explicit parallel between the Magna Carta and the modern International Magna Carta, seemed missing from the song cycle. Tom laid down the gauntlet of finding a way to musically mesh the two – by somehow fusing David Maxwell Fyfe’s suggested preamble to the European Convention which he had recently discovered online, with my musical setting of Magna Carta, to make the association between the two musically clear. I came up with the idea of a descant and The International Magna Carta became the grand finale of Dreams of Peace & Freedom.

Now David Maxwell Fyfe’s personal story, and his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg, was encased between two great Charters, and the activism, to preserve the rights enshrined within them has become another strand to our story. When Cultural Solidarity Media, as part of a documentary of the Nuremberg Trials for Russia 1,  came to film Dreams of Peace & Freedom in June 2016, we used the film they gave us of our performance of The International Magna Carta for our pro-Remain campaign during the lead up to the referendum. 2015 was the moment our commemoration became a campaign.

Find out more about our Big Year for Freedom tour at www.kilmuirpapers.org.

Why a song cycle?

If you were telling how facts uncovered during the Nuremberg Trials led directly to the post war impulse across Europe to enshrine protection of human rights in law, music might not be an obvious choice…. though it’s the oldest way in the world.

Songwriter Sue Casson explores why David Maxwell Fyfe’s love of poetry, often quoting his favourites to drive home a legal point, made a song cycle the natural choice for a show that tells the story of his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg.

Recently, at a meeting where Tom Blackmore and I were pitching Dreams of Peace & Freedom, which tells the story of Tom’s grandfather, someone asked, ‘why a song cycle?’

It’s a fair question. If you were telling how facts uncovered during the Nuremberg Trials led directly to the post war impulse across Europe to enshrine protection of human rights in law, music might not be an obvious choice.

Although it is the way Tom and I have often chosen to tell a story, and as he would tell you, it’s the oldest way in the world. Troubadors since ancient times have entertained rapt audiences with mythic histories, in verse, in song – often with no more than their voice and whatever instrument was light enough to carry. What’s more, I’m a songwriter, Tom a writer – we write shows like that.

But really, that isn’t the whole story, and neither of us have put together a show quite like this before. For the link between those two important post war events was David Maxwell Fyfe, a well-read Scot, who often turned to poetry in his speeches to illustrate what he wanted to say. 

In his closing at the Nuremberg Trials, David Maxwell Fyfe quoted Rupert Brooke’s War Sonnet V – The Soldier

‘sights and sounds, dreams happy as her day,

And laughter learnt of friends, and gentleness

In hearts at peace’

are not the prerogative of one nation. They are the inalienable heritage of mankind.’

David Maxwell Fyfe quoting Rupert Brooke in his closing at the Nuremberg Trials August 1946

This speech, the first he had made at Nuremberg, and written after he had forensically examined all the evidence and confronted the perpetrators, sets out his commitment to fundamental rights and freedoms, and signals his future involvement in enshrining them in law. It is the fulcrum of his journey from Nuremberg to Strasbourg. And to drive his point home – Maxwell Fyfe, a learned lawyer – quotes a poet: Rupert Brooke. If we were looking for an opportunity to incorporate music directly into his story it was this – poetry that he had chosen, demanding a musical setting.

‘I think that HJ never quite understood why I did, or how I could, prefer the wartime sonnets of Rupert Brooke to those of his hero Wordsworth.’

David Maxwell Fyfe writing about his English teacher at George Watson’s College in his autobiography, A Political Adventure (1964)

With this as our point of inspiration, reading the other four war sonnets in Rupert Brooke’s 1914 collection, published when Fyfe was just fourteen years old, Tom was struck by the way the poetic language expressing Brooke’s idealistic values at the outset of the First World War had filtered through into his grandfather’s speeches.

In his closing at Nuremberg, he not only quotes Brooke directly, but goes on to speak of ‘heritage’, a concept that closes Brooke’s War Sonnet III. As he seeks to create an enforceable treaty to protect human rights after Nuremberg, he champions Safety (War Sonnet II has the same name) and Security, which appears in the same sonnet. Norman Birkett, a British judge at the Nuremberg Trials, goes to considerable trouble to give Fyfe a Scottish poetry collection as a leaving gift, knowing exactly what it will mean to him.

For Maxwell Fyfe delights in finding the imaginative truth through reading, on occasion writing stories and verse himself.

‘romance … is poetry in action. It comes when the inevitable moment finds the inescapable deed,’

David Maxwell Fyfe writing of the tales that defined his childhood in The Watsonion, alumni magazine of George Watson’s College

This almost defines that moment at Nuremberg, when his closing speech expresses an awareness of rights and freedoms for all. A self-confessed romantic of the law, the poetry flows through Fyfe’s conscious and unconscious mind as he expresses what he is seeking to achieve.

In Dreams of Peace & Freedom, inspirational quotations from the speeches, letters and autobiography of David Maxwell Fyfe, naturally thread through musical settings of poetry he found inspiring. The melody infuses his chosen poetic words with another unspoken dimension – emotion to reinforce the story, rather as in his speeches, the poetry heightens the tenor of his legal argument.

Fyfe praised the ‘incomparable songs’ of Scotland, and so musically setting the poetry in his heart beside his spoken words seemed not only effective, but perfectly natural. It represents the imaginative life that informs and reinforces his legal practice. Which is the real reason why his post-war dreams of peace and freedom and how he sought to achieve them, are best brought to life in a song cycle.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom, the fully mastered recording, will be launched in June 2020. Find out more at www.thehumansinthetelling.org.

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 – http://suecasson.co.uk/under-an-english-heaven/4579279089

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