MUSIC and war would seem to be polar opposite in the spectrum of human activity, yet it is music associated with war that is among the most treasured works in the canon of classical music.
When words fail, Britain reaches for the balm of Elgar’s Nimrod while America opts for the pathos of Barber’s Adagio. A musical response to the Holocaust lifted Polish composer Gorecki to the top of the charts in the 1990s, while more recently, an opera charting the turbulence of war and peace in the WWI trenches earned Kevin Puts a Pulitzer Prize and a European premiere at Wexford Festival this year.
Into the maelstrom of commemorative activity associated with WW1 and 1916, the much-lauded Cork choir Voci Nuove, under their newly-appointed MD Lynsey Callaghan, join forces with the recently formed Laetare Vocal Ensemble to explore themes of conflict, love and loss in an evocative programme that responds to war and adversity in many different ways. Featuring some of the most accomplished professional singers in the country, the programme, scheduled for two November dates in Dublin and Cork, features works from across cultures and centuries together with music from some of Ireland’s top contemporary composers.
The programme will feature world premieres of works by two Irish composers. Both Poblacht na hÉireann by Ben Hanlon (with text from the Irish Proclamation) and Agnus Dei by Ciarán Hope will be given their first airing. Other highlights include Greg Scanlon’s symbolic ‘The Blackbird’, David Mooney’s beautiful setting of ‘She Moves Through the Fair’ and Rhona Clarke’s haunting ‘Do Not Stand at my Grave’.
The ink is just about dry on Ben Hanlon’s musical reflection on the events of WWI, the second of his pieces to be premiered at the event.
“My plan is to use the text of letters, primarily from the front to those at home,” says Hanlon. “I want to recreate in music the voices that reflect the First World War — the horror of death and injury and also the lighter moments when writers even in the hell of the battlefield wrote home about funny things that happened in the trenches — the challenge is to capture the voices and also the range of emotions encapsulated in the letters.
Hanlon combines composing with a career as a busy second-level teacher renowned for his work with training choirs. His recent projects have included an opera, Bust, based on the real-life story of soccer star Richard Sadlier. He is mindful of the difficulties for a present-day composer attempting to capture events and emotions outside his own ken. “My uncle fought in the war but as I reflect on the events of World War I, I can’t imagine what it would be like to endure the conditions of the trenches for a week let alone risk having my head blown off. Among the emotions I hope to convey in my piece is tremendous admiration for those that endured such horror.”
Letters are also at the heart of a third new work to be given a premiere at the event. Agnus Dei by Grammy award-winning composer Ciaran Hope was written as part of the scoring process for The Letters, a feature film on the life of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. The Hollywood biopic explores the life of Mother Teresa through letters she wrote to her long-time friend and spiritual advisor, Father Celeste van Exem over a nearly 50-year period.
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