English Music of Remembrance

By Lewis, Geraint | Gramophone, November 2015 | Go to article overview

English Music of Remembrance


Lewis, Geraint, Gramophone


November is a time for remembrance, when we pay tribute to those who have fought for our freedom. Geraint Lewis offers a guide to 10 works by English composers that are filled with the spirit of mourning

At 10.30 on the Sunday morning nearest November 11 the heart of London stands briefly in silence until massed military bands in Whitehall begin to perform some mournful-sounding music as they face the Cenotaph in anticipation of the Queen's arrival on the dot of Big Ben chiming 11 o'clock and the two minutes' silence to mark the Armistice of 1918. The music never varies from year to year and has become enshrined in memory: 'Nimrod', Dido's Lament, Solemn Melody ... some of the pieces may be technically more suited to the occasion than others, but they are all there for a reason. This is the music of remembrance as the nation salutes its Glorious Dead of two world wars and other more recent battles and campaigns. With threats of terror seemingly as close now as ever, the event carries a frisson of quiet bravery, just as the centenary of the Great War of 1914-18 and the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second in 1945 bring renewed relevance and increasing poignancy to the never-changing act of commemoration, especially as the remaining survivors grow fewer and frailer.

The role of music in memorial is as old as the hills (even when it was more 'sound' than 'music') and burial rites from countless ancient civilisations show signs of musical performance in visual images preserved in many forms. The keening of bagpipes at the late Queen Mother's funeral procession to Westminster Abbey in 2002 sounded an unforgettably atavistic note, as if coming from centuries past, and the shiver-down-the-spine when bugles sing out 'Reveille' and the Last Post in the chilly November air must surely relate to an ancient collective memory of ritual. But English composers down the generations have shown a particular genius for writing music of remembrance for all sorts of reasons or occasions, as this selection of 10 notable examples hopes to demonstrate. Some are personal, others public; some religious, others atheistic; some by soldiers, others by pacifists. They all confront the immutable nature of death, even if their certainty in an afterlife, or lack of such, is naturally contingent on faith or its absence.

Composers have sometimes movingly remembered each other--Byrd singing an elegy for his great teacher Tallis, and Blow, tragically, to his brilliant pupil Purcell. And some were more self-conscious than others--Sir Henry Walford Davies, as Master of the King's Musick, allegedly once said to Vaughan Williams: 'I don't know about you Ralph, but I wrote Solemn Melody on my knees'...'Dear oh dear, well I'm afraid I wrote the Sixth Symphony on my behind.' Each to his own!

Tomkins

When David heard that Absalom was slain

Choir of St John's College, Cambridge / Andrew Nethsingha

Chandos Chaconne (F) CHAN0804 (10/14)

King James I was heartbroken when his eldest son Henry died unexpectedly in 1612. Thomas Tomkins of Worcester was a distinguished member of the Chapel Royal and it is thought that he, along with others at the time, turned to the Book of Samuel to mirror a biblical king's overpowering grief. This superb recent recording captures the plangent pathos of the music to perfection.

Elgar

Symphony No 2

BBC SO / Adrian Boult

ICA Classics (F) ICAC5106 (12/13)

Elgar offered to write a march for the funeral of Edward VII in 1910 but time was too scarce. He was soon embarked, however, on a new symphony and there can surely be no doubt that the loss of a beloved monarch stirred a deeply felt response in this work dedicated to his memory. Boult first conducted the work in 1920 to Elgar's great approval, and this is his final account from the 1977 Proms, his last season there, when he was aged 88.

Blatchly

For the Fallen

Choristers of St Paul's Cathedral; City of London Sinfonia/John Scott

Classics for Pleasure (S) 569620-2

There are many settings of Laurence Binyon's Great War words, the greatest of which is by Elgar as the concluding panel of The Spirit of England. …

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