After months of planning it was finally here – our Behind the Lines* summer school, the culmination of a year-long project for Westminster Music Library in partnership with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Having spent the past twelve months delivering workshops featuring Edward Elgar, Maurice Ravel, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Ivor Gurney, Gustav Holst, George Butterworth and Arthur Bliss, it could have been a tough choice to pick out just two composers to feature in our summer school, but as Vaughan Williams has an important connection with Westminster Music Library (he opened the Music Library to the public in 1948) and he and Ravel had been good friends, it proved to be quite easy – this was going to be a good fit.
So it was that on a sunny morning in August 2014, twenty five young participants from schools across Westminster descended on the Music Library for the opening workshop, ably led by workshop leaders Detta and Tash with musicians from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
Two war-inspired works were chosen; Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin and the fourth movement of Vaughan Williams’ Pastoral symphony. One of Ravel’s greatest successes, Le Tombeau de Couperin was completed near the end of the War. This suite for solo piano, influenced by the French Baroque composer François Couperin, was composed between 1914 and 1917, and is based on a traditional French Baroque suite, being made up of 18th century-style dance movements. Ravel dedicated each movement to the memory of his friends (or in one case, two brothers) who had died fighting in World War I.
In 1914 Vaughan Williams enlisted as a Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, and joined the 2/4th London Field Ambulance, part of the 179th Brigade within the 60th Division. The Pastoral Symphony is clearly and expressively linked to the War and proved to be a necessary and cathartic work for Vaughan Williams. A wordless melody for soprano, accompanied only by a drum roll, that opens the fourth movement, seems to express all the pain and sorrow of the War.
Following a lot of discussion about the horrors of the First World War and the impact it had on our composers, our participants set about creating new melodies, harmonies and poetry based on these two works for their brand new composition, destined for its world premier at St John’s Smith Square.
Later in the week the pupils were joined by adults from local community group Open Age, who were to contribute additional material to the final work and would also be performing on stage alongside our younger musicians. With all these eager performers and brain power it was getting pretty packed in The Music Library – it looked as though we were going to need a much bigger room to rehearse…
One summer school was swiftly re-located to Pimlico Academy and an empty school hall to accommodate what appeared to be almost a full size symphony orchestra with newly formed choir. After four days of rehearsals, re-tunings, new melodies, rhythms, vocal lines, narrative, lost bows and mouth pieces, the consumption of enormous quantities of tea and biscuits, our “magnum opus” was complete. Given that this piece was created by a bunch of people who’d never clapped eyes on each other prior to our summer school, it all sounded pretty impressive at the final rehearsal, and left me in no doubt that their hard work had really paid off.
But now it was time to put them to the test, in front of a live audience at St John’s Smith Square, an audience which would include some pretty impressive VIPs. No pressure then.
From the opening chords to the incredibly moving finale – an off-stage performance of The Last Post (our 13 year old trumpet player had stayed up late the previous night practicing to get it spot on – and he did) there was hardly a dry eye in the house. What started out as a lot of disconnected ideas at the start of the week had been transformed into a very moving and fitting tribute to our chosen composers, and of course all our many First World War heroes.
And so our year of Behind the Lines – the music and composers of The First World War draws to an impressive close. Or does it? Watch this space (and our events pages) for some more Behind the Lines activities this autumn.
*Over the past year, having received a grant from Arts Council England, Westminster Music Library has been working in partnership with The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to deliver Behind the Lines – an extensive programme of music workshops for families, schools and adults inspired by the music and composers of the First World War.
Find out more at www.musicbehindthelines.org