Phil Speirs 4th January 2017
BUT FOR WAR
Norman welcomed us into the New Year. It was also a pleasure to see John Poole with us although sadly Denize was not able to attend with him. We also welcomed Hilary, who had lost John the previous month.
Phil went straight into his programme with Non Nobis Domine, a medieval hymn followed by the Agincourt Carol, from the Renaissance period. The Medieval period covers c500-1400 and the Renaissance c1400-1600. Phil explained that his subject was war: but for war all the music tonight would not have been written. And what might have been had some composers survived. His plan was to begin at the beginning and progress through the centuries as there is always war somewhere. Some of the earliest music was not written down as there was no system of notation up to 1,000 AD.
Non nobis Domine, (Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us but to thy name give the glory) is a hymn derived from Psalm 113 verse 9. Saint Bernard of Clairvaux imposed it on the Order of the Knights Templar as a motto. He was their first spiritual father. According to legend Henry V ordered it to be recited along with the Te Deum in thanksgiving for the English victory at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415.
Sanctioned by Pop Urban II, the Crusades were a series of religious wars from 1095 and in the Eastern Mediterranean with the aim of capturing Jerusalem from Islamic rule. The Knights Templar encouraged noble ideals of chivalry and protected Christian pilgrims travelling to the Holy Land against from brigands and Saracen pirates, after the crusaders captured Jerusalem in 1099.
The Agincourt Hymn (sometimes known as “The Agincourt Song”, “The Agincourt Carol”, probably originated in East Anglia and is now one of 13 kept in the Wren Library of Trinity College, Cambridge, since the 19th century. It was written to celebrate the victory of the English army, led by Henry V of England, who defeated the French led by Charles VI, at the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, in what is now the Pas-de-Calais region of France.
Deo gratias Anglia redde pro victoria !” – England give thanks to God for the victory)
Our king went forth to Normandy, With grace and might of chivalry…….Then for sooth that knight comely In Agincourt field he fought manly He had both the field, and the victory…….Their dukes, and earls, lord and baron, Were taken, and slain, and that well soon…..
Both Non Nobis Domine and the Agincourt Hymn are featured in William Walton’s music for the Laurence Olivier’s 1944 film “Henry V”.
The Non Nobis Domine was sung by the City of Birmingham Chorus and Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Simon Rattle and the Agincourt Hymn by the St George Canzona.
After the Medieval and the Renaissance, we come to the Baroque era (c1600-1750) and Prince Rupert’s March. Prince Rupert (1619 – 1682) was the third son of Charles I’s sister Elizabeth. He led the royalist cavalry during the English Civil War.
Prince Rupert marched from Shrewsbury 16th May 1644 and, with an army 15,000 strong, arrived in York on 1st July to defeat the Roundheads. Rupert’s sister, Sophia, Electress of Hanover, was the mother of George I, the first Hanoverian King of Great Britain.
This was also by that prolific composer, Anon, in an arrangement by John Southcott, who conducted the St George’s Canzona.
Also from the Baroque era came the Battalia for 10 in D by Biber, played by the Boston Chamber Orchestra. Heinrich Ignaz Franz von Biber (1644 – 1704) was a Bohemian-Austrian composer and violinist – one of the most important composers and players of the violin in the history of the instrument. He also wrote one of the earliest known pieces for solo violin, the monumental passacaglia of the Mystery Sonatas.
Battalia often translated as “a body of troops” or simply as “battle”, was written in 1673. Some historians have attributed this work to Biber’s feelings toward the 30 Years War, a war between Protestants and Catholics from 1618-1648 involving most of Europe, in which almost half the male population of German states and over a third of the Czechs were killed.
The piece is a masterpiece depicting scenes of battle drums, drunken soldiers, blasting cannons, the wounded and the dying…..refreshingly modern in some dissonances. It seems to be a statement about all aspects of war, including the social and historical impact of war and the toll on humanity, and is divided into eight short movements with the following titles (Phil played five of the eight pieces for reasons of time):
Gathering of the Troops
The troops have gathered each in their own campsite (discordant passages as the musicians play in several keys simultaneously).
4. A military March as a leader steps forward to organise and lead the troops – the score suggests that the cellist can place a piece of paper between the strings and the fingerboard to imitate a snare drum.
7. The Battle – sounds of muskets and cannon are recreated using strings alone.
8. A Lament for the Wounded (a part of war that is often forgotten) this part starts in B minor and ends in its related D major, possibly symbolising hope after the war is over. Biber clearly wanted to punctuate his war with death not victory.
The following items were the ones omitted:
Interlude as troops pass time before the fighting
5. Happiness and bravura before battle
6. Prayer before battle.
We heard the Le Concert des Nations conducted by Jordi Savall.
Next, three notable figures from the Classical era (1730-1820). Franz Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) composed his Mass in the Time of War (Missa in Tempore Belli) in C in August 1796 at Eisenstadt. One of Haydn’s 14 settings of the mass. This is known also as the Paukenmesse due to the dramatic use of timpani. This was the time of Austria’s general mobilisation into war, four years into the European war that followed the French Revolution, when Austrian troops were doing badly against the French in Italy and Germany, and Austria feared invasion. The Austrian government had issued a decree in 1796, that “no Austrian should speak of peace until the enemy is driven back to its customary borders.” Haydn’s potent integrated references to battle in the Benedictus and Agnus Dei movements reflect the troubled mood of his time. The Mass was first performed on December 26, 1796, in the Piarist Church of Maria Treu in Vienna. (Piarists or the Order of Poor Clerics Regular of the Mother of God of the Pious Schools is the oldest Catholic educational order. Schubert was one who attended a Piarist school.)
This piece has been long thought to express an anti-war sentiment, even though there is no explicit message in the text itself, and no clear indication from Haydn that this was his intention. What is found in the score is a very unsettled nature of the music, not normally associated with Haydn, which has led scholars to the conclusion that it is anti-war in nature. This is especially noticed in the Benedictus and Agnus Dei.
The Agnus Dei – Agnus Dei, qui tollis peccata mundi, miserere nobis O Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon us – opens with a minor-key sense of anxiety and with ominous timpani strokes (hence the German nickname, Paukenmesse), perhaps fate itself, knocking seemingly from the depths. The music brightens with trumpet fanfares, ending with an almost dance-like entreaty and celebration of peace, “Dona nobis pacem (give us peace”)
Performed here by the Choir of King’s College, Cambridge and the Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment, conducted by Stephen Cleobury, with Lucy Crowe, soprano, Paula Murrihy, mezzo-soprano, Robin Tritschler, tenor, and Roderick Williams, baritone, a recording from the 2016 Proms.
Our next composer from the Classical era is Johannes Chrystostomous Wolfgang Theophilus…..Mozart (Theophilus is the Greek form of Amadeus, or loved of God). Non più andrai – a bass aria from Mozart’s 1786 opera The Marriage of Figaro. The Italian libretto was written by Lorenzo Da Ponte based on a 1784 stage comedy by Pierre Beaumarchais, “Le Mariage de Figaro”.
In aria at the end of the Act I, Figaro teases Cherubino, whom the Count is going to send away to his regiment in Seville, about his Spartan military future in stark contrast with the pleasant and flirtatious life he has enjoyed in the Count’s palace.
You won’t go any more, fluttering around disturbing the sleep of beauties,
Among soldiers, by Jove! With a rifle on your shoulder, and a sabre on your flank – A lot of honour, very little pay.
And in place of the dance, a march through the mud. To the music of trumpets, Cherubino, go to victory – To glory in battle !
The catchy tune and stirring military accompaniment have made this aria, “the most famous in opera” popular from the very beginning; at the rehearsals of the première the performers burst spontaneously into bravos for the composer.
(Sir) Bryn Terfel was singing this in the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World final (he came second to Dmitri Hvorostovosky). The BBC Welsh Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Richard Armstrong.
Phil had mentioned Handel’s Judas Maccabeus earlier, and Hail the Conquering Hero Comes, but rather than play Handel’s version, we heard Beethoven’s 12 Variations, played by Sophie Shao, cello, and Leva Jokubaviciute, piano. The theme and variations form challenges the composer to transform an essential musical idea into an entertaining variety of styles while retaining a recognizable aspect of its original nature.
Handel’s Judas Maccabeus was written to compliment the victorious Prince William Augustus, Duke of Cumberland returning from the battle of Culloden in 1746. In 1796 Beethoven paid a visit to the court of King Friedrich Wilhelm II in Berlin; Friedrich Wilhelm was a notable patron of the arts and an amateur cellist and greatly enjoyed the instrument which made the combination of cello and piano a logical choice for Beethoven and cellists the world over are glad that he did. From this visit resulted three works for cello and piano: Variations on a Theme from Handel’s Judas Maccabeus, and the cello sonatas Op. 5 No. 1 in F major and No. 2 in G minor.
Why a theme by Handel? Beethoven revered him. On his own deathbed, Beethoven is reputed to have named Handel as the single greatest composer in history, hence his choice of the stirring chorus “See, the Conquering Hero Comes” – the Easter hymn “Thine Be the Glory” is to this tune. Maybe also this choice was a means of paying homage to Wilhelm and offering his expressions of respect to the throne.
In the Berlin court were two brilliant cellists, Jean-Pierre Duport (1741-1818) and his brother Jean-Louis Duport (1749-1819), one of whom (historians can’t decide which) collaborated with Beethoven in performing his new cello and piano works before the King.
A hallmark of this set of variations rests in the integral dialogue between piano and cello keeping one instrument from overpowering or stealing the spotlight from the other. There is a lot of brilliant piano writing – Beethoven was writing the part for himself after all – but the cellist gets his place as a virtuoso in the rapid fire triplets of Variation 7.
After the first performance the King gave Beethoven a gold snuff box filled with gold coins.
It begins with a Handelian Baroque theme, marked allegretto, in the sunny, bucolic key of G Major.
The first variation is written for piano solo.
The second variation hands over the theme to the cello, with piano accompaniment set in triplets.
In the third variation leaps are the salient feature of the cello part while the busy piano part, embellished in semiquavers, fills any and all melodic gaps created by the cello.
The fourth variation making an expressive switch to G minor, the first of the two minor variations, returns to a more recognizable form of the theme while probing the pathetic possibilities of the minor mode.
The seventh variation, with triplets against the chordal piano accompaniment, is marked pp.
In the eighth variation Beethoven’s dramatic, fiery G-minor variation marked forte, phrase lengths are delineated by rising and falling scales in the piano.
The eleventh variation is in Adagio tempo, with an improvisational, cadenza-like piano opening; technically difficult the metre changes to 3/8, which drastically alters the rhythmic aspects of the theme.
The final, twelfth variation is a quick Allegro with a fortissimo ending.
Next, the Boer War – in fact, there were two Boer Wars, 1880-81 and 1899-1902. A. E. (Arthur Edward) Housman in the shadow of the Second Boer War, composed a collection of 63 poems, A Shropshire Lad, first published in 1896 (at Housman’s own expense after several publishers had turned it down). At first the book sold slowly, but during the Second Boer War Housman’s nostalgic depiction of rural life and young men’s early deaths struck a chord with English readers and the book became a bestseller. Later, World War I further increased its popularity and many WWI soldiers carried a copy of the poems in their tunic pocket.
Housman meant the whole cycle to be a cry against the wanton and needless loss of young men’s lives as Queen Victoria expanded ‘her’ Empire. Housman wasn’t an overtly anti-war poet in the manner of Siegfried Sassoon or Wilfred Owen, yet the stance is clear.
Housman wasn’t from Shropshire, yet he evokes this small region of England perfectly. His poems have been set by many composers, including Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney, Arthur Somervell (of “Come into the Garden Maud” fame), jazz singer Jacqui Dankworth, daughter of Cleo Laine and John Dankworth and….
….George Sainton Kaye Butterworth’s (1885–1916) – settings of “6 songs from “A Shropshire Lad” (1911) and in 1912 another 5 poems “ Bredon Hill and Other Songs” for baritone and piano typify the music we associate with the war.
By using these A E Housman poems, Butterworth was joining an English composing tradition of harking back to a non-existent English Eden of folk music, rural pleasures and honest toil. Although Housman was writing in the aftermath of the Boer war, lines such as “The lads in their hundreds to Ludlow come in for the fair…..The lads that will die in their glory and never be old.” which tells of young men who leave their homeland to ‘die in their glory and never be old’ have a resonance in this context; a parallel can be made between this song and Butterworth’s subsequent death during the Great War. The Lads in their Hundreds was sung by baritone Roderick Williams, with Iain Burnside at the piano.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Butterworth, aged 31, joined the British Army as a Private in the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry; he was later promoted to Lieutenant. Housman had a thing about doomed young men, and quite possibly Butterworth did also – in a prescient moment, before joining up he burned his unpublished music.
On the Somme, Butterworth and his men succeeded in capturing a series of trenches near Pozières on 16–17 July 1916 – Butterworth was slightly wounded in the action and awarded the Military Cross, but did not live to receive it – at 04.45 on 5 August, he was shot through the head by a sniper. He was hastily buried by his men in the side of the trench; his body has never been recovered.
Butterworth remains a case of “what if…?” What sort of music might we have had if he had lived?
This leads us into the 20th century and World War I and Edward Elgar. But not the Elgar of Land of Hope and Glory. WWI began in 28 July 1914 and the invasion of Belgium by the Germans triggered the decision of Britain to enter into the war. Germans residents in the UK were likely to be interned and even dachshunds were stoned in the streets!
Edward Elgar, living in London at the time, heard from distant friends how life was changing elsewhere – including a letter from a Marie Joshua, of German descent and living in Felixstowe – she wrote in the middle of August 1914 how the houses of friends had been taken over by troops and turned into minor forts where they were on the firing line. She had “dismantled” all her rooms except for a small morning room by her bedroom, so as to be able to leave at 24 hours’ notice, should she be liable for interment. She reported how “our walks and drives and enjoyment of the seafront are very restricted and soldiers are stationed at all points in entrenched positions”.
Elgar found himself commissioned to write a work in aid of the National Relief Fund for Belgium.
His starting point was a translation of a stirring poem about the destruction of Belgian Church bell towers. Elgar remembered reading the poem by the Belgian poet Émile Cammaerts in The Observer.
Carillon Op 75 is a recitation of the poem with Prelude and Interludes for a large orchestra. It was first performed in the Queen’s Hall, London, on 7 December 1914 with the recitation by Cammaerts’ wife Tita Brand, and the orchestra conducted by Elgar. Cammaerts’ and Tita Brand’s daughter was the singer Marie Brema who had sung in the first performance of Elgar’s Dream of Gerontius.
After the first performance Cammaerts wrote to Elgar “I cannot let the day pass without thanking you again for your glorious work. I’ve met a good many Belgians today and they all wondered how you managed to share so completely our pain and our hopes”.
British music was banned in occupied Europe and Elgar’s reputation abroad never recovered from this ban.
We heard Carillon recited by Simon Callow with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Wilson.
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Symphony No. 3 would have been next, but for reasons of time, Phil moved on to the subsequent item. However, Phil had some interesting thoughts about the symphony which are worth passing on. RVW’s symphony No. 3 was published as A Pastoral Symphony and not numbered until later. It was completed in 1922. In August 1914, at nearly 42 years of age, Ralph Vaughan Williams was older than the majority of men who fought in the First World War when he volunteered to serve with them in France (despite his age and flat feet), first as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and then in 1918 as a subaltern in the Royal Garrison Artillery. In June 1916, his ambulatory unit went to France, its headquarters located at Écoivres, a village below Mont St. Eloi near Arras. Like many others, he never spoke afterwards of the horrors he had witnessed, but they left their mark. It was during this period that he heard a bugler practising, giving him the first idea for his Pastoral Symphony – the bugler accidentally played an interval of a seventh instead of an octave; this ultimately led to the trumpet cadenza in the second movement.
The Pastoral Symphony is not programmatic, but its spirit is very evocative. “It is really wartime music – a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Écoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset.” So the Pastoral label is explained: not the Cotswolds, but battle-scarred fields of France. Unlike Beethoven’s 6th symphony, the Pastoral, there are no imitation bird-calls, no thunderstorms and no ‘awakening of happy feelings on arriving in the countryside’. It is not full of military marches and martial drums, but looks beyond the war to a more contemplative and transcendent kind of elegy for the dead of World War I and a meditation on the sounds of peace.
The 2nd movement – Lento moderato – Moderato maestoso – opens with an F-major horn solo above an F minor chord, a theme which is developed by a poignant solo cello. Just as in the first movement, the ideas flow gently from one to the next, ultimately leading to a trumpet cadenza, inspired by the wartime memory of a bugler sounding a seventh in mistake for an octave. The movement ends with a quiet chord in the violins’ high register.
Peter Warlock’s often-quoted comment that “it is all just a little too much like a cow looking over a gate” was a comment on Vaughan Williams’ style in general, and was not aimed specifically at A Pastoral Symphony, which, on the contrary, Warlock described as “a truly splendid work” and “the best English orchestral music of this century”.
The next piece Phil did play included an augmented fourth. (A type of tritone in musical composition comprising six semitones. It spans four diatonic scale degrees like a perfect fourth but with an extension of a semitone. The number of diatonic degrees it spans is what distinguishes it from a diminished fifth. It was called the “devil’s interval”.) Phil illustrated this chord on the piano. As he said it is unresolved, therefore it induces a tension in the listener. We are perhaps more familiar with it than we might realise, for instance “Maria” in West Side Story is a good example of it.
Carl Nielsen’s (1865-1931) Symphony No. 4, Op. 29, “The Inextinguishable”. Nielsen started giving the work serious thought in summer 1914, against the backdrop of the First World War – however it was a year later that he put pen to paper and the work was completed in January 1916.
This “war” symphony is among the most dramatic that Nielsen wrote, documenting the violence, intensity and emotion of the times; it features a “battle” between two sets of timpani – the two players who are supposed to sit opposite each other at the edge of the orchestra near the audience. The score tells the timpanists to belt out competing sets of these tritons – the devil’s interval – with “a certain menacing character”, dissonating with the rest of the orchestra.
The contrabassoon (played by the third bassoonist) has only one note to play in the whole symphony: the single, held note is a written the second line of the staff for contrabassoon, sounding an octave lower) and opens the coda of the fourth movement accompanied by timpani.
In 1923, British critic Ernest Newman heard these passages as “spasmodic explosions which made us think the air raids had come again”; Newman hears the violence of the piece as an echo of the terrible war years. “A performance of the Inextinguishable should leave you battered yet uplifted, dazed but thrilled.”
The San Francisco Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Herbert Blomsted.
While sitting on the cliffs between Pentire Point and The Rumps in North Cornwall in mid-September 1914 a few weeks after the outbreak of the First World War, Robert Laurence Binyon (1869-1943) wrote For the Fallen in honour of the casualties of the British Expeditionary Force, which by then had already suffered severely at the Battle of Mons on 23rd August in the opening phase of the war on the Western Front. The seven stanza poem was published in The Times newspaper on 21st September 1914. A commemorative stone plaque bearing the inscription: For the Fallen – Composed on these cliffs 1914, was erected at the spot in 2001. Over time, of the poem just the fourth verse has been used as a tribute to all casualties of war. Despite being too old to enlist in the First World War, Binyon volunteered at a British hospital for French soldiers as a hospital orderly. Numerous musical settings of the poem have been composed: Edward Elgar as a part of his work “The Spirit of England”; Doulas Guest, for the Westminster Abbey Choir; Mike Sammes for his singers (of Sing Something Simple fame).
Here is the version Mark Blatchly wrote for the British Legion Royal Albert Hall Festival on November 8th 1980 for the treble choristers of St. Paul’s Cathedral, organ and trumpet (to play “The Last Post” in the background). We in fact heard it performed by the Choristers of St Paul’s Cathedral with Crispian Steele-Perkins (trumpet), Richard Moorhouse (organ) and directed by John Scott.
In 1963 a retired professional flautist, Andrew Fairley, who lives in Felixstowe, bought an instrument from a junk shop in Brentford, Middlesex, for five shillings; he keeps it in a drawer at his home. Andrew contacted the Imperial War Museum who wrote back to say it was highly likely to have been made in the WWI trenches and it was a one-off, totally unique, and they had never seen anything like it before – but all the materials it was built from came from the war period.
The 11 in long flute is made out of items including printed Wills tobacco papers and cardboard, probably from a parcel. It was waxed, possibly with boot polish, to hold it together and make it waterproof. The blow hole, or embouchure hole, is a bullet casing cut down to size. Soldiers then had to make do with simple stuff – anything that was available in the trenches. It may well have been French as its curvature suggests a French bayonet. Andrew has no record of who made the flute, but thinks it might have landed up in the junk shop after a house clearance – he just bought it as a curiosity.
A piece of music composed in the trenches in 1914 and given its first public performance in front of the troops on Christmas Day that year, “Noel”, by Fernand Halphen (1872-1917), could well have been played on this instrument. Halphen was quite an important, prolific composer in his day – he studied under Massenet and Fauré at the Paris conservatoire; he had great promise but, unfortunately, like many other composers, poets and artistic people, he didn’t survive the war. The music of this charming little piece was published in 1919. We heard Andrew play this piece with the Strings of the Community Light Orchestra of Ipswich. And we also got to see (but not touch!) this remarkable instrument which Andrew had kindly loaned for the evening.
To take us to the interval Phil gave us a bit of a poser. A short extract played backwards. Could we identify it? Answer after the break.
It was “Who Do You Think You are Kidding, Mr Hitler?” Did we know who wrote it? Bud Flanagan some suggested – no, he sang it, but it was written by Jimmy Perry (who co-created Dad’s Army with David Croft) and Derek Taverner. Perry served with the Royal Artillery. Practically all his Battalion were sent south for the D-Day landing – except Perry – and most of the men were cut down on the beaches of Normandy. Had Jimmy been there no Dad’s Army and no signature tune.
Who are the three composers rated as the principal WWII English composers? They are Benjamin Britten, Michael Tippett and William Walton
For Walton, movies were his bread and butter. When the Queen’s Hall was destroyed in 1941, the same air raid took out Walton’s house in London too. The Spitfire Prelude is the music heard over the opening credit titles in the 1942 film “The First of the Few” – “one of Walton’s finest marches” – “Walton was at least the equal of Elgar in writing patriotic march tunes” – “a patriotic, resounding piece of good orchestration; simple in construction, it makes ideal film music”.
Leslie Howard directed and played R. J. Mitchell, the aircraft’s designer. David Niven played his test pilot. The First of the Few sounds, and is, a product of its time, a flag-waving morale-booster movie on the subject of the Spitfire. We heard the Spitfire Prelude played by the Orchestra of Opera North conducted by Paul Daniel.
Few choral pieces are about War. Two exceptions are Britten’s War Requiem and A Child of Our Time – a secular oratorio by Michael Tippett (1905–98), a contemporary of Britten and Walton, who also wrote the libretto.
The work was inspired by events that affected Tippett profoundly: he had made several visits to Germany, and had acquired a love for its literature and culture. He became increasingly distressed by reports of events in that country and, in particular, the persecution of its Jewish population.
Herschel Grynszpan was a beleaguered 17 year old refugee living with his aunt and uncle in Paris. He was born in Hannover, but since the age of 14 had moved frequently. His biography is an archetype of the plight of many Jews during those years. He could not find a place to live and work.
His father made arrangements for the boy to live with his uncle and aunt in Paris. He entered France illegally (as German and French border officials were denying transit to Jews) by taking a streetcar regularly used by working people between the adjacent border towns of Quievran and Valenciennes. Passengers without baggage were rarely checked during rush hours.
With his German visa and Polish passport expired, Herschel had no country to which he could legitimately go. In a poignant statement taken after the assassination Grynszpan is quoted to have tearfully exclaimed to the police: “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have a right to live and the Jewish people have a right to exist on this earth. Wherever I have been I have been chased like an animal.” The proximate cause of the assassination was an event of the last days of October 1938. Grynszpan’s father, mother, sister and brother – who were still living in Hannover – were suddenly removed from their home and transported by the Nazi Gestapo to the Polish frontier town of Zbaszyn on the rail line between Berlin and Warsaw. The family, along with some twelve to seventeen thousand other German-resident Polish Jews, had been caught between two competing antisemitisms, one German and the other Polish. The German government was trying to deport all Jews of Polish origin living inside Germany in response to a decree of 16 October 1938 issued by the Polish government. The Polish decree threatened to deprive Polish citizens living in Germany of their Polish passports, and thus the right to return to Poland. When Gestapo guards arrived at the border with their cargoes of Jews, Polish border guards refused to permit entry into Poland. Thousands were stranded at the border, some living in a no-man’s-land between the two border stations, some in railroad cars, in barracks, or in schoolhouses. Young Herschel kept abreast of these developments in the Paris Jewish press, but it was a postcard from his sister Berta received on 3rd November, detailing the family’s plight and asking Herschel to send money, that determined him to take revenge.
He bought a gun and went to the German Embassy, but the German Ambassador, his target, was leaving just as he arrived. Shown into the office of Ernst vom Rath, Herschel pulled out his gun and fired five times, hitting vom Rath twice. He died two days later. Herschel was arrested but his ultimate fate remains a mystery.
The assassination precipitated the “Krisatllnacht” pogrom across Germany. Over several days of violence synagogues were burned, Jewish homes and businesses attacked and destroyed, thousands of Jews were arrested, and some Jews were stoned or beaten to death. Reports from Germany of these events affected Tippett profoundly, and became the inspiration for his first large-scale dramatic work.
Three days later, on the day that Britain declared war on Germany, he began composing A Child of Our Time.
The text that Tippett prepared follows the three part structure used in Handel’s Messiah, in which persecution, brutality, alienation, violence, resilience compassion and reconciliation are dealt with – it deliberately avoids describing the specific details of Grynszpand and his family and vom Rath. Tippett perceived the work as a general depiction of man’s inhumanity to man.
The work’s most original feature is Tippett’s use of African-American spirituals, which carry out the role allocated by Bach to chorales. Tippett justified this innovation on the grounds that these songs of oppression are absent from traditional hymns; however, he wanted his work to speak to atheists, agnostics and Jews as well as to Christians. A solution was suggested to him when he heard on the radio a rendering of the spiritual “Steal away”. In particular he was struck by the power of the words “The trumpet sounds within-a my soul”. This led him to recognise spirituals as carrying a universality, an emotional significance far beyond their origin as slave songs in 19th century America and as representing the oppressed everywhere.
He chose five: “Steal Away”; “Nobody Knows the Trouble I See, Lord”; “Go Down, Moses”; “O, By and By”; and “Deep River”.
It is not an easy piece for choirs. Phil played five extracts: (1) the Opening, (17) The boy Becomes Desperate in his Agony; (18) They Took a Terrible Vengeance, (19) Burn Down Their Houses, (20) Men were Ashamed of What They Had Done (Steal Away/Genesis Sixteen.) The London Symphony Orchestra was conducted by Richard Hickox, with Cynthia Clarey (alto) and Willard White (bass).
Incidentally, shortly after Tippett’s birth the family moved to Wetherden in Suffolk.
Another Suffolk connection – Benjamin Britten, (22nd November (St Cecilia’s Day) 1913 – 1976) the third of the war composers.
Britten was commissioned to write a piece for the consecration of the new Coventry Cathedral designed by Basil Spence, built alongside the ruins of the original 14th century structure, destroyed during the Battle of Britain in World War II. Phil said it is rather poignant to see the two in their setting.
The cathedral authorities assumed he would do it for free – in the end his agents secured him £1000, grudgingly paid. The War Requiem is a large-scale setting of the Requiem composed mostly in 1961 and completed in January 1962, and was first performed there 30 May 1962.
The War Requiem was meant to be a public statement of Britten’s anti-war convictions, a denunciation of the wickedness of war.
The fact that Britten wrote the piece for three specific soloists – a German baritone (Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau), a Russian soprano (Galina Vishnevskaya), and a British tenor (Peter Pears) – demonstrated that he had more than the losses of his own country in mind, and symbolized the importance of reconciliation. (Unfortunately Vishnevskaya was not available for the first performance, and had to be replaced by Heather Harper).
It was dedicated to four of Britten’s friends who were killed during World War I: Roger Burney, Sub-Lieutenant, Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve /Piers Dunkerley, Captain, Royal Marines / David Gill, Ordinary Seaman, Royal Navy / Michael Halliday, Lieutenant, Royal New Zealand Volunteer Reserve
For the text of the War Requiem, Britten interspersed the Latin Mass for the Dead with nine poems written by Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), a World War I soldier who was killed a week before the Armistice. “My subject is War, and the pity of War. All a poet can do today is warn”.
The Requiem is a large-scale work, calling for huge musical forces. As well as the three soloists, there is a chamber orchestra, a full choir and main orchestra, and a boys’ choir and organ. The performers are divided into three distinct planes; the tenor and baritone soloists and the chamber orchestra portray the victims of war and they sing Owen’s poetry.
The orchestra and chorus, portray the Requiem Mass. The soprano soloist adds colour to the voices in the chorus, but their Latin singing is less personal than that of the male soloists. The boys choir and organ present a sound that is almost inhuman. Britten recommended that a small organ be placed in the wings with the boys’ choir, to create a more distant sound.
The work enjoyed enormous popularity among critics – Stravinsky railed against this popularity; he was annoyed that it wasn’t really allowed to be criticized, because, in criticizing it, one would “be made to feel if one had failed to stand up for ‘God Save the Queen.'”
Stravinsky had reasons to be annoyed at Britten, who is reported to have said that he liked Stravinsky’s “The Rake’s Progress” – “everything except the music.”
The Requiem aeternam begins with a slow Introit – Rest eternal The F#-C tritone – or augmented fourth (as in the Nielsen symphony in part 1) is heard in the knell of the chimes and in the choir’s “Et Lux Perpetua” – and let eternal light shine upon them – this is a unifying interval of the piece and is often heard when the text refers to rest; ironically, this is rather clashing and gives the feeling of unrest! The Requiem aeternam ends with Kyrie Eleison.
During this section, the tenor soloist sings Owen’s “Anthem for Doomed Youth” – “What passing Bells for those who die as cattle?” This excerpt sadly Phil had to leave out.
The Dies Irae, with its nine sections portraying the Day of Judgment, is the longest part of the War Requiem.
We heard the section where the Soprano sings “Rex Tremendis” – Tremendous King of Majesty with the choir singing “Salve me, fons pietatis” – Fount of Pity, befriend us.
The Offertorium contains Sed signifier sanctus Michael – a plea for St. Michael to lead the faithful into paths of light – Coventry Cathedral is also known as St Michael’s Cathedral.
We heard the tenor and baritone duet of Wilfred Owen’s, “The Parable of the Old Men and the Young” – the musical themes of this section borrow from an 1952 work of Britten – his Canticle II, ‘Abraham and Isaac’, Op. 51 – a solo tenor piece telling the Biblical version of the parable. The Owen’s parody of the bible story is an ironic inversion of the story of Abraham and Isaac in which Abraham sacrifices his son despite offers made by an angel sent from heaven to save the boy –
The last lines of the poem contain: But the old man slew his son – and half the seed of Europe, one by one.
This underlines Owen’s bitterness toward the Generals who sent their countries’ children off to war. The boys’ choir provides an ethereal backdrop as if suggesting the innocents being led to the slaughter.
The fourth section, Sanctus and Benedictus are messages of serene joy, even in a mass for the dead,
We heard the Benedictus qui venit in nomine Domini – Blessed is he that cometh in the name of the Lord followed by Hosanna in Excelsis – Glory be to thee, O Lord most high.
Time forced Phil to omit any of the Agnus Dei – Lamb of God, that takest away the sins of the world, grant them rest.
From the last section, the Libera me which comes from the Burial service, not the Mass for the Dead, the mood is generally ominous. We hear where the tenor enters with one of Owen’s most famous poems, “Strange Meeting” in which he relates a dream-like encounter with a German soldier – “I am the enemy you killed my friend” – finishing with “Let us sleep now…”
The chorus finishes in the same way as the first section, Requiem Aeternam, with “Requiescant in pace. Amen.”
John Cooper – organist at the première and on the Decca recording – yet another Suffolk connection as well as Pears and Britten. He was very pleased when Britten said to him that:
“The boys sounded like real boys”.
The version Phil played was from the 1964 Proms, the 50th anniversary of WWI. Britten himself conducted the BBC Symphony Orchestra, also conducting was Meredith Davies, with Heather Harper (soprano), Thomas Hemsley (baritone), Peter Pears (tenor), the Melos Ensemble, and the BBC Symphony Chorus. A line up not that different from the original premiere.
Then followed three pieces relating to concentration camps.
First a little bit of Minimalist music. Minimalist music evolved in America as rebellion against what was seen by composers such as Reich, Philip Glass and John Adams as over-complex European art music.
Reich’s Different Trains is a novel three movement experimental piece for string quartet and tape written by Steve Reich in 1988 for the Kronos Quartet – it won a Grammy Award in 1989 for Best Contemporary Classical Composition.
During World War II, Reich made train journeys between New York and Los Angeles to visit his parents, who had separated. He later pondered the fact that, as a Jew, had he been in Europe instead of the United States at that time, he might have been travelling in different trains – he imagined what it would have been like for Jews travelling on the trains in WWII, the Holocaust trains.
The three movements are: 1. America-Before WWII 2. Europe-During the War 3. After the War
We heard parts of the second movement – sources used were interviews with three Holocaust survivors (Paul, Rachel, and Rachella) about their experiences in Europe during the war, including their train trips to concentration camps. European train sounds and sirens are heard in this movement.
The quotes heard are: “The Germans walked in” / “Walked into Holland”/”Germans invaded Hungary”/”You must go away”/”Into the cattle wagons”/”for four days and nights”/”Lots of cattle wagons”/”they were loaded with people”/”they shaved us”/”They tattooed a number on our arm/”Flames going up to the sky”/”It was smoking”
In Reich’s own words: “This piece represents a documentary and a musical reality and begins a new musical direction. It is a direction that I expect will lead to a new kind of documentary music video theatre in the not too distant future”.
Ilse Weber. Ich wander durch Teresienstadt (Terezin) ~60 km north of Prague.
Theresienstadt was a concentration camp for Jewish artists, musicians, theatricals and scholars, established as a fort, designed to accommodate 7,000 troops, yet up to 58,491 were crowded into the barracks. More than 33,000 inmates died as a result of malnutrition, disease, or the sadistic treatment by their captors.
Prisoners, including 15,000 children (fewer than 100 alive at the end of the war) were held there for months or years, before being sent by rail transports to their deaths at Treblinka and Auschwitz.
Because there were so many musicians and actors, music was composed and performed there, for example The Emperor of Atlantis or The Disobedience of Death, a one-act opera by Viktor Ullmann with a libretto by Peter Kien – both of whom died in Auschwitz. The only paper they were able to use was the reverse of admission forms to the camp. Amongst the details for completion on the form was a box for the number of gold fillings.
The Nazis presented Theresienstadt to outsiders as a model Jewish settlement during 1944 when the Red Cross visited – they were duped into thinking everyone was well looked after.
Ilse Weber as a child learned to sing and play guitar, lute, mandolin and balalaika, but apparently never considered a career as a musician. In 1930 she married Willi Weber and settled in Prague where she wrote for children’s periodicals and became a producer for Czech Radio. Following the Nazi occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1939 the Webers were able to get their oldest son Hanuš safely to Sweden on a Kindertransport before they were confined to Prague’s Jewish Ghetto.
The Webers arrived at the Theresienstadt concentration camp in February 1942. Ilse Weber worked as a night nurse in the camp’s children’s infirmary. She wrote around 60 poems during her imprisonment and set many of them to music, employing deceptively simple tunes and imagery to describe the horror of her surroundings.
When her husband was deported to Auschwitz in October 1944, Ilse Weber volunteered to join him with their son Tommy because she didn’t want to break up the family. She and the boy were sent to the gas chamber on arrival. Willi Weber survived them by 30 years.
The translated lyrics of the song are: I wander through Theresienstadt my heart is heavy as lead. ‘Home’, you strange word, you make my heart feel heavy. My home has been taken away from me. Theresienstadt, when will our suffering end ? When shall we again be free? It was sung here by Sofi von Otter.
Olivier-Eugène-Prosper-Charles Messiaen (1908 – 1992) – French, significant 20th century composer, organist, and ornithologist.
Messiaen was 31 years old when France entered World War II. He was serving as a medical auxiliary before being captured by the German army in June 1940 and imprisoned in Stalag VIII-A, a prisoner-of-war camp in Görlitz Silesia (now Zgorzelec, Poland). While in transit to the camp, Messiaen met fellow prisoner and clarinettist Henri Akoka who asked Messiaen to join him in attempting to escape; Messiaen answered: “No, it’s God’s will I am here.”. Two other professional musicians, violinist Jean le Boulaire and cellist Étienne Pasquier, were also among his fellow prisoners.
There was a sympathetic guard (Carl-Albert Brüll, 1902-1989), who managed to obtain some paper and a small pencil for composing, and he also helped acquire three instruments. Messiaen wrote a short trio for them; this piece developed into the Quatuor for the same trio with himself at the piano.
A piece of his chamber music is Quatuor pour la fin du temps / English title Quartet for the End of Time, The 8 – movement piece is scored for B-flat clarinet, violin, cello, and piano. Messiaen wrote in the Preface to the score that the work was inspired by text from the Book of Revelations (Rev 10:1–2, 5–7, King James Version): And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head.
“Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time”
“Abyss of birds”
“Praise to the eternity of Jesus”
“Dance of fury, for the seven trumpets”
“Tangle of rainbows, for the Angel who announces the end of time”
“Praise to the immortality of Jesus”
On 15 January 1941, the quartet was premiered outdoors at the camp in the rain. In addition to being freezing cold and hungry, the musicians had decrepit instruments on which to play the very technically demanding music – one of the clarinet keys was broken – the cello had only 3 strings – the piano action was worn and Messiaen had to pull back up every key he pressed! Of the audience of about 5000 fellow prisoners and guards, Messiaen later recalled: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”
By forging papers with a stamp made from a potato Brüll helped the performers to be liberated shortly after the performance. After the war, Brüll made a special trip to visit Messiaen, but was sent away and told the composer would not see him, which was rather sad, Phil thought.
That this piece emerged from such horrific beginnings seems little short of miraculous; perhaps Messiaen’s solution was an attempt to avoid the reality of his situation, and escape into his artistic and religious worlds. Probably historically the most amazing, enduring and improbable piece ever written.
We heard the first two movements:
No. 1 Crystal liturgy – Messiaen describes this as between 3 and 4 in the morning – his first attempt to simulate the dawn chorus – the awakening of birds via a solo clarinet imitating a blackbird and the violin imitating a nightingale The cello and piano parts consists of calm shimmers of sound as if to give the listener a glimpse of Heaven. A puzzled early critic remarked that it sounded as if the players were practising different pieces in adjacent rooms!
No. 2. Vocalise, for the Angel who announces the end of time – The very short first and third parts evoke the power of this mighty angel, a rainbow upon his head and clothed with a cloud, who sets one foot on the sea and one foot on the earth. In the middle section are the impalpable harmonies of heaven.
It was played by the Trio Oriens, Johnny Chang, violin, Olive Chen, cello, I-Ling Chen piano, Richard Nunemaker, Clarinet.
Eric Coates is known for his Dam Busters march for the 1954 WWII film and “Calling All Workers”, adopted by the BBC during the war as its signature tune to “Music while you Work”. A lesser known war-time piece by Coates is the Television March, specifically composed in May 1946 for the re-opening of BBC Television after WWII and was the first music to be heard on the new service. The piece was composed “in great haste” as the BBC had given him little notice. It is not in the same class as some of the more famous pieces by Coates but it was a time of optimism of broadcasting during post war austerity. The music contributed to the excitement of the times and was used daily from 1946 to the end of 1958 and occasionally from then until 1960. We heard the Liverpool Philharmonic conducted by John Wilson.
We had started this second half with Walton’s Spitfire Prelude. As any organist might expect, we now had a fugue to go with it – the Spitfire Fugue. This accompanied the part of the film, “The First of the Few”, where the plane was being put together. This fugue added immensely to the most fascinating sequence in the film. As with the Prelude it was played by the Orchestra of Opera North conducted by Paul Daniel.
As a footnote, Phil added that he had considered some non-classical pieces, such as Bob Dylan’s “Master of War” or John Lennon’s “Give Peace a Chance”, but found them rather dirge-like!
Thanking Phil for such an engrossing and informative evening, Norman said that he was absolutely astounded by the amount of research that had gone into the presentation. It had been a most intriguing evening. Delivering a presentation was in some ways the easy part; it was putting it together beforehand that called for – in a phrase from the war – “blood, sweat and tears”!