When the music stops

Another trip I did this year was to St.Quentin. We were mainly concerned with that stretch of the retreat in 1914 that lies between Le Cateau and St Quentin itself, including Landrecies and Etreux. For this particular group, it was their first time on this part of the Western Front, and as it was approaching the centenary of the death of Wilfrid Owen, and as we were very close to Ors and the Sambre Canal, I decided take them to visit Owen’s grave. I also wanted to call in and see what had been done to the Forester’s House where Owen had spent his last day before being killed crossing the canal on the 4th November 1918, and from where he wrote what was to be his final letter home. I had driven past it many years ago before it became the popular visitor attraction it is today, but I had never been inside. I have to say that I found the visit worthwhile. Listening to that final letter read out in the dim light of the cellar, then listening to some of Owen’s works upstairs without distraction is half an hour well spent. (Actually, I think the projections could be dispensed with, but that’s just a personal view)  The feedback from those with me was equally approving, so much so that I thought we might have another dabble in the Arts the following day. Owen is well known, but there were other lives and talents cut short by the war, some celebrated, some not. Here was another opportunity to shine a light on one of those men whose work has largely been forgotten.

My love of classical music is longstanding, but my love and appreciation of English music from the late nineteenth century through to the present day goes back only a couple of decades. Another talent who fell during the autumn fighting of 1918 was the musician and composer, Ernest Bristow Farrar. The CWGC records note that Lieutenant Ernest Bristow Farrar, 3rd Devonshire Regiment, attached 16th Battalion, (Royal 1st Devon and Royal North Yeomanry) had been a Scholar of the Royal College of Music, as well as a composer and organist. He fell in action, aged 33, on the 18th September 1918 during the fighting near Epéhy. 

Had Farrar survived the war, I think he may well have achieved greater recognition, perhaps even in the same way that Ralph Vaughan Williams did. Farrar had been taught by two of the great musical figures of the late Victorian era, Sir Charles Villiers Stanford and Sir Hubert Parry, and in that sense he was very well placed to carry the torch for English music into the modern age had his life not been cut short. 

He produced a fair amount of music, including a work for orchestra – “Heroic Elegy” – Opus 36. The piece drew its inspiration from the heroism of the ordinary soldier, indeed a note at the top of the original score reads: ‘For Soldiers’. Elsewhere the score is annotated: ‘Being free from vainness and self-glorious pride’, a line borrowed from the prologue at the start of Act V, “Henry V”, and ‘The fine old English song of Agincourt’. ‘Heroic Elegy’ was the last work he wrote before his death. It was only completed in May 1918 and he conducted its first performance on the 3rd July at Harrogate, shortly before heading off to France.

Ronssoy, where Farrar is buried, was already on the itinerary for our final day of the tour. Later that day we were returning home, and given that we were looking at aspects of retreat, I wanted to take the group to the sector gallantly defended by men of the 16th (Irish) Division on the 21st March 1918, then to nearby Epéhy where three battalions of the Leicestershire Regiment fought a splendid rearguard action with the aid of a couple of tanks. I decided, therefore, to take ten minutes out of our schedule to call in at Ronssoy Communal Cemetery to pay our respects to Farrar. 

The CWGC section of the cemetery is small. We gathered around the headstone where I played “Heroic Elegy” to the group through my i-pod. We were just a couple of weeks away from the centenary of the composer’s death and it seemed appropriate to stop and listen to his final piece of work here at his graveside, just as we had listened to Owen’s final letter standing where it had been written. Farrar’s ability to create tension and atmosphere in this piece is impressive, a fact appreciated by everyone in the group regardless of musical taste. There is a dramatic, even a cinematic quality to the piece, and like Vaughan Williams, I believe Farrar might well have gone on to write film scores if only he had enjoyed the good fortune to survive. 

Today, Farrar’s music is no longer fashionable, but he was not without influence on the generation of English composers who followed him. Two of his pupils, the composers Gerald Finzi and Frank Bridge, went on to have very successful careers. In 1924 Finzi wrote his “Requiem da Camera” in memory of his tutor and Bridge dedicated a piano sonata the same year in similar tribute. (Finzi’s brother, Edgar Cecil Finzi, was killed in action on the 5th September 1918 while serving as a Lieutenant with 221st Squadron, Royal Flying Corps. He is buried in Mikra British Cemetery in Greece). 

Despite being held in high esteem by Finzi and Bridge, Farrar’s music and standing seems to have come to an abrupt end with his death. He seems to have faded quickly from public consciousness while others, Owen for example, have grown in reputation. In the run up to Armistice Day this year, I can’t remember Farrar’s name being mentioned, even on Radio 3. Surely we owe him a little more respect than that.