Binyon Songs John Pickard (b.1963)

These five songs were not originally envisaged as a cycle. The final song, The Burning of the Leaves, was the first to be written, commissioned in its original voice and piano version by the 2010 Ludlow English Song Weekend. The version for voice and orchestra was first performed in Dorchester Abbey on 28 May 2011 by James Rutherford and the English Chamber Orchestra conducted by John Andrews, as part of the 2011 English Music Festival. Over Christmas 2012, purely for my own enjoyment, I set four more Binyon poems for voice and piano, subsequently orchestrating them in November 2015.

Although his Great War poem For the Fallen contains some of the most famous words ever written in the English language, Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) is now a deeply unfashionable figure, his measured, civilised voice largely drowned out in the clamour of the late 20th and early 21st centuries. The neglect seems to me to be especially regrettable, because he has much to say that is of directly contemporary relevance, frequently offering a message of consolation and hope that is all the more potent for being so realistic and unsentimental in expression.

Four of the poems I have set explore Nature: its indifference to human aspirations and desires, and also its renewing power in the context of a corrupted and ever-changing world. These themes are explicit in the first three settings, while the fourth, a simple love-song, attempts to encapsulate a timeless moment, seemingly untouched by the relentless cycle of birth, decay and death. The final setting is by far the longest. The Burning of the Leaves was one of Binyon’s last poems, published posthumously in 1944. It takes autumnal decay as a metaphor for the corruption of the old social order, both meeting their ultimate fate in the all-consuming flames. Binyon’s final lines, written at the height of the Second World War, offer a ray of hope, diffracted by doubt and ambivalence: ‘Earth cares for her own ruins, naught for ours./Nothing is certain, only the certain Spring’. These ideas return us to the first song, so that the whole work turns out after all to have been a cycle after all.

John Pickard