I had a musically satisfying and financially helpful weekend, playing for a wedding in Wimbledon on Saturday and chasing notes around a page at St. Mary Abbots on Sunday for their morning and evening services. The wedding brought together a crowd of old friends, some of whom I have not seen for a while, and was very enjoyable, despite the fashionably late arrival of the bride, so late it was very nearly at the cutting edge of fashion, while the Sunday morning at SMA was the Civic service of Remembrance, including music by Douglas Guest and a piece called What Are These Who Glow From Afar? by Alan Gray, a name probably only known to those who, like me, grew up in the Anglican choral tradition.
This piece was written to honour the fallen of the first World War, but it is unusual in that, like Elgar’s For The Fallen, it was written during the war, and not after it. It is fascinating to see how these composers reacted to something we are often told they knew very little about. I am speaking personally, of course, but I have always been under the impression that the grim realities of that war did not become truly known until afterwards, alongside the swell of feeling which led to the first memorials and the adoption of the poppy as a symbol. However, Elgar and Gray and, presumably, some others, felt sufficiently moved by the scale of the loss to write substantial settings for those already dead, in Gray’s case in 1916. From memory, I think the Elgar’s work may well be from the same year.
What is fascinating about the Gray is that the elegiaic is balanced with the heroic, so that neither the reflective nor the triumphant dominates. Instead there is a feeling of nobility, of sacrifice and duty, which is subtly moving. The music is not too bad either. In 1916 Gray was at Trinity College, Cambridge, and had presumably heard news of his former students’ deaths on various fronts, and it is enthralling to wonder what might have been his state of mind as he wrote this piece before he even had a Remembrance Sunday on which to perform it.
I was Organist of Brighton College for nearly a decade, and the current Headmaster sometimes tells of one of their boys who went off to fight on the front, still fresh out of school. He came back soon thereafter, his face shattered by a terrible injury and his mind effectively broken, taking his own life not too long after that. Housman’s A Shropshire Lad is now seen as the quintessential depiction of innocent England lost, especially in the hands of Butterworth, who died on some foreign field, but earlier settings, such as that by Somervell, the earliest of all, see that poetry entirely differently. How much the view of this country of itself changed in such a short time.
The Great War did for composers, of course, just as it did for so many in the street – Butterworth, Farrar, and Gurney, who did not die, but would never recover from his experiences – and composers have, for better or for occasionally much worse, responded in whatever manner they have seen fit. In those works which belong to that war itself, however, there is something unusual and distinctive. I am sure that there are pieces which were written for those who died in the Crimea, for example, or in the Boer War, but Elgar, Gray and others were touched by the battlefields of Europe in a new and terrible way, one that made them put pen to paper.
On such a weekend I am reminded of the performance of Britten’s War Requiem of which I was a part two years ago in Coventry Cathedral on the 70th anniversary of the bombing there, the night before Remembrance Sunday. The audience was turned round so that they watched the performers against the illuminated backdrop of the ruins of the former Cathedral, and this was an inspired idea. Britten’s piece is a masterwork of the twentieth century, of that there can be no doubt, and instead of applause we held a silence for two minutes at the end of the piece and I shall remember the intensity of that moment for the rest of my life. I have rarely been so scared to breathe.
One of the first acts of a totalitarian regime is to ban freedom of speech, especially in the arts, something that Shostakovich and his contemporary countrymates knew only too well. Remembrance Sunday should have personal significance in order to have full meaning, and for me that is expressed in the freedom I have to write what I want when I want. Still today people die for much less.