Turning the tale of a WWI veteran into an orchestral score.

As a composer who has worked in film, the idea of writing music to accompany dramatic narrative is a process that holds its own special rewards and fascination, however it is not often one is offered the opportunity to come face to face with the personal account of a family’s powerful history and invited to render it through an orchestral suite.

When Melbourne barrister Don Farrands first showed me the memoirs of his grandfather Nelson Ferguson, I was deeply moved by the tenderness and courage of an extraordinary life. Ferguson was a Ballarat artist who became a stretcher-bearer in World War I. Blinded by mustard gas in the battle for Villers-Bretonneux, he returned to Australia, regained partial vision and founded a factory which made stained glass windows, earning him the moniker “The Glass Soldier”.

Don’s invitation to enshrine his grandfather’s legacy in a musical work was a huge responsibility and an inspiring task. As I immersed myself in historical documents of the era, I recognised an Australia marked by very different attitudes and values, and a people that were besieged by the challenge of grappling with their fate, and the trauma associated with the Great War. It was like opening a time capsule, preserved like a long-forgotten love letter and aching like an old war wound.

In five movements, the suite takes its narrative from Hannie Rayson’s play about Ferguson The Glass Soldier, an epic love story, steeped in pathos, drama, tragedy and triumph against adversity.

The score was originally recorded by the Melbourne Symphony and integrated into the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 2007 production of the play, its programmatic structure and filmic underscore qualities owing much to the influence of Hannie’s eloquent and powerful script. But the music has never been played by an orchestra in concert before.

Many years later, I am thrilled that the Australian Youth Orchestra has found a place for The Glass Soldier in the program of their February concert at the Melbourne Town Hall. It will be wonderful to hear the work brought to life for the first time by the youthful vitality and consummate musicianship of these brilliant young musicians.

The Glass Soldier is premiered by The Australian Youth Orchestra at Melbourne Town Hall, February 19