The Borders of Sleep – Nine Poems by Edward Thomas

This work was composed for its dedicatee, the baritone Jeremy Huw Williams, who commissioned it with financial assistance from the Arts Council of Wales. It was begun in the summer of 2000 and completed a year later.

Until recently I have written very little vocal music. For me, the problem is not writing for the voice but finding the right words. If I find a good poem I am afraid that I will spoil it by setting it to music. Conversely, a poem only needs one musically problematic word and I am unable to set it. So the task of selecting appropriate texts invariably takes far longer than actually setting them. This was a great inhibition, until I started reading Edward Thomas – and everything fell into place.

Edward Thomas (1878-1917) was killed in the Great War, at the Battle of Arras. He is therefore often grouped with Owen, Sassoon and Brooke as a “war poet”. In fact, he tends to deal far less directly with the war in his work than do the others, but in some of the poems one can, as it were, hear the shell-fire in the background. As a composer, that obliquity interests me: it opens up an expressive space for the music to occupy. For similar reasons, I was also attracted to the striking lack of metaphors in many of these poems. Generally speaking, the poems are simply intense observations – any symbolic associations stand outside and beyond the text itself. Again, this uncluttered approach frees up space for the composer and aids comprehensibility when set to music.

In setting these texts I hoped to make a small contribution to the long tradition of the English art-song, which seems to have fallen into neglect since the death of Britten. The wonderful songs of Peter Warlock were a particular inspiration for this cycle.

Apart from the first and last, I wrote the songs in a completely different order from the one in which they now appear. As I became increasingly involved with Thomas’s poetic world, what began as an arbitrary collection of three or four songs, each of which could stand alone as a separate item, grew into an extensive nine movement cycle, lasting about half an hour. This is because, as I worked at the songs, a sort of imaginary narrative began to emerge: a soldier at the front lies in his bunk, half-awake (at “the borders of sleep” as the last poem says) the night before he goes “over the top” into no-man’s land. Recollections of the natural world from back home (he is a countryman) and of lost love, merge with images of war. The memories begin to darken, taking in the macabre vision of the central song “The Gallows”. The final song, “Lights Out”, brings release in the oblivion of sleep.

It is worth mentioning that the penultimate song, “The Sorrow of True Love”, sets Thomas’s last poem. It was found on the final page of the war diary he kept until the 10th April 1917, the day a shell blast killed him. He was 39 years old and had been writing poetry for just two years.

Read the full text here

John Pickard