I used to give a lecture for young musicians entitled “How to use music to change the world” which started with the obvious question: “Who wants to change the world?” After the show of hands, I would then tell them how to do it, step by step. Over the years, I realised that lecture was becoming less useful, as less students’ hands went up – they no longer dared to change the world, they just wanted to make a living. Therefore I am now giving that information out to you, Limelight’s wise, music-loving readers, to enable you to have the chance instead to remake things as you truly wish them to be, by teaching you how to commission and create a masterwork that will change the world. This approach should work on any level and at any scale.

Pick a powerful context

There must be something about your “change” project which inspires you, the composer and the audience. There is nothing wrong with commissioning a work just to entertain people, but to change the world through a work of music, you will need subject matter with sufficient gravitas. It will also help when you come to raise the money from international, national, state and local sources, as well friends, family and those individuals who share your beliefs.

In the case of the upcoming Diggers’ Requiem, we are responding both to the vast losses Australia (and all the other countries) suffered in the Great War, bringing light and honour to the dead and to all those who suffered as a result of the war, and also to make a shining lighthouse for peace in the world. I wish the work to become Australia’s equivalent of Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem, so that we have our own national living memorial that can be play on Anzac Day or November the 11th. I also wish it to be an ongoing symbol of the diplomatic union between France, Germany and Australia, showing how a century later we are now co-architects, working to achieve a lasting global peace. The music will be both a symbol of, and some part of healing, a great wound.

Pick a genius composer

They say 90 percent of directing is good casting, so start by doing your research. Make a shortlist of the most talented composers you know of and get to know their recent works. Match the music they write with the feeling you require for the piece, and pick those composers whose true voices most closely match what you wish to have said.

For The Diggers’ Requiem, I chose six living composers: Nigel Westlake, Elena Kats-Chernin, Richard Mills, Andrew Schultz, Graeme Koehne and Ross Edwards. Each composer was paired with a movement from the traditional Requiem which also represented a major Western Front battle. For Elena, whose music makes me cry, the Lacrimosa, the lament of a mother, whose son, lost at Bullecourt, has no grave. For Richard Mills, a great rugby player in his youth, the last great cavalry charge across the desert at Beersheba. For Graeme Koehne, the Pie Jesu for Peronne, the sacred city of the Somme which was endlessly shelled and looted. For Ross Edwards, the Lux Aeterna, a call for Eternal Light to envelop Australia’s 62,000 WWI dead, while 62,000 bells are rung.

John Barker, Sorrowing MotherJohn Barker’s Sorrowing Mother. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia

Use existing material wherever possible

All composers have drawers full of great material that didn’t get taken advantage of, for one reason or another. If you can identify some previous less known material that the composers can reshape, they will get the chance to perfect and extend the idea, and you can reduce your artistic risk. Recycling is good for the planet, good for composers and good for any masterwork. Handel was the master of creating new works out of older good material (his Messiah borrows heavily from his early Italian duets, including “For unto us a Child is born” and “All we like sheep”). Adaptive reuse of strong musical ideas gives you the chance to stockpile great tunes and powerfully striking material, which is important as masterworks can’t have weak spots, and the climaxes must electrify.

In The Diggers’ Requiem I was fortunate enough to be able to take advantage of Nigel Westlake’s existing masterwork – his Glass Soldier Suite, originally commissioned by Don Farrands, to tell the story of his grandfather Nelson Ferguson. Nelson had been a painter and a trumpeter who went off to France as a bandsman and stretcher bearer, where he was gassed and nearly completely blinded. He returned to Australia where he eventually retired from his job teaching painting, and instead started a stained glass workshop in his backyard with his sons. At the end of his life they replaced his corneas, and he could finally see all the windows they had made together. It is a story of healing, and it gave The Diggers’ Requiem its spine, much of its shape and also its spirit. It made it possible to make the work in three years after spending ten years making its twin – The Gallipoli Symphony. The two works are the bookends to my work on World War I.

Frank Crozier’s Grave of a Pal. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, ART00219.

Create a powerful mythology

The most important aspect of any world-changing commission’s long-term success is the story that is told about it – the narrative which reveals the secret soul of the work, its true purpose. To do this successfully, one must find new fresh words to describe the real magic at the heart of the piece, and tell that story as loudly and as often as possible – to speak it into existence. At the same time through performances and broadcasts the masterwork’s central idea will speak directly to people like a bell, gaining gravity.

To change the world, one must first change the behaviour of a significant minority.

To change that minority’s behaviour, one must first change their thinking – their ideas.

As opinion makers converge around the new work, public thought will also reshape and absorb this new idea. When enough opinions change, behaviour will change. When enough behaviour changes, the world will change. Remember that this will take time. Al Gore often quotes the late economist Rudy Dornbusch, who said “things generally take longer to happen than you think they will. But then, the changes happen much faster than you thought they ever could.”

I started telling funding bodies and cultural bodies the story of the Diggers’ Requiem in 2015, and found generous support for the commissioning costs from the Australian War Memorial and the Department of Veterans’ Affairs. Then the remarkable Rose Lowry, who led the Orchestre de Picardie in Amiens, came on board and got EU funding to support her orchestra and Germany’s Jena Philharmonic who combined with the Australian soloists (paid for by the Catalyst Fund) for the Amiens premiere that marked the centenary of the battle of Villers-Bretonneux. For the upcoming October 6 Australian premiere in Canberra, the Australia Council will fund 24 nationally selected Young Artists, Arts ACT will fund the local Canberra musicians, while the Department of Defence is assisting with both of the free Diggers Requiem Brass Concerts in Melbourne and Sydney (see dates and venues below) and also enabling the musicians from the Band of the Royal Military College Duntroon to join the above performers in the Australian premiere in Canberra.

Over the three years we have been developing the work, I have been talking to journalists, ambassadors, administrators and the general public (many of whom have chosen to participate as donors) about the project non-stop.

Diggers' Requiem, Christopher LathamH Septimus Power’s Soldier’s Face. Image courtesy of the Australian War Memorial, ART50024.

Trust in luck

In the film, Field of Dreams, a farmer ploughs his cornfield to make a baseball diamond because of the suggestion “if you build it, they will come”. There is something about the world that admires those who are “all in”, not because they are reckless but because it is what they are called to do.

In this way the good are often lucky.

In the lead-up to this April’s premiere in Amiens, I had been staying with Yola d’Alcantara, the Countess of Querrieu, who had become the French patron of the project. I had met her in 2016 when we played ten concerts in local churches to mark the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. She had been introduced to me by the local news presenter, Jean-Paul Delance, who miraculously knew and loved FS Kelly’s music (whose work is featured in The Diggers’ Requiem) and who put the project on French TV six times – helping to sell out the premiere in April and giving the project real traction in France.

I had explained to Yola why I had chosen to set Joan of Arc’s words twice in the work – in French in Graeme Koehne’s Pie Jesu and in English in my final Prayer for Peace. Jeanne d’Arc was a young virgin soldier whose body was burnt until nothing remained – she seemed the equivalent of those young soldiers, blown to pieces or buried by artillery bombardment. When interrogated prior to being burnt at the stake, she asked only for “forgiveness from those she had harmed”. In the male-dominated genre of commemoration, I wanted her female voice to ask forgiveness from past enemies.

I remember having a series of powerful dreams where a woman approached me and slid a vast sword into my spine as if it were a scabbard. The vision somehow made me stronger and gave me great courage. Then three days after the premiere, as we reflected on the concert, Yola mentioned very casually “I meant to tell you before, I’m related to Joan of Arc. My uncle has her sword on his wall.”


The Diggers’ Requiem Australian premiere is at Llewellyn Hall, Canberra on October 6. Free Diggers’ Requiem Brass Concerts will take place at St Paul’s Cathedral, Melbourne on September 26 and Pitt St Uniting Church, Sydney on September 27. For more information, visit theflowersofwar.org