Earlier this month whilst working in Lille, France, I travelled to Ypres (Ieper) in the Western Flanders region of Belgium, visiting some of the World War One battlefields. 2017 is the 100th anniversary year of some of the most major and devastating conflicts of the “war to end all wars,” including the Battle of Passchendaele. All across the region of the Western Front preparations are under way for commemorative ceremonies which will bring together politicians, heads of state, military personnel and family members in respectful remembrance.
As part of my visit I attended a “Last Post and wreath laying ceremony” under the Menin Gate Memorial. This short service has been performed at 8pm on every night of every year since 1928 in order to remember the fallen soldiers who disappeared, were reported missing or whose bodies were never recovered from the battlefield. Of the 18,000 Australians who died in Flanders, 6100 were never recovered. Tens of thousands of troops passed this gate and its two imposing lions as they marched out of Ypres and towards the front line, aware that they might never be coming back.
People from all nations now gather at the imposing memorial imprinted with more than 55,000 names, some no doubt standing shoulder to shoulder with those who, 100 years ago, they would have called the enemy. Pipers in full regimental dress play haunting melodies, Psalm 23 is sung by a choir of primary school children with an ethereal descant and local volunteer buglers play the Last Post. As the echo of the final notes slowly ebbs away the palpable silence is remarkable. The hundreds of spectators present are connected by powerful and heartfelt words and music.
Using this combination of poetry and music to invite reflection on the stories and events of World War One is a recently released album launched by Sony entitled Remembrance. Anchored by poetry read by Alan Jones, baritone Nathan Lay makes his recording debut and is featured in several of the 24 tracks. A Melbourne based singer, Nathan says the recording “was inspired by renewed interest around the country in the stories and history of World War One. The idea to tell the history through a unique concept album combining music and prose was something that hadn’t been done before, particularly when looking at the totality of the war and its impact on both individuals and of our nation as a whole.”
Nathan, who is currently completing his Masters of Advanced Vocal Studies in Wales, comments that although he is too young to have been touched by the atrocities of war himself, “two of my great grandfathers fought in WW1, which brings things a little closer to home for me. It is so important that we remember the soldiers who fought and died for this country, as they are the ones who paid for our freedom. How many young people these days would have the courage to make the sacrifice that these young men made? The thought that so many of these young soldiers were much younger than myself is mind blowing in its own right. ‘They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old.’ That says it all, and is the last piece I sing on the album.”
Also on the album are Russell Morris who contributes a brand new track White Feather, alongside new recordings from Damian Leith, Lee Kernaghan, Col Buchanan and Sara Storer. A recitation of In Flanders Fields by the late Australian icon Jon English is also included. The poem was written by John McCrae in 1915 and was responsible for making the poppy, the first flower to grow in the disturbed soil of soldiers’ graves, a powerful symbol of wartime remembrance.
In Flanders fields the poppies grow,
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place…
Surrounded by thousands of hand made poppies in Melbourne’s St Paul’s Cathedral, Andrew Wailes will continue the tradition of musical reflection and remembrance by presenting the Royal Philharmonic Choir and Orchestra in a concert on ANZAC Day. “Music,” comments Andrew, “has always played an important – and central – role in commemorative events in the time following conflicts, and as part of the healing process for those left behind who wish to remember and reflect. It has been an integral part of warfare and the soldier’s life since the dawn of history. Even the instruments on which such music is played have themselves acquired great symbolic power — a regiment’s drums are second only to its colours as an emblem of honour and tradition.”
The conductor continued: “In Australia and New Zealand, as we stop each year to remember all those who have bravely fallen in conflicts past on ANZAC day, there are certain pieces which evoke particular emotional responses, and it was my idea for this ANZAC day evening concert to combine the traditional Requiem Mass for the departed with a special selection of musical works that “set the scene” emotionally, and place the special ANZAC Day performance of Mozart’s iconic unfinished Mass for the Dead into context with pieces that immediately command an emotional response from performers and listeners alike.”
The concert will also display the talents of an impressive line-up of soloists including Celeste Lazarenko, Sally-Anne Russell, Timothy Reynolds and Christopher Richardson. The program will feature Edward Elgar’s Nimrod and For the Fallen, Albinoni’s Adagio for Strings and organ (better remembered as the haunting and tragically beautiful theme from Peter Weir’s film Gallipoli), Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings (used in the Vietnam war film Platoon), John Williams’ Hymn to the Fallen composed for the WWII film Saving Private Ryan and Australian Jesuit composer Christopher Willcock’s We will remember them, to words from For the Fallen, a poem by the English poet and writer Laurence Binyon. It was first published in London in The Winnowing Fan; Poems of the Great War in 1914 and, by 1921, was used in commemoration services in Australia. Given the importance of ANZAC Day around the world, it seems Binyon’s words still ring true:
“They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old;
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.”