The Artistic Director of The Flowers of War spoke to Limelight ahead of receiving the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Violinist and conductor Christopher Latham will be awarded the prestigious French medal, the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, by the French Ambassador on November 11. Latham, who is Artist-in-Residence at the Australian War Memorial, is being awarded in recognition of his project The Flowers of War, of which he is Artistic Director.

The Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres recognises significant contributions to the arts or literature. Previous recipients have included Rudolf Nureyev, George Clooney, Kylie Minogue, Philip Glass, Robyn Archer, and Leo Schofield. Recent Australian recipients have included organist Joseph Nolan and flautist Jane Rutter.

Christopher Latham, Flowers of WarChristopher Latham

The Flowers of War comprises ten concerts of recently discovered music, diaries, poetry and art, performed across the four years marking the centenary of World War I at locations in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and France, including a tour of villages of the Somme. Limelight reviewer Vincent Plush wrote of the concert Monet: The Flowers of War in September: “This was one of those rare events that, for its profound sincerity and understated simplicity, will live in the memory long after the orotund pieties have faded to silence and the tattered flags returned to their cathedrals. The brilliance of this concert is that it uses the power of music – that wordless art – to touch the spirit in ways that words cannot.”

Latham, who is the first musical Artist-in-Residence at the Australian War Memorial, spoke to Limelight ahead of his award.

“I feel a little embarrassed to be honest,” he said. “My step-father Marc Honegger wrote the standard French music dictionary (the French equivalent of the Groves Dictionary of Music) and he didn’t get this award – he was also the person who started me on this journey.”

“When I studied violin in the US I spent six summers in France, with my mother and Marc and he taught me the French music of the Great War period which was hardly known,” he said. “Composers like Albéric Magnard, Georges Migot, André Caplet, Lili and Nadia Boulanger – the works of Ravel and Debussy from that period and many others – so I see my Flowers of War project as finishing something that he started. I am standing on his shoulders and am proud to accept the award in his name, and in the name of the project. He was a great man, a great musician, and he was always very kind to me and treated me as an equal, even though I was just a very young student. We played through all the violin sonatas together, starting with Handel, Bach and Mozart, and I retain the fondest memories of him and the time we spend together.”

What does Latham hope to achieve through the Flowers of War project? “In a word, World Peace (I make a habit of taking on impossible causes that cannot be achieved in a single lifetime. I think it is good for the soul to know that the project is far bigger than oneself. It keeps things in perspective),” he said. “I have always felt though that in the arts, simply entertaining people was never going to be enough for me. I worry we are just in the business of distracting people from what is truly important in life. Trying to alleviate suffering is what I have decided to do with my life – and the greatest source of suffering is war. The vulnerable always lose out when a gun is involved. I am going to spend my energies putting music at the service of finding middle ground in disputes, creating cultural meetings places where meaningful dialogue can occur.”

“For the moment this is about recognising the shared losses of all those involved in the Great War, as a way of empowering the diplomatic relationships of past enemies, who now, a century later are working together in a serious way as architects of global peace,” Latham explained. “As France and Germany go – so goes the European Union, and as the EU goes, so goes the world. They are our best model for resolving disputes through diplomacy. It is hard and difficult work to negotiate rather than sabre rattle, but I wish to put my energies into empowering diplomacy over militancy and self-interest, and have decided I will be spend the rest of my life doing that. Ultimately that is going to lead to working on trying to finding some kinds of resolution between the Islamic and Christian identified worlds. I think that problem will be sufficient to spend the rest of my life on and hopefully I will find someone I can teach who can eventually take over that job from me.”

For Latham, the audience reactions have been encouraging. “People in both Australia and France have found the Flowers of War concerts to be very meaningful,” he said. “Clearly the subject matter is very moving and recovering lost composers who were killed and playing their last works is a profound activity to undertake, and people understand that it has been done with the highest levels of scholarship, research, artistic care as well as the deepest levels of human affection and love.”

“There are very tender concerts where the lighting is generally dimmed, the pace of the music is deeply reflective, and where we don’t encourage applause except at the end,” Latham said. “Honestly I would prefer there was none at all – the way it is done in official commemorative events. I find the applause shockingly noisy after the quiet introspection and it interrupts the feeling. I want people to leave with the music still playing in the ears.”

“A soldier who runs the military commemorations for the DVA in Paris once said to me “everyone who served and died deserves to be remembered” and I think that is the ethos of the project – to identify the most talented musicians, artists and poets that were killed and curate a programme of their best works,” Latham said. “I thought there would be a risk I would have to play ‘B’ grade pieces, but I don’t believe we ever have done that. There are so many composers to choose from and I can only pick usually a single piece to have them remembered by. It is a great privilege, but also a heavy responsibility, to be the person who chooses the only piece of theirs that will played. I often feel I can’t do enough for them.”

But the project continues to resonate beyond the concerts. “We try to make as many recordings as possible so at least the results can be broadcast and housed in libraries and institutional collections,” Latham said. “I think the concerts have that quality of bringing out forgotten and unknown jewels from the past and there is a sense of surprise and wonder at how beautiful the music is. That is what people always tell me – that and how it made them cry. And I think we all need a chance occasionally to have a good cry amongst friends. It is certainly appallingly sad what happened to all those young men and women.”

The next concert in the Flowers of War series, 1917 – The Night is darkest before the Dawn is on 8 November at the High Court of Australia, Canberra on November 8.