“I held a Council at 10.45 to declare war with Germany. It is a terrible catastrophe but it is not our fault. An enormous crowd collected outside the Palace; we went on to the balcony both before and after dinner. When they heard that war had been declared, the excitement increased and May and I with David [the Prince of Wales], went on to the balcony; the cheering was terrific. Please God it may soon be over and that he will protect dear Bertie’s life [George VI, serving with the Royal Navy]. Bed at 12.00” 

– George V, diary, Tuesday, August 4 1914

The wet and cool opening to August gave way to sunshine on Sunday the ninth as the British Expeditionary Force embarked at Southampton docks for Boulogne. It was 12 days later, in the leafy lanes a little to the northeast of Mons, that they first encountered German soldiers, and the fighting began.

Private John Parr of 52, Lodge Lane, North Finchley, previously a milkman and a golf caddie at the North Middlesex Golf Club, was the first British soldier killed. Albert Mayer and Jules-André Peugeot, the first German and French, shot in a skirmish in the village of Joncherey, in Alsace-Lorraine, shortly after the Frenchman’s breakfast two days earlier, twenty-four hours before Germany declared war on France.

Lives curtailed, abbreviated, interrupted… A war expected to end by Christmas begun, sinking into beet fields, waterways, copse, trench, mire and mud, noise, foolishness, bird-song and cold, misery, boredom, camaraderie, ingenuity and poetry…

Jonathan Grieves-Smith. Photograph supplied

Remembering World War One. Remembering individuals amongst those huge figures of the dead and damaged. Remembering so many across the years… Too full for words… Hamer Singers’ November 25th concert takes remembering as its starting point.

The 1914–18 war was the first we describe as being fought on an industrial scale, or is this the only way we can comprehend and rationalise the numbers? Its bluster, size, its sheer bloody endeavour, made many poets look back – or was it forward? – to a simpler time. British composer, David Bednall, sets Rupert Brooke’s The Dead,

‘These hearts were woven of human joys and cares,
Washed marvellously with sorrow, swift to mirth,
The years had given them kindness. Dawn was theirs,
And sunset, and the colours of the earth.’

While war is fought, politicians dig in. Where compromise or settlement is perceived as weakness, Brooke’s vision appears an insufficient reason to cease, but a motivation to go on to the end, to finish the job. But the longing in the words of so many poets is to return to a mystical, seemingly immortal place of beauty and dreams, and perhaps ordinariness, a time wiped clean of the stain of conflict, “a gathered radiance, a width, a shining peace under the night”.

Thirty years later, between February 13 and 15, 1945, long after Brooke’s death in the Dardanelles, and in another war, the Americans and British bombed Dresden with 3,900 tons of high explosives and incendiary devices. The ensuing firestorm destroyed the city centre, killing close to 25,000 people, including eleven boy choristers of the renowned choir of the Kreuzkirche. The dreadful violence of the event, the appalling severing of conversation, the parsing of past and future… Rudolf Mauersberger, the long-serving, Kreuzchor conductor, wrote his response for Holy Week that year, Wie liegt die Stadt so wüst, die voll Volks war (How lonely sits the city that was full of people). He painstakingly selected verses from the Lamentations of Jeremiah describing God’s destruction of Jerusalem and found a poignant new context in Dresden, “He sent fire from on high; into my bones he made it descend.”

Such dreadful eruptions of violence have continued. Artists are challenged as to how they might respond and how any work of art can be a due or matching response. Composers James MacMillan, Sir John Tavener and Arvo Pärt, share an unswerving faith in God’s love that perhaps supplies a higher context and purpose to their responses.

On Wednesday March 13, 1996 at Dunblane Primary School near Stirling in Scotland, 16 primary school children and one teacher were killed, and many injured, in the most costly mass shooting in British history. James MacMillan’s response, the motet A Child’s Prayer, was first performed in Westminster Abbey the following July. It opens with dark, earth-bound, pulsing chords before two trebles or sopranos slowly draw their prayer upwards toward heaven and to an acclamation by all singers of the words ‘joy and love’. For MacMillan, even in the face of this violence and pain, God’s love is present. The work ends poignantly, quietly, with the solo voices entwined.

Catalan musician, Jordi Savall commissioned Arvo Pärt to write a work for a peace concert in July 2004. Two days after the 2004 train bombings in Madrid, Pärt began composition of one of his most intense works, Da Pacem, Domine, a commemoration of the lives lost, a work that continues to be performed annually in Madrid. Sir John Tavener’s beautiful Funeral Ikos, a setting of Greek Orthodox funeral sentences for the burial of priests, is a statement of mortal decay and heavenly reward.

The question of why hatred, conflict, anger, war continue, despite the cost so nakedly evidently in front of us, challenges us all. These conflicts may be in Flanders’ fields, or Mosul, or the DRC, or Yemen, but they are also present in relationships, in words of spite uttered on trams, our responses to aggressive drivers.

Jóhann Jóhannssón’s death in February denied us years of an extraordinary talent. His music featured in concert, theatre, film – The Meaning of Everything, for example – and in explorations with artists Bill Morrison (The Miners’ Hymns), and Marc Rees (Now the hero, a brilliant Welsh element of the UK’s outstanding, five-year festival, 14-18 NOW). The Hamer Singers perform the Australian premiere of Jóhannssón’s Odi et Amo, in which Jóhannssón universalises the challenge held in Catallus’s words to Lesbia:

I hate and I love. Perhaps you ask why I do this?
I do not know, but I feel it happen and I am torn apart.

Other music in this programme, by Mahler, McBurney and Rheinberger, touch on patience, propose escape from the world, ask for forgiveness, and plead for peace, but I am never sure what answer, what compensation, what relief there can be.

And, looking back to the ’14–’18 war, can we possibly comprehend the appalling moment when soldiers and nurses suddenly realised what was ahead of them; when they came upon the French front lines, the noise, madness, the destruction of land, broken bodies, splintered trees, wet, broken vehicles, filth…? The air sucked out of them… How could anyone possibly have had an inkling, possibly be prepared? And, settling deeper in to this hell, day after day, hour upon hour, the longing for escape, relief, for something personal, something beautiful – how many wrote of hearing skylarks? – the looking back, the looking forward…

On August 4, after lunch and before war was declared, King George V met Ernest Shackleton and gave him a Union Jack to carry on his expedition to the Antarctic. With the outbreak of war, Shackleton offered his ship and his men to the service of the Crown but received an order to proceed; the Endurance left Plymouth bound for South Georgia and the Antarctic a day before the British Expeditionary Force left from Southampton. On January 18, 1915, the Endurance became trapped in the polar ice, like “an almond in a piece of toffee”, and drifted 1186-miles in the ice until on November 21, the ship broke up under the pressure and sank. Their journey across the ice, and escape from Elephant Island on an adapted lifeboat is extraordinary.

On May 16, 1916, Shackleton, Crean and Worseley arrived back in South Georgia and made a perilous journey across its mountains, glaciers, slopes and snowfields to the whaling station at Huskvik, where Shackleton asked for the manager, Mr Sorlie;

“Tell me, when was the war over?” I asked
“The war is not over, “ he answered. “Millions are being killed, Europe is mad, The world is mad.”


Jonathan Grieves-Smith conducts the Hamer Singers in The Tenderness of Silent Minds at St Patrick’s Cathedral, Melbourne, on November 25

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Limelight, Australia's Classical Music and Arts Magazine