Last week saw the premiere of my new choral piece ‘Voices From The Front’, performed live in Bath, at the Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel. I was honoured to have the fantastic choral group Men With Horns perform the work, under the expert guidance of conductor Mike Daniels and organist Steven Hollas.
It was a very special moment for me as a composer, to hear and experience this marriage of words and music. But it was fundamentally different from other works I have written, because of the important context and coincidence with the centenary of the First World War.
‘Voices from the Front’ was composed to a selection of poems written by soldiers during the First World War. Most war themed music tends to pick one poem, or one poet to set music to, however ‘Voices from the Front’ uses extracts of several soldiers’ poems. This is to emphasize the collective poetic contribution they made, a reflection of the collective struggle they endured during the war.
Click above to hear the live recording of ‘Voices From The Front’
When researching the poetry for this piece, I was surprised to see how many soldiers had written poems. Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen have been celebrated for their literary skills, but it seems only right to put all these poets on equal billing. The emotions that these words convey tells us more about the horror and futility of war than any other literature or film can possibly achieve.
Apart from Siegfried Sassoon, all of the poets featured in ‘Voices from the Front’ lost their lives during the First World War. It is humbling to read their vibrancy of conscience and humanity, which somehow found its way out of the trenches through poetry. In the end, we are given a simple plea by William Noel Hodgson, ‘Make me a man, O Lord’. To think that these soldiers simply hoped to die as men with some kind of dignity is of course a painful insight to the effects of war.
Lieutenant William Noel Hodgson, died 1 July 1916, aged 23
Lieutenant Ewart Alan Mackintosh, died 21 November 1917, aged 24
Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, died 28 January 1918, aged 46
Lieutenant Wilfred Owen, died 4 November 1918, aged 25
Sergeant John William Streets, died 1 July 1916, aged 30
Captain Siegfried Sassoon, 1886 – 1967
Poems In Order of Appearance
Siegfried Sassoon, On Passing the New Menin Gate
Wilfred Owen/Horace, Dulce et Decorum Est
Wilfred Owen, Strange Meeting
John McCrae, In Flanders Fields
Ewart Alan Mackintosh, In Memoriam
William Noel Hodgson, Before Action
John William Streets, Matthew Copse
John William Streets, Love of Life
Who will remember, passing through this Gate,
The unheroic Dead who fed the guns?
Who shall absolve the foulness of their fate,
- Those doomed, conscripted, unvictorious ones?
Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori:
mors et fugacem persequitur virum
We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
Dreams of the day when rampant there will rise
The flowers of Truth and Freedom from the blood
Of noble youth who died: when there will bud
The flower of Love from human sacrifice.
There by the fallen youth, where heroes lie,
Close by each simple cross the flowers will spring,
“I am the enemy you killed, my friend……
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now. . . .”
You were only David’s father,
But I had fifty sons
When we went up in the evening
Under the arch of the guns,
And we came back at twilight –
O God! I heard them call
More my sons that your fathers’…..
They screamed “Don’t leave me, sir”
Reach out thy hands, O spirit, till I feel
That I am fully thine: for I shall live
In the proud consciousness that thou dost give:
And if thy twilight fingers round me steal
And draw me unto death-thy votary
Am I, O Life, reach out thy hands to me!
Make me a soldier, Lord…..
Make me a man, O Lord…..
Help me to die, O Lord…..