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.

In the week of the anniversary of the signing of Magna Carta, Sue Casson looks at the relationship between the Great Charter and the European Convention on Human Rights as she continues her series exploring how her song cycle Dreams of Peace & Freedom developed. 

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

Why we are telling our story

Next year marks the dual anniversaries of the Nuremberg Trials (75 years) and the signing of the European Convention on Human Rights (70 years.) Tom Blackmore writes about ‘The Human’s in the Telling’ and why David Maxwell Fyfe’s story is at the heart of this commemoration.

Dreams of Peace & Freedom is the story of David Maxwell Fyfe’s journey from Nuremberg, where he was a leading prosecutor in the War Crimes Trials, to Strasbourg, where he was a champion of the Convention on Human Rights in Europe.

In The Humans in the Telling we, members of his family, tell the story in a song cycle.

‘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.

 Sue Casson, Composer of Dreams of Peace & Freedom

So that we can tell the story more widely in 2020, we have in the past year, made a recording of Dreams of Peace & Freedom, and a podcast which provides further depth and background. We have created a filmed recording which explores the landscapes of the story, and produced a book that throws light on the raw resources of the history, and tells you more about the historians.

We are telling this story:

TO PROTECT RIGHTS

As the European Convention is threatened, The Humans in the Telling is the debris of the past from which to build a barricade. We will join with those working to halt the march of populism and nationalism with the raw facts of history.

TO REMEMBER

The Humans in the Telling remembers events too easily forgotten. It remembers the evidence of holocaust, murder and tyranny presented at Nuremberg. Why people fought in the Second World War, not to win, but to protect and restore peace, justice and freedom under the law. And it relates how the first hesitant steps to win the peace were taken in the trial of leading Nazis and in the drawing up of a continental code to keep the people safe.

TO RECONCILE

Looking at the future through the prism of the past is a way back to coherence and unity. It allows a reset of the mind.

The Humans in the Telling invites reflection on the response to the Second World War, the last time the nation was at war.

After the Second World War a movement that had grown underground for many years flowered. There was a passion for peace, an awakening to the need for natural justice, and an understanding that freedom could only be exercised under the law both at home and around the world.

We can reconnect and learn again that:

‘A person is a person because he recognizes others as persons’

Desmond Tutu