The Pity Of War

Posted: 30 October by Brian Northcott

I have chosen four works for our November concert in this year of remembrance of the First World War. For me, the war was only great for two reasons. The massive suffering and loss of life; and the immense courage and sacrifice of the soldiers involved in carrying out the orders given. 

Pacifists would have been punished, and indeed the great composer Benjamin Britten was one of those, but I have never been more moved than when I first heard the section following the Libera Me of the War Requiem by the great war poet, Wilfred Owen.

‘It seemed that out of battle I escaped’ is the first line of one of his poems. How many of those soldiers must have longed for that. The poet encounters what he thinks is a dead soldier, but

‘one sprang up and stared with piteous recognition in fixed eyes.’
‘Strange friend,’ I said, ’there is no cause to mourn’ –
‘None’ said the other ‘ save the undone years ‘.
‘The pity of war ‘.
‘ I am the enemy you killed my friend ‘ –

‘Let us sleep now ‘…

How does the choice of music therefore fit to this tonight I hear you ask?  Very simply.

That immense love and longing for homeland – 'The Banks of Green Willow’ – written by George Butterworth, a composer himself killed on active duty in 1916.

In an attempt to shut out the horror, soldiers endeavoured to remember other things and even engage humour – the military band has also been an important feature. Gustav Holst's 'Second Suite for Military Band in F' seems a good choice – especially with folk elements; a song from the homeland, and a blacksmith.

Ok I hear you all say – why the Korngold and the Vaughan‑Williams?
The latter wrote a trilogy of symphonies – 4, 5 and 6 seemingly war ‘inspired’ despite the composers denial, and we have already performed 4 and 5. No 6, with its unmistakeable overpowering pictures of anger and violence, occasionally tempered by peaceful longings, was the ideal choice with a finale that is, to my mind, a musical recreation of the desolate landscapes of destruction captured by the painter of WW1 pictures – Paul Nash.

And Korngold?
Well – he was a well-known film composer. One of his best-known scores was Robin Hood 1945, but more ‘serious’ music also exists. His violin concerto is full of exquisite longing melodies and a slow movement that at times is almost unbearable in its beauty and intensity – surely an excellent contrast to the VW symphony? I am also assured by a musical colleague that ‘Star Wars’ features here – another film. 

I hope the concert will be a thrilling and thought provoking evening for all those attending.

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