Iain Farrington

Pianist, organist, composer, arranger

The Burning Heavens for Choir and Piano (or Choir, Strings and Piano)

A setting of seven First World War poems by Siegfried Sassoon.

Commissioned and first performed by Twickenham Choral Society and Christopher Herrick, on 4th July 2009 in Kingston Parish Church.

Shortlisted for the British Composer Awards 2010

See below for a full programme note, and review.

Duration: c.35 mins

Listen to the work here (choir and piano):

1. The Dragon and the Undying (6'15")

2. In an Underground Dressing-Station (4'28")

3. Does it Matter? (3'00")

4. Evening Radiance (5'52")

5. Attack (4'23") - 6. Aftermath (2'14") - 7. Everyone Sang (7'30")

Live performance by Twickenham Choral Society, conducted by Christopher Herrick with the composer (piano).

Listen to another live performance of the work here (choir, strings and piano):

1. The Dragon and the Undying (6'10")

2. In an Underground Dressing-Station (4'23")

3. Does it Matter? (2’57")

4. Evening Radiance (5'38")

5. Attack (4'23") - 6. Aftermath (1’59") - 7. Everyone Sang (7'26")

Programme note:

The Burning Heavens is a setting for choir and piano of seven First World War poems by Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967).

Sassoon was always a keen poet, but feeling a lack of direction in life, he willingly joined the army in August 1914. He quickly drew respect for his bravery, and was awarded the Military Cross in 1916. He continued to write poetry, but his early Romantic style became fused with a realistic, abrasive edge, galvanised by his experiences of war. In 1917, while on sick leave in England, he threw away his Military Cross and wrote an anti-war declaration, causing a furore after its publication in the press. He was certified insane and sent to Craiglockhart War Hospital to recover. He longed to return to action, almost with a suicidal conviction, and resumed duty at the Front in 1918. After sustaining an injury, he was sent back to England, where he remained for the rest of the war.

The poems chosen follow a chronological path through Sassoon’s own war experience. The Dragon and the Undying contrasts the horror and violence of war with a Romantic depiction of the fallen soldiers. This idealism is swept aside by In an Underground Dressing-Station, a gruesome depiction of the physical cost of war. While in Craiglockhart Hospital, Sassoon wrote Does it Matter? as he was appalled at the treatment of injured soldiers. The poem reflects his turbulent feelings by mixing a nursery rhyme tone with a savage irony and pent-up anger. Despite his preoccupation with the destructiveness of war, Sassoon always had a yearning for pre-war days, with their sense of innocence and natural beauty. Evening Radiance (taken from Before the Battle) is filled with this nostalgia, and is an oasis of calm, a moment of privacy and reflection. As a total contrast, Attack is a gritty battle scene, bleak and tense. A ghostly echo of the war is heard in Aftermath before Everyone Sang gives some sense of hope and peace, the only alternative to destructive war.

Sassoon’s poems are still relevant today in their immediacy and uncompromising subject matter. The music attempts to reflect the various moods and imagery of the poetry, dealing with the realities of war in a direct manner. It is also a response to the seemingly relentless pursuit of war by political leaders, for often-questionable motives.


The Church Times, 24th July 2009

"There were several things worth celebrating at the versatile choral concert given at Kingston Parish Church by the Twickenham Choral Society under its experienced musical director, Christopher Herrick. First was the programme's sheer imagination, outshining the more banal offerings that are de rigeur for June or July events. Second, the energising Mr Herrick is celebrating 35 years as this choir's musical supremo... Above all, the choral society brought to Kingston The Burning Heavens, a dramatic newly commissioned work of emotive power and vital impact by Iain Farrington... Farrington's credentials suit him ideally to writing choral works for choirs with keyboard accompaniment... In its broad sweep and subtle differentiation, the competent pianism of the accompaniment has the power to suggest a wealth of orchestral colourings... All of this seven-movement choral cycle is based on Sassoon, and explores the grim realism of Sassoon's poetic war reportage, culminating more optimistically with Everyone Sang... The directness and urgency of Farrington's treatment is impressive. Indeed, the Twickenham choir galvanised itself for its finest efforts of the evening in this engaging work, whose vocal settings honour the war dead as pithily as did, in its day, Sir Arthur Bliss's Morning Heroes... The onomatopoeic repeating words from Farrington's second setting, In an Underground Dressing Station, or the basses' haunting, deathly reiterations of "shot" epitomise the subtlety and invention of these well-thought-out settings... Does it Matter? launches (ironically) with the gay breeziness of a Britten Flower Song. The awed pianissimi of the keyboard in Before the Battle contrasts with the almost concerto-like panache with which piano lets rip in the opening and third songs. In Attack one can virtually hear the tanks advancing in the accompaniment, played with notable brilliance by the composer himself, and offset by some gnawing pauses here and ghostly stillnesses in the ensuing setting, Aftermath. Here, the choir under Mr Herrick particularly excelled.”

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