Ipswich Remembers – some musical reflections

Huw Morgan writes:

Ipswich Remembers is a multi-media production celebrating and marking the lives and fortunes of the town and its people involved in the first World War. The performances will take place in the Corn Exchange, Ipswich, on Saturday 17 March at 2.30pm and 7.30pm.

A composer must consider many things when starting out on a new commission – duration of the work, forces available and their level of skill, context of the first performance – but during the initial discussions about the music needed for Ipswich Remembers, it soon became clear to me that this project was deeper and more complex than most. The combination of elements of spoken word (testimony, poetry, letters, news articles), dance, dramatic action, projections, instruments, solo voices and choir promised an affecting tapestry of great richness and authenticity.

The first thing that struck me was the need to think like a liturgical composer and arranger, selecting and writing music that served the dramatic arc, much as I would when considering music for sacred worship: pieces that move the narrative on, dramatise the stories that were being told, and create impact through juxtaposition. The next, and perhaps vital thing, was that the real voices speaking to us from a century ago needed to be matched by authentic music from the same era, by songs that those voices would themselves have known and sung, that played a very real part in their lives.

Rejecting (almost completely) the compositional techniques and styles that I have explored in recent years, I began to explore and research the songs and music of the first part of WW1. The Dance scene that opens the performance features the Boston Two-Step – John Philip Sousa’s marches were immensely popular and this one, The Fairest of the Fair, was composed in 1908, making it feasible that it might have featured in local dance halls. The instruments available for the performance form a pleasing “dance band” – after the dance is interrupted by the announcement of the outbreak of war, the quartet bravely try to continue but swiftly lose their way.

Music Halls were an immensely popular place of entertainment in the early 20th Century, a place to socialise and gather news. As war started, they also became an arena for recruitment of young men for the army: “women’s recruitment songs” such as Your King and Country Want You were sung by the likes of the alluring Helen Clark or Bessie Jones,  whilst men were invited on stage and, fired by enthusiasm, often enlisted on the spot. Those who refused to enlist were handed a white feather as a symbol of cowardice. Such naked coercion, with a century of hindsight, seems crass and morally barren, though of course without the foreknowledge of the brutal conflict patriotism was clearly in that moment the overriding emotion.

As voluntary enlistment gave way to conscription, and tales of the horrors at the front began to seep home, these recruiting songs became redundant and the mood of the music hall songs turned to melancholy, stoic acceptance and perhaps a little guarded optimism. Solidarity between those at home and those at war grew and was cemented in part through songs such as those in our medley, and Ivor Novello’s cherished Keep the Home Fires Burning.

 Listening to recordings of these songs made during the war by singers such as Helen Clark or John McCormack, hearing (courtesy of Youtube) those voices bridge across a complete century, is both bewitching and a little unsettling. The diction and style certainly seems alien to modern ears: I’m sure Ipswich Choral Society are relieved not to be asked to replicate this! But there is also what seems to be, again with hindsight, a misplaced confidence in their singing – were they so certain of the outcome of the war? Did they have no instinct for what was to come or knowledge of the suffering at the front? If they did, how did they view their roles?

Elgar’s The Music Makers featured in a concert given by Ipswich Choral Society just before the outbreak of the war, something that we wanted to incorporate, with a bit of license, into Ipswich Remembers. Of course, the performance was not actually interrupted by a Zeppelin raid, but the idea is not so far-fetched and carries great dramatic impact. The text of the chosen segment:

                        “A wondrous thing: the soldier, the king and the peasant

                        are working together in one, till our dream become their

                        present, and their work in the world be done.”

 seems particularly appropriate.

Save for the Last Post, hymnody is the music most closely associated with remembrance: the origins of Cecil Spring Rice’s powerful I Vow to Thee, My Country are in a poem that predates the First World War, but its 1921 association with Vaughan Williams’ tune Thaxted is immiscibly bound up with the act of remembrance, as is (this time from the 18th Century) Isaac Watts’ beautiful O God, Our Help in Ages Past. For Ipswich Remembers, we imagined a tired soldier starting to sing Abide with Me, another hymn associated with remembrance and one that would have been well-known to those serving at the front. As he sang, others joined in, hesitating at first, then ever more strongly, swelling and rolling, a trumpeter joining in, until the energy subsides and the music comes to a peaceful rest. The audience is warmly invited to join with the singing of the last verse, the words of which you will find elsewhere in this programme.

It has been a fascinating and moving journey of discovery for me to have been involved with the creation of Ipswich Remembers. The team led by Robin and Mary have researched tirelessly to bring voices from Ipswich’s past to life and I hope that what I have been able to produce will, in some small way, help those voices carry a little more strongly and vividly.

Huw Morgan (March 2018)

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