Following on from my post about trembling, this week is a solemn one for reasons that we're all too familiar with - it's that time of year where we remember the slaughter of human life in the names of our nations and yet something that we never quite seem to remember in current affairs. There always seems to be a conflict somewhere or other, that which ought be the final resulotion often is anything but. Anyway - this isn't the place for politics...right now.
Earlier this year I was privileged to be appointed organist for the Church of St Michael and All Angels, Yeovil and to help bring society back together in a Covid and post-Covid world, we founded Music at St Michael's - a new community musical endeavour in one of the largest and least well-off parishes in the entirety of the UK. In three stages, we would bring music to the people of these neighbourhoods affordably and accessibly - Stage One would see the launch of an exciting new community-led adult choir, peforming quality music with singers trained in choral excellence.
Having smashed our £3k founding target, the choir's first major service was for Remembrance Sunday this year, where they would sing Mozart's Ave Verum Corpus (regarded by some as the most beautiful piece of music ever written) and my own motet For the Fallen, written especially for this choir this service (although probably not regarded as the most beautiful piece of music ever written). On Friday 5th November, our rehearsal coincided with Bonfire Night; and as we slowly sang those well-known words of Laurence Binyon:
'They shall grow not old as we that are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning:
We will remember them'
the booms burst above. Flashing explosions echoed the light through the stained glass, illuminating us with dashes of angry flames. The imagery was not lost on any one of the twelve present. In that moment church walls were stripped away - there was just us and cannons interjecting, determined to rob the peace as a thief in the night. The shrill screamers wailed and rained. Laura, our soloist, fought bravely, refusing to surrender the melody. A moment of silence as morning broke within the work and minor became major. As we approached the close of the peace, the harmony began to settle once more and a lone tenor echoed the wail of the screamer seconds previously.
A while ago, I talked about coming fulll circle and I find myself reflecting on my memories of Remembrance Day throughout my life. Some twenty-three years ago, I remember our headmaster angrily demanding of any pupil not wearing their poppy, "where is it? You should be wearing it!" Only seven years after that, on Christmas Day 2006, I took up my first post as Director of Music for St Nicholas' Church, Child Okeford, Dorset. It was a distinctive church - famed for holding the organ on which Sir Arthur Sullivan's Onward, Christan Soldiers was first performed (Giles, 1998), having been written while staying with his friend Gertude at Hanford House (Ashley & Ashley, 1984), now the Hanford School for Girls - and one had to pass by the prominent village memorial to lives lost in the Great Wars to get to it. My first Remembrance Day there as organist I felt a sudden weight and responsibility for the people under my command - the members of my first choir. It was not long after the death of Viv, barely a few weeks into the job I was breaking the news of the loss of one of our own to the other members. I recall feeling the burden of responsibility on the shoulders of a young teenager and questioning whether I was truly ready.
In my sheltered position, although there is no real comparison, of course, I thought of the young men - teenagers - who bravely took themselves off to battle and feeling the immense weight of what must have been to come, to have faced down enemies barely older than them, and being crushed under the immeasurable weight of responsibility to an entire country. My thoughts then flickered to those young men who wrote poetry whilst in the trenches - Wilfred Owen and Laurence Binyon as two of the first that came to mind, of how these words were written for a specific place. I talked previously about A Midsummer Night's Dream and the magic and frivolity that accompanies Shakespeare's words (1595), yet there is a contrast here from Act I, Scene I in a small speech by Lysander:
"Or, if there were a sympathy in choice,
War, death, or sickness did lay siege to it,
Making it momentany as a sound,
Swift as a shadow, short as any dream,
Brief as the lightning in the collied night,
That, in a spleen, unfolds both heaven and Earth,
And, ere a man hath power to say “Behold!”
The jaws of darkness do devour it up.
So quick bright things come to confusion."
Shakespeare was skilled at creating any emotion for his audiences to feel and wrote works that have endured for centuries. I was fortunate in Child Okeford to have gotten to take part in other plays, with a slight feeling of connection to the man himself.
From St Nicholas, that saint of gift-giving (and my father's namesake), I became tempoary choirmaster for St James' Church, Shaftesbury: St James, of course, being one of the original twelve apostles of Christ and fishers of men. Like Springsteen before me, I was discovering the church and faith to become a constant in my life and as St James before me - though in a whole different context! - I would be fishing for choir members to form musical connections with, to share in the beauty of music that was written for these specific places (more on that to follow). Even now, having served so many churches through Dorset, Devon and Somerset, I still find myself reliving that very first Remembrance Day at school and at Child Okeford, connecting with the people who have gone before through music. I should like to explore that musically somehow in the future.
Ashley, H., Ashley, H. (1984). The Dorset Village Book. Newbury, Berkshire: Countryside Books
Giles, C. (1998). Church Music and the Church Organ. Child Okeford Publications
Shakespeare, W. (1585). A Midsummer Night's Dream. Stratford-upon-Avon: Thomas Fisher