Last Man Standing
For Baritone and Orchestra
(2018) 28 minutes
Libretto by Tamsin Collison
Commissioned by BBC Radio 3 and first performed by Marcus Farnsworth and the BBC Symphony Orchestra conducted by Martyn Brabbins on 30th November 2018 at the Barbican, London. Broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.
A short opera about internet dating seems an unlikely place to start, but it was as a result of the Tête à Tête Opera Festival teaming up Tamsin and me to write Love Bytes in 2012 that Last Man Standing came into existence. We so enjoyed working together that we resolved to collaborate on a large-scale work one day, and the perfect opportunity presented itself when I was commissioned by the BBC Symphony Orchestra to write a monodrama for baritone and orchestra.
We originally intended to draw on the WW1 memoirs of Siegfried Sassoon, but then decided to use our piece to explore the experiences and emotions of an anonymous British soldier – an Everytommy, who could represent men of every rank and class. Over the course of three years,we immersed ourselves in novels, poetry, letters, eyewitness accounts and documentaries. The BBC's seminal 1964 26-part series The Great War was a particularly important source for us, as was Joan Littlewood’s Oh! What a Lovely War. I poured over military pamphlets detailing everything from bugle calls to the maintenance of heavy artillery. Nicholas Saunders’s book The Poppy, tracing the flower’s cultural and social history, provided Tamsin with a framework for the narrative. And we spent many hours together in the Imperial War Museum, attempting to comprehend the incomprehensible.
Much of this research has found its way into the musical language of Last Man Standing: the Music Hall ditties that bribed and shamed boys into enlisting, the bugle calls that sounded the alarm and ordered soldiers to commence firing, the artillery and trench whistles that sent men to their deaths (the percussion section includes replica whistles, made with the same materials, from the original J. Hudson & co. factories). Soldiers' songs (When this lousy war is over (to the tune of What a friend we have in Jesus) and The bells of hell go ting-a-ling, for you but not for me) feature, as well as the most famous of all, We're here because we're here. For me, Tamsin's text says all that needs to be said about our new work, and in my setting I have attempted to express something of the emotional gamut our 'ordinary ' Tommy must have experienced: from excitement, optimism and pride, through boredom, terror and despair, to resignation and some form of acceptance.
© Cheryl Frances-Hoad, 2018
"I’ve been going to a lot of music lately and the outstanding concert – probably of the year actually – was the BBC Symphony Orchestra and Martyn Brabbins conducting quite an interesting programme: a relatively unknown composer Arnold Bax, his piece November Woods from the early 20th century, a Vaughan Williams symphony and, in the middle, a premiere of a monodrama by Cheryl Frances-Hoad called Last Man Standing for baritone solo, Marcus Farnsworth, and orchestra. It’s yet another WW1 commemoration piece and quite the best piece of its type I’ve heard. I saw the War Requiem at English National Opera – this wiped the floor with it. It’s such an interesting piece and it’s so exciting to discover a composer who really understands A) how to write for the voice but B) how to use that with orchestra so that it’s not smothered by great big sound – and does drama! She knows how to write drama."
David Benedict, BBC 4 Sounds Saturday Review (podcast), 09/12/2018
"Marking the centenary of the end of the First World War, the new piece was steeped in authentic details relating to various aspects of the conflict, from music-hall songs shaming young men to enlist to trench whistles and bugle calls, as well as fragments of soldiers’ songs, such as When this lousy war is over (to the tune of What a friend we have in Jesus), The Bells of Hell go ting-a-ling-a-ling and, in a powerful, extended conic interlude, We’re here because we’re here, to the tune of Auld Lang’s Syne.
Lasting around 30 minutes, the score incorporates a series of settings of fifteen concise and highly-charged poems by Tamsin Collison. These poems were sung, and occasionally spoken, by an anonymous British soldier of no fixed rank - an ‘Everytommy’ who experiences the full horrors of war. Assisted by the honesty and directness of Collison’s writing, Marcus Farnsworth was extremely effective in a complex, pivotal role to which he brought emotional commitment and genuine personality. Beginning and ending at Flanders Field, the narrative was enhanced by some simple but effective dramatic gestures, including ‘Everytommy’ putting on an army jacket at the start, marching over to the other side of the stage to signify moving to France and, most movingly, as he returns his jacket to a trunk at the end, taking out and scattering a handful of poppy petals.
In addition to its deft use of pre-existing materials, the score was also notable for its subtlety and unerring sense of colour and mood-painting. Frances-Hoad provided an emotional backdrop to Collison’s text, as her music expressed the initial euphoria of going to war and then the reality of the situation with its languor and terrors and finally despair, grief and resignation. There was an impressive sense of structure and pacing too, with the text settings judiciously interspersed with vivid orchestral interludes and the whole piece framed by haunting evocations of blackbird song. The music-hall pastiche and the raucous marches in the first half had the knowing swagger or a Malcolm Arnold film score, while the hell of the trenches brought forth some appropriately dissonant, Expressionistic climaxes. The composer’s string writing was highly effective throughout with shimmering tremolos and eerie harmonics creating a sense of dread and unquiet at key moments in the drama.
With this bold and sensitive score, Cheryl Frances-Hoad show that her musical language, which has so often proved successful in the comparative intimacy of choral and chamber contexts, is adaptable and versatile enough to flourish in the exacting medium of large-scale vocal and orchestral public statement. Last Man Standing is too impressive an achievement to be regarded as merely an occasional piece. It deserves a permanent place in the repertoire and not just on the concert platform: its authentically dramatic qualities suggest it could easily be staged as a fully-fledged operatic work." Paul Conway, Musical Opinion
"Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s thirty-five-minute Last Man Standing, to a libretto “by Tamsin Collison inspired by WW1 texts and personal testimonies” acknowledges the end of this conflict in 1918. In a score full of wartime onomatopoeia – bugle-calls, drums, whistles, marches – and, borrowed or created, the use of soldiers’ and popular songs (including Auld lang syne on horn, harmonised bleakly), there is no doubting the sincerity of Frances-Hoad’s setting, music of eerie quiet, lyrical eloquence, proud declarations of duty, the summoning to battle, and mood-swings reflecting the horrors of conflagration, a roll-call of losses – come together for a sinister musical cabaret musing on something all too real, musically engrossing and moving."
Colin Anderson, Classical Source
"Cheryl Frances-Hoad’s Impressive Contribution to Centenary Commemoration of the Great War: This work is written for baritone soloist and large orchestra. The soloist takes the role of a soldier, who at the outset of the First World War is fired up with patriotic feelings, enlists in the British army and then endures the horrors of that war, finding himself ultimately to be the only survivor of his group of friends and colleagues. After the end of the war he revisits the site of the battlefield and sees rows of poppies nestling amongst the graves of those he had known. The text by Tasmin Collison is direct, clear and pulls no punches. She describes ‘…rats as big as cats grow fat/On the flesh/Of fallen friends/And lice feast on the sluggish blood/Of those men left alive’. Matching the forcefulness of Collison’s words is music by Frances-Hoad which is highly dramatic, beautifully scored and full of imaginative touches, with quotations from popular songs of the period used in strikingly pungent orchestral contexts. The vocal line sounded very tricky, and was negotiated by Marcus Farnsworth with skill, beauty of tone and strong characterisation. It was a semi-staged production, and Farnsworth was called upon to portray his experience visually from time to time. The playing seemed utterly assured under Brabbins’s direction, and altogether it was an impressive contribution to the series of events that have marked the centenary of the end of the Great War."
Alan Sanders, Seen and Heard International
"A sequence of fifteen songs, sung by Marcus Farnsworth with Martyn Brabbins conducting the BBC Symphony Orchestra, it was in fact more of a monodrama, almost an opera, than a song cycle. The piece took an 'Everytommy' through his war experiences, opening and closing with him revisiting Flanders Fields after the war, it moved from enthusiasm of enlistment through training to the real horrors. ... a complex arioso/recitative sequence with extensive and powerful orchestral interludes. ... Cheryl Frances-Hoad avoided having the baritone soloist simply singing the popular tunes, and one of the most powerful moments was when Marcus Fansworth almost spoke the text whlist the flutes played the songs satirically, creating a feeling of real bitterness."
Robert Hugill, Planet Hugill