Alfred, Lord Tennyson meets Richard Strauss

My earliest memory of Tennyson’s poetry was my father’s singing lines from The Lady of Shallot to the tune of Mowing the Barley. ‘On either side the river lie, long fields of barley and of rye, and up and down the people go, waving lilies to and fro.’ One or both of us didn’t remember the lines very well, as I discovered at university. He didn’t have many songs, my Dad, but this was one of them. Another was a mildly rude version of Jerusalem, whose text involved a footballer losing his shorts at a match, the chorus beginning ‘You’re losing them, you’re losing them, pick up your pants and run…’

Tennyson was not for me, when finally I had to study his poetry: too much sentiment, too much melodrama. But he did write memorable lines, and of course he was wildly popular in his day, serving as Poet Laureate for a long time, and eventually becoming the first author to be created a peer. His son Hallam became our second Governor-General, and his grandson Lionel captained England at cricket, though he lost all his matches against Australia.

Tennyson wrote a long narrative poem called Enoch Arden, and the story was not only popular in its day, but has been filmed on several occasions, the last being Castaway, starring Tom Hanks. Enoch is a sailor, who grows up with two friends, Phillip and Annie. Enoch wins Annie as bride, to Phillip’s private grief. They have a happy marriage and things are going well when he suffers an accident, can’t carry on as a fisherman, and accepts the role of bosun on a ship going to China, hoping that he will make profits on the voyage. Annie begs him not to go. He is shipwrecked, but manages to get to an uninhabited island, where he survives for many years. So far the story is a version of Robinson Crusoe.

In the meantime Annie struggles to look after her family. Phillip, now a prosperous miller, helps by ensuring that the children are educated. After ten years he suggests to Annie that she marry him: he has looked after them, and can do so better if she becomes his wife. She greatly values him, but hopes against hope that Enoch will return, and puts Phillip off. But eventually she gives in. The arrival of a new baby brings forth the love for Phillip that he always wanted, and they are united. Enoch’s children have always seen Phillip as a good father, and welcome him. The family moves to Phillip’s large house.

Enoch is finally rescued, but is thin, brown and bowed. When he returns to his port town no one recognises him, and he avoids any contact with Phillip or Annie. Eventually he can’t bear it, and one evening moves to where he can see them inside, and what he sees is a happy family, his own children grown tall and beautiful, his former wife plainly in love with Phillip, who has grown stout (a sure sign of prosperity in Victorian England). He creeps away, determined now not to break the peace of a fine family, and soon dies, asking only that his landlady tell Annie, after his death, that he always loved her, and that she return the lock of hair of his youngest child that he had always kept with him.

OK, it’s a weepie, the theme of personal sacrifice for another’s happiness being a familiar one at the time. Now we jump to Richard Strauss, the German composer. He needed to repay a debt to a friend, the actor Ernst von Possart, who had helped Strauss become the conductor of the Munich Opera when Strauss was only 22. Von Possart was at the time a powerful figure in Munich as director of the royal theatres. Strauss picked up Enoch Arden and wrote music for it, interspersing his music with the text, giving the characters their own characteristic themes, and setting the scenes with appropriate colour. He and von Possart toured Europe with this piece, apparently with great success.

Strauss was not doing anything exceptional in writing such a work, for they were common enough in the second half of the 19th century. In fact ‘melodrama’ comes to us from the French, where it simply means music and drama, though by the end of the century it was stylised, in the form captured in the silent film The Perils of Pauline and innumerable films since. No one much produces music + poetry today, so to hear Enoch Arden at the 19th Canberra International Music festival was special. James Saunders held the stage for an hour as narrator, which was a tour de force, while Timothy Young played Strauss’s music superbly.

There was hardly a dry eye in the house when it was over. You know what is coming, because the plot was in the program, but the power of Tennyson’s verse, the great acting skill of the narrator, and the skill of the composer in fitting the music to the text, plus Young’s power and delicacy at the keyboard, provided a push to the emotions that could not be resisted. I have never heard anyone read a poem for an hour, let alone one with a musical background, and I may never hear another. At the end of the performance people went about mopping their eyes and saying ‘wonderful, wonderful’. I was one of them.

And I could see why the Victorians so liked Tennyson, not to mention Strauss, whom I have admired ever since I came across the tone poem Don Juan sixty years ago.

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