A dramatic music cantata by Alan Wilson and Malcolm Gray

What is the intention of ‘The Voice of Nethermere’?

Destined for the weekend of the 12th September a brand new musical dramatisation of Lawrence’s first novel, ‘The White Peacock’ will be premiered. An underrated novel, superseded by the internationally famous ‘Sons and Lovers’, this work has been barely held in regard by academic critics, resulting in its neglect, except by the local community of Eastwood. This loyal exception is due to the topographical references to ‘The Country of my Heart’ – in this case ‘Nethermere’ – and it is that association which continues to be cherished by local enthusiasts, walkers and all. Despite some inquisitive structural flaws, this novel nevertheless contains a jewel of pastoral quotations poetic in beauty, of which there are so many of them. These form the backbone of the inspiration that has guided Alan and Malcolm through this dramatic cantata.

Now follow two personal contributions.

The Musical Intention – Alan Wilson

This has been a challenge, because although the plant and wildlife references so copious in number are portrayed in beautiful language, the book nevertheless has a plot of its own, and it has not been easy to sift through multi pages of dialogue. However the message is quite clear:
two people, characteristic of innocence, purity and naturalness, who should be together for life, end up in other misfired relationships, mutually removing their simplicity, thus ending in total tragedy. Meanwhile the other main character, the personification of unpolluted nature, is later badly scarred by man’s destruction.

To get this message across with the constraints of one hour, including songs, choruses, recits, narrative and instrumental links has been no easy task. The book itself is very long, but it is the sheer beauty of those precious descriptions of the landscape that act as a pivot and in the end this whole story becomes an allegory.

Then the concept becomes much clearer. Nethermere is the Garden of Eden, George and Lettie are Adam and Eve, the ‘apple of sin is eaten’, their innocence is broken and the world of Nethermere is contaminated and eventually destroyed. Thus this has much contemporary relevance to climate change, global warming and a possibility of extinction - all due to man’s selfish aims and neglect where ‘the trust of mutual communion has been broken into an exploitation of human greed’.

From a musical angle, it gives immense dramatic possibilities.
The cantata is divided into 3 sections.

The 1ST SECTION is a very upbeat celebration of this ‘Garden of Eden’ where ‘lovers unite, birds and all creatures sing madrigals, flowers form a pattern ‘with rhythms and crescendos’, and instruments perform folk dance music. ”Welcome to Nethermere!”
But even at this stage, a small warning appears relating to the vulnerability of this landscape in the words of the last verse of the madrigal.

The 2ND SECTION has allowed us an artistic deviation from the original novel, enabling a dramatic sequence. George has strong feelings for Lettie, but through his procrastination he never gets round to taking things further. Truly George, Lettie and Nethermere are meant to be one, and so it has to be the voice of the plants that reveals to George in a dream that this is the path he must pursue quickly. When he wakes up, he goes to Lettie with that hope.
Alas, it is too late, she has already set her heart on ‘richer gems’, ‘whose wealth will feed the joys I’m owed’ And in an angry monologue and virtuoso aria she renounces absolutely everything connected with “this world of rural folk with rustic minds who see no further than the plough’ - to be replaced by a superficial aristocratic upgrade.

The 3RD SECTION marks a progressive change of mood. Bursts of exultation give way to ensuing laments of grief and pain ‘where tears and sorrow flow’. Physically and psychologically the listener must be prepared for the deepest despair as the tone grows darker and darker.
George, ‘a broken man now shredded into alcoholism’, welcomes death, Lettie has gone for good and the Voice of Nature, now tarnished grieves on damage done therein. Rejection is quite obvious when the ‘rude robin says ”hello, who are you?”

The speakers finally transform us to the present day with pertinent topical questions: “is this about climate change, or extinction?” We are left to work that out for ourselves. Is there is any hope for our suffering planet? Hence the word ‘maybe’ and the final choral sentence from the last song ‘where beauty and the blackened pit are backdrop to the toil of men – where hope and hell are timeless knit’ If we do not realise this in time there is to be carnage forming an abyss of hell burning into destruction, vividly portrayed by the last chorus followed by a sobbing passionate grief stricken cello outpouring that grief.

This is the background to the musical composition that Malcolm and I have created, which we believe to be the first ever musical setting of the novel. The initial idea first came from a conversation with Ruth Hall and her lifetime’s occupation with horticulture, plus her detailed knowledge of this novel and bringing to my attention those hundreds of references to the plants and wildlife in the book. Similarly, my daughter Sally, in an informative guide around her beautiful garden, spoke so colourfully about the language of plants and how they corresponded to music. In parallel to this, as a former native of Eastwood , I have always wanted to bring this highly picturesque topographical book back to life in some form of musical presentation.

Musical styles are diverse, varying from melodic ‘west end’ type songs, to renaissance dance music and madrigals, to romantic recitative, and a baroque inspired last chorus full of dissonances and harmonic anguishes. Rhapsodic instrumental ‘sound bites’ intertwine, making musical comment on the dramatic flow. A Wagnerian type leitmotiv also abounds with subject material – for example, the love song theme and most notably the cello taking on the voice of nature with its barcarolle transformation of the original opening folky theme. The ‘dream scene’ makes full use of French impressionism ‘cloudy’ style clusters, chords and colours. This diversity of styles is enveloped into a highly individual and emotive bespoken personification of this drama.
But music needs words. References to Lawrence’s treasured descriptions have already been acknowledged, but that is not all. Malcolm, through an expressive poetic and dramatic style underpins the literary impetus of this work. This enables the listener to perceive quite clearly what these characters are about to say and interact, as the music reflects their moods.

Now follows an article from Malcolm.

The Literary Intention – Malcolm Gray

The combination of the account of the relationship of George and Lettie and Lawrence’s many examples of beautifully crafted descriptions of the landscape have provided a rich source for our interpretation.

I think that in the adaptation we have tried to bring out the true beauty of the setting—-Nethermere/ Eastwood and the harmony of the rural community at work within that setting. Primarily we have not sought just to set the novel to music but to take the liberty of using the beauty of the landscape, which Lawrence describes so vividly, as a backdrop for a musical exploration of the richness of the relationship between the characters and the natural world, and equally importantly ask questions about the wider issues of how we as human beings can live in such a way that we enrich rather than destroy the complex unity of our human environment

Alan and I both agree that Nature has a voice and can speak wisdom if we would but listen. I am not a Pantheist—I do not believe that God is a tree, nor even Wordsworth’s ‘rocky steep’ buttress that so scared the poet when he stole an ‘elfin pinnace’, but I do agree with Alice in her Wonderland that the flowers can speak if we would but listen—-thank you Ruth for that witty reference to Lewis Carroll - it reinforces the idea that George needed to listen to “The Voice of the Plants”.

While the “cantata’ is very much based on aspects of the Lawrence novel, what Alan and I have sought to do is to emphasise through the music the idea that the tragedy of materialism is one which can easily envelope more that just the location and characters which Lawrence used in his text: we believe that this is an idea that Lawrence would share with us.

The cantata includes clear evidence in the quotations used that Lawrence was a master of language even at a young age, and that he knew and understood the diversity and richness of the rural landscape. It also emphasises the harmony and unity that Lawrence felt existed in the relationship of man with the created world, and the danger that creeping materialism might pose if that harmony was broken. Surely Lawrence was to come back time and again to the fundamental question. “How do we fit into the created world and how can we work with it and learn from it before we destroy it?”

Lettie achieves the new and higher social status that she desired, but she loses her soul, and George is broken in the tragedy of their failed relationship. It may not be Lawrence’s best novel but it marks very clearly his first steps in the task of analysing human relationship, and the human relationships played out against the beauty of a created world that even as a young writer Lawrence described so powerfully.

Our initiative, using the Lawrence texts as a tool, is to pose the question of how we might work with the natural world to sustain it rather than destroy it, and we must learn to listen to the voice of nature if we are to do that. We hope that what we have created becomes an allegory, a warning of the destructive potential of materialism and human greed. Certainly this is the intention in the final Chorus. The threat of ‘hell and hope’ ‘perhaps’ exists now as it did in the time Lawrence wrote his novel.

Finally a tribute must be paid to the talent and generosity of all the artists taking part on this recording.

George – Daniel Wyman (Bass Baritone)
Lettie – Liz Rodger (Soprano)
The sung voice of the plants – Alison Seaman (Alto)
Narrator and Reader 1 – Brian Seaman
Reader 2 and the spoken voice of the plants – Alison Seaman
Cello and the instrumental voice of the plants – Sally Alexander
Violin and musical commentator – Helen Fearnley
Piano and organ – Alan Wilson
SATB Choir – Holy Trinity Eltham Schola
Musical Direction and Producer – Alan Wilson

Using Format