Once again, we hand over the blog to another musical organisation. This time it’s Birmingham Festival Choral Society and their contribution to the Armistice commemorations. We met members of BFCS in an earlier post which talked about a weekend away rehearsing. As this post goes out, it falls between two concerts which BFCS and Nottinghamshire-based Ryton Chorale are presenting together on the theme of war and peace. The two works are Howard Goodall’s Eternal Light, and Ralph Vaughan William’s Dona Nobis Pacem.

Poppies in Flanders
Poppies flowering in Flanders

I know the VW well, having played in two performances, but I don’t know the Goodall. Both composers take ancient Latin texts from the church liturgy and add new words. In VW’s case, more poetry from his beloved Walt Whitman, and the Old Testament; and from various sources for Goodall’s work.

Here’s a piece from one of BFCS’ singers about her experience of performing in the first concert.

Christine (2nd soprano). On arrival at Worksop on Saturday, we were welcomed very warmly by members of the Ryton Chorale, and they treated us to refreshments before and after the rehearsal. A small, but appreciative audience gathered in the modern Crossing Church and community centre on the eve of the centenary of the Armistice signing which ended the 1st World War.

BFCS singing. Best photo (AW)
BFCS in concert

Singing in a concert is so different from rehearsals – you hear the work as a whole, including the solo movements. In Eternal Light, Howard Goodall’s setting of the words In Flanders’ Fields by John McCrae was particularly moving. Here’s an excerpt from the poem:

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie,
In Flanders fields.

American military photo of a battlefield (W.L. King)

By concentrating hard, we also managed to pull off the rhythmically challenging ‘Revelation’ section that had taken up so much rehearsal time! The opening text of this section gives an idea of what I mean:

Factum est silentium in cœlo
There was silence in heaven
Et vidi septem illos angelos qui adstant in conspectu Dei, quibus datæ sunt septem tubæ.
And I saw angels standing before God, and to them were given seven trumpets
Et septum angeli, qui habebant septem tubas, præparaverunt se ut clangerent.
And the seven angels which had the seven trumpets prepared themselves to blow

You can read the rest of the text here . There’s also a short introductory video for the entire piece:

We sang Vaughan Williams’ work, Dona Nobis Pacem (Grant us Peace) in the second half of the concert. Vaughan Williams served in the Royal Army Medical Corps as a stretcher bearer in WWI, despite being over-age. As you might expect, the work affected him greatly. Here’s a short contemporary description of the work in the trenches:

Slowly we worked our way along the trenches, our only guide our feet, forcing ourselves through the black wall of night and helped occasionally by the flash of the torch in front. Soon our arms begin to grow tired, the whole weight is thrown onto the slings, which begin to bite into our shoulders; our shoulders sag forward, the sling finds its way into the back of our necks; we feel half suffocated, and with a gasp at one another the stretcher is slowly lowered to the duckboards.

Source: http://www.warcomposers.co.uk

He wrote Dona Nobis Pacem in 1936, at a time when Nazism was approaching its zenith and a second World War was looming.  All this background gave the music and words extra power and meaning.

BFCS close up - Liverpool
BFCS in close up

At times, the work reminded me of a film score, with dramatic effects for the blowing of the bugles, thumping of the drums, snorting of the horses.

Beat! beat! drums! – blow! bugles! blow!
Make no parley – stop for no expostulation,
Mind not the timid – mind not the weeper or prayer,
Mind not the old man beseeching the young man,
Let not the child’s voice be heard, nor the mother’s entreaties,
Make even the trestles to shake the dead where they lie awaiting the hearses,
So strong you thump O terrible drums – so loud you bugles blow.

This made the quiet sections, such as ‘The Dirge for Two Veterans’ which describes the double grave for a father and son, even more poignant.

The last sunbeam
Lightly falls from the finished Sabbath,
On the pavement here, and there beyond it is looking
Down a new-made double grave.

The work ends with the song of the angels that we hear at Christmas: ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on Earth, peace, goodwill toward men’. Let’s hope that mankind will learn the lessons of the past, and our wish for peace will come true one day.

Nov18 landscape
BFCS’ concert header

Birmingham Festival Choral Society’s concert “Grant Us Peace” will be performed at St George’s Church, Edgbaston, Birmingham on Saturday November 17th (7.30pm).