ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — The horrors of World War I’s trench warfare impacted English composers in multiple ways. Some lost loved ones; others returned home physically and emotionally wounded. At least one died in battle.
The Friends of Cathedral Music will commemorate Armistice Day with “The Great War in Poetry and Music” on Wednesday at the Cathedral of St. John. The 60-minute program also marks the ongoing centenary of the First World War (1914-1918). Baritone Edmund Connolly and pianist Maxine Thévenot will perform works by Vaughan Williams, Gustav Holst and Gerald Finzi. Guests will include KUNM’s Spencer Beckwith, who will read poetry from the era, and violinist Elena Sopoci.
Connolly and Thévenot were inspired to create the program after attending a 2014 Armistice Day service in London’s Westminster Abbey during a choir tour.
The organizers have designed the program to show what English life was like before the war, during the slaughter and the power of the human spirit to survive when the violence stopped.
The concert will open with an excerpt from Williams’ “Lark Ascending” with violin and piano.
“It’s what we call a tone poem,” Connolly said. “It describes this bird’s life.”
Williams wrote the piece while he was standing on the southeast coast of England watching the Navy ships perform exercises before the war. At 41, he was too old to serve.
“But he insisted,” Connolly said. “He wanted to serve. He served close enough to the front lines that the shelling from the constant gunfire is thought to have caused his deafness.”
A close friend of Williams’, Holst wanted to enlist, but was rejected for health reasons.
“There was a constant exchange of communication while Vaughan Williams was away,” Connolly said. “Holst was frustrated that he couldn’t do more.”
The musicians will perform two of his songs for violin and voice based on Medieval spiritual texts.
Finzi was one of the most significant composers of English songs during the teens, Connolly said.
“It’s interesting that he’s considered quintessentially English when he was of German, Italian and Jewish heritage,” he added. “He wrote music that is very, very English.”
The composer lost both his mentor and teacher to the war. Too young to serve, he insisted on enlisting during World War II.
His “Childhood Among the Ferns” is a bucolic piece about the beauty of nature set to a Thomas Hardy text.
“It’s about not wanting to return to the chaos of the real world,” Connolly said.
“Channel Firing” is a war poem set to the perspective of the dead being disturbed by the explosions of battle.
“You get a whole discussion among the soldiers,” Connolly said. “They find themselves wondering if the war will ever change. They realize it’s completely insane, but people don’t learn.”
The program ends on a more positive note about the power of music to heal.
With text by Robert Louis Stevenson, “Bright Is the Ring of Words” from Williams’ “Songs of Travel” describes the ability of music to transcend the brutality of human life.
“Even after the composer dies, the music lives on.”