Isaac Rosenberg at Passiontide

Easter is nigh upon us, and many are turning their minds to the few days off they may have ahead of them. This is the first Easter in memory that I have not been engaged in singing cathedral services, and while I relish the freedom in many ways, it is the one time of year that I used to enjoy above all others. You can keep Easter Day; but the darkness and desolation of Good Friday is something I feel keenly — which perhaps explains why the idea for my War Passion for soloists, chorus and large chamber ensemble (which ends in absolute desolation) took hold and has occupied my mind for the last two years.

Composition has been moving slowly but very surely in recent months, and I have now completed half of the work. At the moment I am taking advantage of a few days away from Ivor Gurney to — in the odd idle moments I can snatch — complete one of the sections of my Passion that has been eager to escape my brain, but which I have only started to put down onto paper during the last few days: a setting of an extraordinary poem by Isaac Rosenberg, the anniversary of whose death fell yesterday, he being killed at dawn on 1 April 1918, north-east of Arras. I am setting (for solo soprano) a poem written either for, or as an off-shoot to, his play, The Unicorn, which he was writing in France (in service and in hospital) during the latter half of 1917: ‘The Tower of Skulls’.

Rosenberg’s poem comes in the third movement of my War Passion: ‘Golgotha’ [‘the place of the skull’].  This movement opens with a passacaglia describing the procession of Christ/The Soldier to Golgotha; the narrator (an alto, not the customary tenor) tells us that it was there that they crucified him, and the soprano, horror-stricken, gives her reaction to the spectacle, through this extraordinary, visionary poem.

 

The Tower of Skulls

These layers of piled-up skulls,
These layers of gleaming horror — stark horror!
Ah me! Through my thin hands they touch my eyes.

Everywhere, everywhere is a pregnant birth,
And here in death’s land is a pregnant birth.
Your own crying is less mortal
Than the amazing soul in your body.

Your own crying yon parrot takes up
And from your empty skull cries it afterwards.

Thou whose dark activities unenchanted
Days from gyrating days, suspending them
To thrust them far from sight, from the gyrating days
Which have gone widening on and left us here,
Cast derelicts lost for ever.

When aged flesh looks down on tender brood;
For he knows between his thin ribs’ walls
The giant universe, the interminable
Panorama — synods, myths and creeds,
He knows his dust is fire and seed.

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Editing Gurney’s ‘War Elegy’

Ivor Gurney in 1920

Ivor Gurney in 1920

It has just been announced that Ivor Gurney’s War Elegy for orchestra is to be performed in the 2014 season of the BBC Proms on 1 August (Prom 20: details here).  For a composer so long regarded solely as a composer of song, to have an orchestral work programmed at what is probably the highest profile classical music event in the world is a great achievement.  As well as being heard in this prestigious setting, ‘holding his own’ alongside William Walton and Sally Beamish, the War Elegy is also to be featured on the cover CD of the June edition of the BBC Music Magazine (a recording first issued by Dutton Records in 2006), alongside the premiere recording of A Gloucestershire Rhapsody, which Ian Venables and I brought to its first performance at the 2010 Three Choirs Festival, 90 years after its composition.  These works will also be featured in Radio 3’s Gurney Composer of the Week to be broadcast 30 June-1 July 2014.

I think we can surmise that Gurney has ‘arrived’, and that, with the three extant orchestral works now brought to performance and recording (the early Coronation March is to be broadcast as part of Composer of the Week) and a couple of choral works now making waves, and even some of his chamber works being heard (string quartets, piano trios and piano sonatas have been brought to performance in the last few years, and a violin sonata recorded (EM Records), the latter the view of Gurney as a miniaturist and song composer is now something of the past.  We have a fuller view of his work, which is proving Gurney to be a broader ranging composer than has long been thought.

BBC Music MagazineIn case anyone might find it of interest, I am reproducing below an article I wrote shortly after the preparation of the score of the War Elegy, in February 2006, which was published in the Ivor Gurney Society Newsletter.

’Twas the week before Christmas and, all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse. An email from Anthony Boden confirms that Gurney’s War Elegy for orchestra is to be recorded in February, and suggests that I call Ian Venables to see if there was any help I could offer with preparing the score for the recording. I call. A casual admission during the ‘phone call – ‘No, I’m not doing much over Christmas’ – and my fate is sealed. I agree with Ian to be his co-editor, and to typeset and produce the necessary scores and orchestral parts in time for the BBC delivery date of 16th January.

No score was immediately available so, being in London the following day – 23rd December – I telephone the Royal College of Music in the hope that the library will be open and I might be able to pop in to acquire a photocopy of the score. The RCM would be open, but the library would not. Thankfully I had called in the morning and, as long as RCM librarian Peter Horton had time to copy it before lunchtime, the score could be left at reception for me to collect the following morning.

Late trains and an eagerness to get to the RCM as soon as possible made me late for my appointment in London. As soon as I could I slit open the envelope to take my first glance of the score that was to dominate my life for the next three weeks. I returned home late that evening but I had to stay up to typeset the opening couple of pages.

Gurney refers to the composition of his War Elegy in a letter postmarked 6th November 1920: ‘Work goes badly. The songs come all right, but the Piano Sonata and ‘Elegy’ for Orchestra; No, there is a hard and futile grind there.’ The address, 74 Longridge Road, Earls Court, correlates with that given on the front of the undated War Elegy score. The front cover of the score states the title as War Elegy. However, within the score Gurney, as he often does, has reused a piece of manuscript paper, turning it upside down, on which is headed a title March Elegy. [March Elegy was in fact the second title considered by Gurney: an early draft of part of the War Elegy was later found amongst the papers of Sir Hugh Allen at the Bodleian Library, where the work is titled ‘Funeral March’. The progression of titles from ‘Funeral March’ to ‘March Elegy’ and thence ‘War Elegy’, gives some insight into the conception of the work. ‘Funeral march’ bears no reference to the war; ‘War Elegy’ makes no reference to the funereal intent (although might be implied in the Elegiac portion of the final title).]

The War Elegy had been first performed in one of a series of seven public rehearsals given at the RCM under the auspices of the Patron’s Fund. The series brought to performance twenty-six works by twenty-one composers. Gurney’s War Elegy opened the programme on Thursday 16th June 1921. Adrian Boult, then on the teaching staff at the RCM, was conductor-in-chief for the occasion. The other works on the same programme were a Novelette for orchestra by R.O. Morris, the last movement of Thomas Dunhill’s Symphony, a Fox Trot for twenty-six players by Hugh Bradford, and a Chinese Suite, ‘The Golden Valley’, by Eric Fogg. In a review of the series published in The Musical Times in August 1921, Gurney receives no mention. Bradford’s Fox Trot apparently proved so popular that it was repeated in the next programme. However, Gurney’s War Elegy was mentioned in Marion Scott’s review in the Christian Science Monitor, 16th July 1921:

‘The first piece, a “War Elegy” by Ivor Gurney, is comparatively short but produces an impression of great aims. The themes are heartfelt and sincere, their treatment is grave and sensitive, and the opening and closing sections of the work are eloquent. Towards the middle the music loses its grip and wanders around rather than holds the direct onward flow. It will probably gain by being rewritten.’

Since 1921 the only outings of the work had been a run through by Richard Carder at the Canford Summer School in 1988, and a public performance by the Gloucestershire Symphony Orchestra under the direction of Mark Finch in March 2003 (reviewed by Lewis Foreman, IGS Newsletter 34, February 2004). It was this performance, and Lewis Foreman’s hearing of it, that lead to the work being programmed for recording for a Dutton CD release.

Only having a copy of Gurney’s autograph full score to hand, it was from this that we worked. It was only about a week and a half before the deadline for delivery to the BBC that Ian received the parts. There was relief in some ways as the parts were not in Gurney’s hand but that of an unknown copyist which could be prone to copyist errors; we therefore felt justified in using only Gurney’s thirty-nine page autograph full score, this being the key source in gleaning authorial intent.

Having been unable to attend the GSO performance it was with intrigue and excitement that I started to bring the War Elegy to life, being able to hear the typeset score through the computer, which I did periodically during the course of the transcription. Such aural capacity makes life significantly easier when endeavouring to iron out the numerous omitted accidentals or correct wrong notes that the editor might have omitted to notice whilst transcribing the score, not to mention in the resolution of ambiguous notes that could be on the line of the stave or either side of it.

The first impressions were of how Elgarian the work was, Gurney’s admiration for his work showing distinctly in his handling of the material, as well as in the contrast between the main march theme and the serene second subject – the equivalent of an Elgar trio tune.

The march theme is fine and memorable – so much so that it kept Ian awake at night, refusing to let him sleep. At the opening this theme slowly unfolds over a sullen staccato bass line, building to an extended forte rendition that dies down to the second subject, first heard in a solo clarinet. One presumes that it is the treatment of this second subject that was referred to by Marion Scott as losing its grip and wandering around. The clarinet is supported by triplet quaver figures in the strings, the first and third of which quavers are tied together with the effect that the music loses sense of pulse in the accompaniment. Cast with the straight quavers in the clarinet and occasionally in some of the strings, cross-rhythms are produced which antagonise this loss of pulse. When the second subject is taken over by all of the wind and strings the melody is at risk of being entirely submerged in the complex accompaniment. It will take a sensitive conductor to bring out the tune, moving between voices in the orchestra. When, towards the end of my work on the score, I was looking to see whether I could do anything with editorial dynamics to bring out the tune, I decided that it would be too complicated a matter – and you never know, it might just work as it is when brought to life by an orchestra.

It has been said that Gurney’s songs would not have stood up to Brahms’ first test of the quality of a piece of music, reading just tune and bass line. Gurney’s bass lines can meander aimlessly. However, at the opening of the Elegy, Gurney sets up a strong, sullen bass line which underpins the work and acts as a structural glue in the transitions. The strong bass line continues under the thematic material and is a powerful force in driving the work, harmonically. In my opinion it would be no understatement to assert that the whole success of the Elegy is founded on the strength of this bass line.

Gurney’s orchestration is at times very dense, exercising the whole orchestra of double wind, contrabassoon, four horns and trombones, three trumpets, timpani and strings. Gurney’s use of the contrabassoon is extraordinary and is perhaps a telling sign of an inexperienced orchestrator. Hector Berlioz wrote of the contrabassoon, ‘it is a very ponderous instrument only suitable for grand harmonic effects and for bass lines in moderate tempo’. It is often used for special effects (notably the worm in Haydn’s Creation). Gurney, however, uses the contrabassoon in nearly half the Elegy, in 82 of the 187 bars, most often doubling the bassi, ‘celli, and second bassoon. Perhaps he was endeavouring to add an enormous sense of gravity. We must wait to hear how it works in performance.

Having said that the writing can be dense, there is a lot of textural contrast. One of the more practical uses of the orchestra is seen in the building up to climaxes and the diminuendo that follows them. Rather than just writing a crescendo or diminuendo, most of the work is done by building up or thinning out the texture. The quieter moments receive treatment in strings or combinations of wind alike. A poignant moment comes at the end of the climax of the second subject, where a trio of horns bring time to a standstill, playing a reflective chorale-like passage. This chorale is echoed later in the work: after the exhilarating – and yet devastating – climax of the whole work has subsided, the orchestra attempts to pull itself together, only to begin to wane and be suddenly interrupted by a sforzando stab, where just two horns try to renew their almost religious theme. It is picked up by the flutes and clarinets and slowly and surely the orchestra builds, tension increasing over a pedal point to where the march theme receives one last flourish.

At this point in the score there is a six bar cut marked in Gurney’s hand. This was the subject of much discussion between Ian and I. I originally typeset the cut and produced two versions of the score both with and without. Listening to the score with the cut, despite a reservation about the slight jarring between the retained music either side of the cut, I felt that it was structurally sound, removing most of another forte rendition of the march theme, and thus not distracting from the main climax, forty three bars previously. With the cut, it produced just a momentary release from the preceding build of tension before being quelled and slowly working its way to the close of the score. Ian believed that the tune was so good that it could take this repetition, avoiding the discrepancy of the join and also retaining a wonderful demisemiquaver flourish. We therefore left the music in.

Perhaps one of the most important questions about the score was whether it was actually complete – only a small matter for consideration! It began and ended where it should, but amongst its pages were some startling gaps: a second bassoon line missing where it was obvious that there should be one; ties suspended over page turns but connecting to blank space. More difficult to resolve was a case not long before the main march theme returns after the second subject: a stark bass line above which a phrase begins in the flute, and clarinets and first bassoon play a figure in thirds. Again, it does not continue over the page turn, as it was obvious it should. I submitted it to Ian who pondered a while and decided to try repeating the clarinet/bassoon figure a couple of times. He returned it to me and I adjusted it slightly, resolving the last repetition of the figure downwards at the end of the inserted couple of bars, bringing it to a semi-close. In the score, above where this figure had been extended by Ian, there is the shadow of a line continuing in the flute – a couple of light marks that look as though they could be noteheads. Looking at it again, whilst writing this, I see that it is possible that two of the three marks could be an imprint from the wet ink from the flute part on the opposite page, Gurney turning over and pressing them together whilst he continued writing the flute part over the page. Anyway, I took these and extended them as a reflection of the falling oboe phrase a couple of bars previously. It worked – a combined effort between Gurney, Ian and myself, which I hope will be transparent to anybody who performs or hears the work.

One of the last things I had to do with the score was to go through and check that all of the articulation was in place – the phrasing and other markings that define the way the work is performed by the instrumentalists. Gurney had put much in, but there was a lot missing. Figures were slurred in some instruments and not others, and thus had to be added, taking into account the need for technical variation between wind and strings, as well as variations Gurney has introduced by design. Tenuti and staccato markings weren’t uniformally applied where it was obvious that it was the intention for it to be so. My working copy of the score is littered with red pen! Consideration also had to be paid to such details as the progression of timpani tunings. Gurney had marked many of these in, but one change of not appears without warning towards the end of the work and necessitated the introduction of a retuning a drum whilst the player is playing another. On the subject of timpani tunings, during the opening section of the Elegy, when the March subject has fully opened out and the full orchestra is developing the material, Gurney briefly passes through the key of A flat minor. Despite this he resolutely continues with his timpani playing A and E naturals, perhaps hoping that in the volume of the full orchestra will render the tone of the timpani indistinct, just providing the necessary percussive impetus.

For the performance of the work the question of tempi is a critical one. As is usual in Gurney’s scores, he gives you a starting tempo but leaves you to your own devices after that. I had originally suggested a tempo of crotchet=85. However, when it came to the second subject it felt garbled. Ian argued that, bearing in mind the intended elegiac nature of the work, it should be slower, reducing it to c.76. He also added a rit. into the second subject, which he brought down to a suitably tranquil 68, returning to 76 for the return to the march material. The tempo of the closing section was a mildly contentious point. Ian had introduced a molto rall. down to a very slow crotchet=c.50. He marked the closing bars ‘Piangendo’. I was wondering whether Gurney would have known such a term! After looking it up I thought that, despite it being unusual and arguably unknown to Gurney, it was entirely suitable: weeping. I listened to the work a number of times, attempting to replicate a suitable molto rallentando on the computer. I reached the tempo I had set for the closing bars only to find that it felt too fast. Eventually I reached Ian’s crotchet=c.50. To my ear he had been right. [Whether it is what Gurney wanted we shall never know, but given what we have subsequently learnt about the titling of the work (the ‘Funeral March’ discovery in the Bodleian), it must almost certainly be right.]

The last couple of days before the BBC deadline were spent tidying orchestral parts on the computer screen, before printing and binding them ready for delivery. They were first delivered to Worcester, taken by train under the shadow of Chosen Hill. The following day they came to rest on the hill itself, before being escorted to London where the work will be brought to life once again and set down for posterity, to be released on CD [details here] and broadcast sometime in the autumn [of 2006].

© Philip Lancaster, February, 2006

Gurney Choral Works in the Recording Studio

Ivor Gurney is known principally as a composer of song, and the recorded catalogue of his works is almost entirely of that genre, for which reason he has never been featured on BBC Radio 3’s Composer of the Week series.  Five hours of programming of just songs – even if alleviated with a little of Gurney’s poetry – makes for poor programming.  During the last eight years I have been working with the Ivor Gurney Estate to rectify this, in part made possible by my extensive work in the archive and my collation of the first catalogue of Gurney’s musical works.  With all this work it has made the prospect of a Gurney Composer of the Week much more realistic, and this is exactly what is happening: he will be featured in the week of 23rd-27th June 2014.  To this end, the BBC orchestras have now recorded all three of Gurney’s extant orchestral works, which the Lead Trustee of the Estate, Ian Venables, and I have been editing and bringing to performance.  With these key works having been set down and lined up for broadcast in June, it is exciting that in this coming week the BBC Singers and BBC Symphony Orchestra will be recording three Gurney choral works for the Composer of the Week series.  One of these recordings is particularly exciting for me, as the BBCSO will be getting their mouths/fingers around my orchestration of Gurney’s choral setting of Edward Thomas’s The Trumpet – a setting of the poem entirely different from his 1925 song setting of that poem.

I first undertook the orchestration of this work in 2008, for performance in Kendal at Ian Jone’s ‘Cumbrian Choral Initiative’ as part of a Vaughan Williams weekend (there are elements of RVW’s A Sea Symphony in Gurney’s Trumpet, and RVW also taught Gurney at the Royal College of Music between 1919 and 1921).  The orchestration was given a further outing in 2010 at the Three Choirs Festival, with the Philharmonia Orchestra.  I wrote two blog-posts about the work at the time of that performance, which you can read here and here.  Following this performance (and the musings of the second of these blog-posts) I made a few small revisions to the score, and so will be listening with especially keen ears on Tuesday as it is being performed, under the baton of Paul Brough.

The other two works to be recorded in the coming week by the BBC Singers are:

  • his chant to psalm 23 – a work of relatively little musical interest, perhaps, but poignant for the fact that he sang that psalm to his chant whilst serving in France at Fauquissart to steady his nerves under bombardment;
  • a remarkable setting of Robert Bridges, Since I Believe in God the Father Almighty, for unaccompanied double choir, composed in June 1925 whilst incarcerated in the City of London Mental Hospital.  This is one of two pieces of Gurney that I am particularly proud of having brought to light.  It was first given by Gloucester Cathedral Choir in May 2012, who have performed it a number of times since, and was recently also performed by Tenebrae in a particularly rich rendering, which truly convinced me of its power.  The work has its weaknesses, and is not an easy sing, but it is powerful work and is enormously worthwhile.  Listen out for it on Radio 3 in June!

The recording of my Gurney orchestration on Tuesday comes at a time when I am again spending many idle moments musing texture and instrumentation.  I have recently been commissioned to undertake the orchestration of a movement of Cecil Coles’s suite Behind the Lines, which was left unfinished on his being killed in the First World War.  More significantly, however, is the impending writing of my chamber oratorio, The Passion of War, the texture/ensemble for which is critical and is uppermost in my mind at the moment.  I can find no precedents for that which I wish to create (a good thing!), and I am trying to be sure that I get it right.  For the moment, fingers crossed that all goes well on Tuesday, and that the singers and orchestra think the piece a worthwhile undertaking!

[Corrected: the original posted stated the recordings were to be conducted by David Hill, not by Paul Brough. Apologies to both for this initial misattribution.]

WW1 Poetry & Music Events & Conferences

The start of the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War is bringing with it a plethora of events, public and academic, with some of which I am going to be involved in the coming year.

Oxford Poetry School

Firstly, in April I am delighted to be speaking at a Spring School devoted to British World War One Poetry, which will take place at Wadham College, Oxford from 3rd to 5th April 2014, organised and hosted by the University of Oxford Faculty of English.  Full details of this event can be found at:  http://www.english.ox.ac.uk/news-events/upcoming-events/201404/british-world-war-one-poetry-spring-school.  The list of speakers is quite extraordinary, so do sign up for this!

Later in April (28th), I am speaking at the Edward German Festival in Whitchurch, giving a pre-concert talk on Music and the Great War – details here: http://www.edwardgermanfestival.org.uk/Edward_German_Festival_2014/Programme.html.

A few days later, on 3 May, I am giving a recital of Gurney songs and poems, with Ben Lamb, titled ‘The Far Country’, for the Ivor Gurney Society at St.Andrew’s Church, Churchdown.  Details will be available here shortly: http://www.ivorgurney.org.uk/.

Conferences

There are two major conferences taking place at the end of August and beginning of September, one on the music of the War, and one on the poetry – at both of which I am presenting papers.

The first, ‘The Music of War, 1914-1918’, runs from 29-31 August 2014 at the British Library.  I will be giving a paper titled ‘Establishing the War Composer in a world of War Poets’.  The conference website is at http://www.themusicofwar.org, where the conference programme will be announced in due course.

The second, ‘British Poetry of the First World War’, is the major centenary conference devoted to the poetry, organised by the English Association, and taking place at Wadham College, Oxford, 5-7 September 2014.  I will be speaking on Ivor Gurney’s war poetry as a whole, including the numerous poems as yet unpublished.  The conference programme is now available here: http://www2.le.ac.uk/offices/english-association/ww1poetry/programme.

. . . For now, I am busy completing the editorial work on a Gurney song volume, finishing off a big funding application, finessing my poetry collection, Fulcrum, ready for press and publication in June, and otherwise trying to clear my desk in readiness for my taking up the Finzi Scholarship I was recently awarded in order to write The Passion of War  (– see preceding post).  This has become a very interesting year!

War Passion : I. Birth & Progress

Painting by Isabel Dryburgh.

Painting by Isabel Dryburgh, who has kindly allowed me to associate this enormously powerful picture with The Passion of War.

In March 2013 there arrived in my brain one of those ideas that grabs you and will not let go.  In the February I had started once again to read William Langland’s The Vision of Piers Plowman, in the 18th passus of which is his unique recounting of the Christ’s Passion.  When a week or so later I attended a Lent lecture in Lichfield Cathedral given by Paul Spicer on the musical settings of the Passion, I had in mind the seed of an idea to develop the notion of an ‘English Passion’, with the Langland as its basis.  However, a week or so after the lecture, in the last full week of Lent before Holy Week, I was reading some Isaac Rosenberg when I was struck forcibly by the notion of setting the Passion with a commentary in the form of poems by those figures now known as the War Poets – the poets who fought and in some instance lost in the First World War: a War Passion.

To my mind the idea was one with enormous potential and strength, the sacrifice of Christ on the Cross for the salvation of Man having the potential for a powerful and evocative parallel in the sacrifice of those who gave their lives in the war to similar ends.  This was, of course, contingent upon my identifying poems suited to the task by the broad body of First World War poets, which poems would aptly reflect and give a parallel purpose to the narrative.  I immediately went to my various WW1 anthologies and to the individual volumes of poems and other writings by as many soldier-poets as I could muster.  In the midst of my preparations for a Three Choirs Festival recital, I could only snatch the odd moment here and there in which to scour these volumes, but over the course of ten weeks I managed to complete the libretto, knocking the last bits into shape during the few idle moments I had at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song, with which I was involved.

The libretto is based upon the gospel narrative according to St. Mark, within which is set poems by Edmund Blunden, Robert Graves, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney (a yet unpublished poem), Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Siegfried Sassoon, Charles Sorley, and Edward Thomas.  It is cast in four interconnected movements:

  1. Gethsemane
  2. Trial
  3. Calvary
  4. Epilogue: The Seven Last Words

The climax of the work comes at the end of the third movement, following Christ’s last breath, through which there is the promise of redemption and rebirth.  The Epilogue is not, as the title might suggest, the traditional Seven Last Words of Christ from the Cross, but the last words of the soldier to Christ on the Cross, which conversation brings the work to a  conclusion of bitter despair; the despair of one who has lost all hope in any god, and in Man.

Whilst preparing the libretto, I had a large-scale ambitions for the scoring of the work.  However, I was reminded (if I really needed reminding) of the power and potential of a chamber ensemble in a large-scale vocal setting whilst listening to the premiere at the Ludlow Weekend of English Song of Julian Phillips’s remarkable new Pessoa cycle, Cantos de Sonho.  This turned my mind in a slightly new direction for the music, but a direction which will undoubtedly intensify the experience of the work – as well as somewhat more practicable than a large-scale work.  The War Passion is set for four soloists, with a small choir (c.12 voices) and chamber ensemble.  With other commitments to fulfil, and the very real need to earn a reasonable living in order to support my family, I have necessarily had to put the composition of the work on ice.  However, I am simply over-the-moon to have been awarded a Finzi Scholarship by the Finzi Trust for the purposes of getting the music down on paper.  Musical ideas have been present from the outset, but, aside from a couple of sketches for key motifs in the work,  I have had neither the time nor space to work them up to anything more, and to set down much of the rest that has been taking shape in my mind.  In March, therefore — once I have cleared a few things from my desk — I shall be embarking upon the final stage of this work, working full time on the composition, which should ‘break the back’ of its writing.  I hope that the Passion be completed over the summer.  Watch this space for updates.

[Updated Feb.2016 to reflect the change in the title of the work from ‘The Passion of War’ to ‘War Passion’]

A Litany of Names: Remembering the First World War

A short time ago I was asked to give some thought to what might be organised for the commemoration of the forthcoming centenary of the First World War at Lichfield Cathedral.  In the few days prior to a meeting with Anthony Moore, the Cathedral’s Canon Chancellor, to discuss what might be done, I had a cup of tea with Tony Piper, a visiting friend who is a Bass Lay Clerk at Southwark Cathedral.  From that conversation and our ensuing discussions there arose an idea which has taken hold of both he and I, and which, as well as taking it on locally, we hope might become a national act of commemoration.

Something that I have been increasingly aware, personally, of is the anonymity of the war memorial.  These stone scars upon the towns and villages of our land are there to memorialise and remind us of those who gave their lives during the First and Second World Wars, but they are but names; often they are nothing than a name.  And there are so many names: There were nearly 996,000 British casualties in the First World War (not including its then colonial dependants), the sheer scale of which list means that it is unlikely that many of these names will ever find voice again.  They are doomed to silence, carved into a silent stone that will in time fade and be lost as weather erodes or lichen conceals. Some may already have succumbed.

In 2012 Tony was at the opening of the Titanic Belfast visitor attraction (www.titanicbelfast.com), during the course of which opening the names of the more than 1,000 casualties of that accident were read out.  However, they were not read out as a single list.  They were named simultaneously:  each person attending the event was given a piece of paper bearing just a few names, and at the given moment each person read out the names they had been given.  You can hear this moment during that exhibition opening here.

Tony mused upon what it would be like to do the same for the First World War; whether it might be possible to give voice to those silent dead at one moment at the point of commemoration of the centenary of the Armistice, on 11 November 2018.  In one roar – a great wave of sound – those who gave their lives in the war would be heard again; each and every one of them: a great cry across a century of silence.  How many names would how many people need to read?

This got me thinking that, on a perhaps more practical level, why shouldn’t each and every casualty of the war be named and heard?  While the mere reading of a name doesn’t provide any flesh to the body that was their being and life, it is a step beyond the silence of stone.  It occurred to me that there could be a daily roll-call.  The cathedrals of Britain hold services on a daily basis, during the intercessions of which are named those who are ill, have died, or whose anniversary of death occurs on that date.  Why should the litany of First World War casualties not be spread across the 4 years, 3 months and 1 week period of the war’s centenary, from 4 August 2014 to 11 November 2018?  This would still require the reading of some 600 or so names per day; but there are 43 Anglican dioceses in the country, not to mention the Catholic dioceses, mosques, synagogues, Quaker meeting houses, and other places of worship – not to mention whatever other public venues might join the fray (museums, galleries, libraries, concert halls?).  If each diocese of the Church of England alone were to read c.10-15 names per day, during the centenary period every name would be heard.  It would be impractical to read such names on the anniversary of the passing of the individual, but each and every casualty would in that period be named.  The division of whatever master list is compiled for this task (the Commonwealth War Graves Commission have an exhaustive database of the grave and memorial locations for each casualty, which might, I hope, constitute most, if not all of the 996,000 British casualties! I must get in touch with them….) might be done with consideration of locality (Battalions originating within a diocese would be the logical approach), although some balancing may have to be effected upon assessment of the density of such battalions within each diocese; or Parishes, villagers, town residents across their respective diocese could seek out the names on their local war memorial and submit them to the diocese for the greater project, and also use their local memorials as the basis for their own litanies.  If members of the public were to gather the names on their local monuments, then this could also feed into the War Memorials Online project, which still needs so much ‘data’.

In a centenary that is likely to come in waves, with pivotal moments and important battles being commemorated at intervals throughout the period on their respective anniversaries, a daily litany, spoken quietly across the land, would keep the commemoration of the centenary in the consciousness, but without risk of incurring what one might call ‘Remembrance Fatigue’.

But what about that roar?  What about the sounding of a great wave of names, whether at the start or close of the silence on remembrance day 2018?  It would be impractical to do this in one place, but it could be done across the nation.  The lists used for the daily roll-call could be divided amongst the commemorations taking place at that moment up and down the country, in churches and other places of worship; at memorials or elsewhere; and at that one moment could all of those who lost their lives during the war be given a voice in a single great shout; a cry of remembrance, reminding us that they lived, and that they gave everything in the pursuit of freedom and peace.  If the BBC were perhaps to undertake a simultaneous broadcast from several locations to capture some part of that roar, it might allow people to participate in the confines of their own living rooms or their places of work, and to be a part of that simultaneous litany.

Is this pie-in-the-sky?  I have made the suggestion here in Lichfield, and I think it is being pursued, and there are intentions to spread the word in the hope of making it a national endeavour.  But there is much work needs to be done to make it happen; indeed, it is possible that it might not happen at all – but one can try to get the wheels moving and to make it so.  Tony is beginning to think about the mechanics for disseminating and dividing the names; I am trying to spread the word for the idea and get other people interested.  To give the each of The Lost a voice during the centenary, however brief, is the least we can do.  We must remember.

A Long Centenary : some initial thoughts on the WW1 commemorations, 2014-2018

One of the iconic images of the First World War: Lt Ernest Brook’s photograph of a British soldier standing over a grave near Pilckem during the Third Battle of Ypres, 22 August 1917 (Imperial War Museum)

One of the iconic images of the First World War: Lt Ernest Brook’s photograph of a British soldier standing over a grave near Pilckem during the Third Battle of Ypres, 22 August 1917. (Imperial War Museum)

In eighteen months we will be marking the beginning of a centenary which, I suspect, will be inescapable; a centenary commemoration that will mark the period from 4 August 1914 to 11 November 1918 when we were at war with Europe’s ‘Central Powers’ – the ‘Great War’; the First World War.

With the desire – nay, the need – to commemorate these events, there has already been significant announcements about some of the undertakings being put in place, with substantial monies set aside by the UK government for commemorative projects and a major refit of the Imperial War Museum underway. There will undoubtedly be a wave of television and radio documentaries; and plans are already in place for major academic conferences such as that programmed in Oxford in September 2014 on British poetry of the First World War. One recent announcement has filled me with some degree of horror: that the Christmas Day 1914 football match in no-man’s land, when Allies and Germans set aside their differences and, in an unofficial truce, played football together, is to be recreated. The ‘recreation’ of such an iconic moment can only be (to my mind) an empty and hollow gesture that can in no way recapture the spirit in which the original was played.  Such moments might be recreated in the artistic context of a film, perhaps, but it should otherwise remain a unique piece of historical iconography.  The only context in which such a thing might recapture any of the ‘moment’ of the original is if perhaps those soldiers at the Israel-Palestine frontier, or similar, were to come together in such an activity.

While historical documentaries will relay some of the detail of the war, the due nobility and poignancy will undoubtedly find its voice in acts of commemoration that come from formal ceremonies, such as the Remembrance Day parades and services, and through the arts. The poetry of the First World War has become the defining voice for much of the conflict of the last century, and poetry and music, art and sculpture will play an important role in the commemorations. I know of two major commemorative commissions: a mojor work for the Three Choirs Festival titled ‘Echoes’, currently being written by the German composer Torsten Rasch (see here), and a choral symphony titled ‘Unfinished Remembering’ by Paul Spicer, to a libretto by Euan Tait.

Although the commemorations will last four years, there will undoubtedly be major landmarks within that period when the commemorations will come to the fore – particularly at the beginning and end of the period, but also the major battles within. With such a protracted timeframe I suppose we risk a waning public interest in the matter. But such a trial of endurance should be had, as was experienced by those who lived through that period.  As we progress through the centenary we will already know that any hope that such commemorations will be ‘over by Christmas’ will be fruitless: its period is now set by history; we know the outcome, and we know its time-frame.

But there will always be questions from some as to why we should bother. Indeed some people may feel entirely disconnected from the First World War, where the Second is more immediately memorable and directly affected many who are still living. Following a trip to Ypres and its environs with my friend Sebastian Field, undertaken in early November 2008 as part of my research into the work of Ivor Gurney, I returned to my job as a Lay Vicar Choral with Lichfield Cathedral Choir, with whom a couple of days later I was singing for the annual Remembrance Sunday service.  The proximity of the events spawned an idea for poem, which I give here merely because it seems relevant to the question in hand:

Remembrance?

Ypres fresh
Flanders mud
not yet cleaned from my shoes;
the morning shows more potent
in heart and in mind.

But who can understand
the truth of that experience?
Its joy; despair;
mundanity; insanity . . .

Wind sweeping round the cathedral
lends breath to this latest Last Post . . .
Cadets, hands clasped, seem unmoved
by this service of mummery,
acting their part with reluctance
this ceremonial morning,
as minds, like the rain,
drum a gentle retreat.

Poetry of poppies perpetuates clichés
in memoried half-truths,
but none can know the full truth of each tale,
or the million tales untold.

© Philip Lancaster, November 2008/March 2011

When I visited the Front Lines, one thing stood out for me: the architecture of memorial, for which Edwin Lutyens was in a large part responsible, and the sheer quantity of headstones, spoke louder than any poem, or music, than any documentary or book.  Closer to home, almost every town and village in this country is scarred with a memorial to those who died in the First World War, often appended by those who died in the Second.  These individual memorials are being recorded in a project that is perhaps long overdue, but which is perfect for the internet.  However, the sheer scale and numbers of the memorials in France and Belgium is staggering; not only the British, but the allied and more austere German cemeteries also.  I would tell those who don’t understand why we should remember to visit Tyne Cot (particularly at sunset), or the Canadian memorial on Vimy Ridge, or Thiepval, or any of the smaller cemeteries dotted apparently randomly in the countryside.  These places are numbing, but the monumental beauty is noble and timeless. We must Remember and understand, whether through art, memorial, documentary, book or otherwise, why we are Remembering.