The song-cycle, entitled 'The Prison Cycle', is a collaboration between two composers, Alan Bush and Alan Rawsthorne.
In 1938, a group of refugees from Nazi Germany living in London founded the Free German League of Culture. This presented works by German progressive artists, whether painters, musicians or writers. In 1939, the League invited Alan Bush and Alan Rawsthorne to compose together a song-cycle to poems by Ernst Toller. Toller had taken a leading part in the short-lived Bavarian Workers' Republic, and he wrote these poems during his subsequent term of imprisonment. The cycle was performed several times during 1939 to 1941, but then the manuscript seems to have been mislaid for about 35 years.
The prelude to the cycle by Alan Bush pictures Toller in his cell. "Six paces forward, six paces back! No sense in it!", he sings. The follows a song by Bush about the gradually increasing articles of ordinary objects in his cell, like furniture, and even the iron grating. Rawsthorne's contribution comes next: an interlude and a song about a pair of swallows, who nested on the window-ledge until they were slaughtered by the prison guards. Bush's ending to the cycle once more evokes the poet's angry pacing to and fro.