Fern Hill was the centrepiece of my PhD submission and was performed on Saturday, June 11th 2005 in St Mary's Church [Dorchester] alongside The Lark Ascending, Flos Campi, Greensleeves and Valiant for Truth. This is the programme note for Fern Hill:
Fern Hill – première Rick Birley
- a setting of the poem by Dylan Thomas, for tenor solo, solo quintet, chamber orchestra and choir [the Occasional Singers]
Tenor solo Brian Parsons
Violin solo Kate Hawes Viola solo David Hedges Cello solo Damian Knollys Harp Angela Moore Celeste Peter Oakes
Some initial sketches were made in December 2003, but most of the writing was done in the following Autumn, and the work was completed in December 2004. I chose this particular poem both because I have always loved the lyricism of Dylan Thomas’ poetry, and because this poem is such a strong description of childhood, and the pain of leaving that state. I chose the instrumentation around the other main works we intended to perform in this concert – the Vaughan Williams Flos Campi and The Lark Ascending – and I decided to include a solo concertante group alongside the orchestra, and to have a choir part integral to the orchestral texture in a similar way to Flos Campi. Brian Parsons agreed – on trust (before the music had been written) – to sing the solo tenor part, and it is for him specifically that I wrote the vocal line. All the other soloists agreed likewise to be part of the project, and this also shaped to some extent what I have been able to compose.
Although the concertante group is a specified five instruments – string trio, celeste and harp – in truth there are many other soloists in the chamber orchestra, especially in the woodwind, most of whom are doubling (that is, playing one of two instruments). In particular the bass clarinet/clarinet and the flute/piccolo are both very full parts, and soloistic to a great extent.
The music has an intensity and intimacy heightened by the use of so many solo instruments with the orchestra. The colours and moods mirror the textual narrative, from the relaxed eternity of youth to the pain of growing into adulthood and forever losing the innocence. The poem’s ending incorporates the entire theme: “Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means/ Time held me green and dying/ Though I sang in my chains like the sea.”
The role of the choir is my music is orchestral. Only the tenor soloist sings in the first person – the choir text is used to heighten the effect, to support the solo, except at the end perhaps, when the music quietly fades away on the final three words of the poem “though I sang in my chains like the sea”. For substantial sections the choir is wordless.
There are clear sections: the opening orchestral music lays out much of the thematic material, which is transformed throughout the work as the mood of the poem suggests, before the tenor begins.
There is a huge crescendo into the fast second section, where the descriptive nature of the carefree child is echoed through the entire orchestra – listen in particular to the huntsman’s horn (horn and muted trumpet) for “And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves/ Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold”; and the tubular bells under the words “And the sabbath rang slowly/ In the pebbles of the holy streams” and the running of the water depicted by the strings, celeste and harp; the sudden fortissimo as “the owls were bearing the farm away”.
The middle section is the spiritual centre too, as the poem likens the child to Adam in the Garden: “…it was all/ Shining, it was Adam and maiden…” culminating in the ecstatic “on to the fields of praise”.
There is a hint of menace about the next section, as ‘the child’ runs his “heedless ways” – the accompaniment at this point is very busy and has a strong pulse – eventually leading to the sad, resigned departure from the childhood state, likened to the expulsion from the Garden: “Before the children green and golden/ Follow him out of grace”.
After a brief, somewhat hollow “nothing I cared, in the lamb white days…” there is a sudden and dramatic comprehension in the words “and wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land”. The final section is a poignantly nostalgic reflection of the very opening, but darker in mood, before the quiet and intense defiance of the final line “Though I sang in my chains like the sea”, dying away to nothing on a timpani roll…
Now as I was young and easy under the apple boughs About the lilting house and happy as the grass was green, The night above the dingle starry, Time let me hail and climb Golden in the heydays of his eyes, And honoured among wagons I was prince of the apple towns And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves Trail with daisies and barley Down the rivers of the windfall light.
And as I was green and carefree, famous among the barns About the happy yard and singing as the farm was home, In the sun that is young once only, Time let me play and be Golden in the mercy of his means, And green and golden I was huntsman and herdsman, the calves Sang to my horn, the foxes on the hills barked clear and cold, And the sabbath rang slowly In the pebbles of the holy streams.
All the sun long it was running, it was lovely, the hay Fields high as the house, the tunes from the chimneys, it was air And playing, lovely and watery And fire green as grass. And nightly under the simple stars As I rode to sleep the owls were bearing the farm away, All the moon long I heard, blessed among stables, the nightjars Flying with the ricks, and the horses Flashing into the dark.
And then to awake, and the farm, like a wanderer white With the dew, come back, the cock on his shoulder: it was all Shining, it was Adam and maiden, The sky gathered again And the sun grew round that very day. So it must have been after the birth of the simple light In the first, spinning place, the spellbound horses walking warm Out of the whinnying green stable On to the fields of praise.
And honoured among foxes and pheasants by the gay house Under the new made clouds and happy as the heart was long, In the sun born over and over, I ran my heedless ways, My wishes raced through the house high hay And nothing I cared, at my sky blue trades, that time allows In all his tuneful turning so few and such morning songs Before the children green and golden Follow him out of grace,
Nothing I cared, in the lamb white days, that time would take me Up to the swallow thronged loft by the shadow of my hand, In the moon that is always rising, Nor that riding to sleep I should hear him fly with the high fields And wake to the farm forever fled from the childless land. Oh as I was young and easy in the mercy of his means Time held me green and dying Though I sang in my chains like the sea.
This was the last poem written before Deaths and Entrances was published; it was added to the volume at the proof stage, according to a letter to Dent’s [his publishers] of 18 September 1945:
“I am enclosing a further poem, ‘Fern Hill’, not so far included in the book, which I very much want included as it is an essential part of the feeling and meaning of the book as a whole.”
Dent’s managed to include it, as the final poem of the volume. It was published in Horizon October 1945, prior to Deaths and Entrances, which came out in February 1946.
The Farm referred to in Fern Hill and in the story “The Peaches” (and elsewhere in Thomas’s work) is an actual farm, Fernhill, occupied at one time by his aunt and uncle (although not at the time the poem was written). Thomas told Edith Sitwell in a letter of 31 March 1946 that ‘Fern Hill’ was finished the previous September, ‘in Carmarthenshire, near the farm where it happened’. This would be the cottage at Blaen Cwm, Llangain, still in the hands of the Thomas family, and to where Thomas’s parents retired from Swansea. Thomas visited them there for long periods during the summer of 1945. On 30 July 1945 when he was there, he wrote to Oscar Williams:
A farmyard outside the window, sows and cows and the farmer’s daughters, what a day of dugs. I’ve been reading all Lawrence’s poems, some aloud to no-one in this bombazine room, and liking them more and more. Do you remember:-
O the green glimmer of apples in the orchard, Lamps in a wash of rain! O the wet walk of my brown hen through the stackyard! O tears on the window pane!
Thomas once said of ‘Fern Hill’: “it’s a poem for evenings and tears”.
(text notes from Everyman: “Collected Poems 1934 – 1953 Dylan Thomas” edited by Walford Davies & Ralph Maud)