For our part at Westminster Music Library, we in the past year have been exploring the music from the wartime period in our project Behind the Lines; and our participation in Superact’s Last Post Project was an apt culmination.
Fittingly stationed between Remembrance Sunday and Remembrance Day was our poignant “The Last Post” evening. It was our great pleasure to be involved in this project, the initiative of arts organisation Superact (with support from the Department for Communities and Local Government, and funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund). Ours was just one of over 230 such events taking place up and down the country between 4 and 18 November, all featuring an all-important rendition of that well-established remembrance tradition: the Last Post. More information can be found at www.thelastpostproject.org.uk.
The Last Post began life humbly, as a bugle call to mark the end of the day in military camps in an era before soldiers had watches. Over the course of the nineteenth century it started to take on a memorial role, being played at the funerals of those killed in battle. During the First World War, as the numbers of those dying grew rapidly, this haunting tune was played with increasing regularity, and now has a central role in the remembrance of the war dead.
Interest in our Last Post event was huge and we were soon so fully booked it was standing room only! The audience of local residents was augmented with the forces of South Westminster and Church Street Community Choirs whom we were delighted to welcome to add extra depth and harmony to the singing. The singing was brilliantly led by Ruth with fine accompaniment from Anthony on the piano.
The evening began with a sing-along featuring all the old favourite First World War songs. Audience, staff and the choirs were in good voice as we launched into It’s a long way to Tipperary and Pack up your troubles – classic uplifting songs from early in the war, reflecting the nation’s optimism and hope in a swift resolution. It soon transpired, though, that the war would last longer than any had dared to conceive. The country’s musical output became more reflective, giving voice to a greater determination and perseverance. Our programme represented this trend with inclusion of the beautiful and wonderfully nostalgic If you were the only girl in the world, Keep the home fires burning and Roses of Picardy.
We then belted out Oh! It’s a lovely war from the satirical music hall show which, when written, tapped into the increasing cynicism as the war dragged on. When the Americans entered the war they brought their popular songs over with them and we joined in rousing versions of Over there and There’s a long, long trail.
To give our singing voices some rest, our songs were interspersed with readings from Ruth. We heard poems and letters home – some humorous, some sad, but all poignant, reflecting the varying experiences of those who lived both through the trenches and on the home front.
Our final song was, perhaps inevitably, the ever popular Good-bye-ee, but the evening’s climax was still to come. As the applause died down, hidden from sight behind the bookshelves, came the words of Laurence Binyon’s poem ‘For the Fallen’, movingly recited by Andrew. You could hear a pin drop. After a moment’s pause we heard the opening notes of the Last Post. The audience spontaneously stood in respect as this ever-moving bugle call, brilliantly played by Jon, broke through the still silence. As the music came to an end, we paused for two minutes’ reflection.
And so our tribute to the First World War generation came to a close. The contrast between the lively sing along and the intensity of the Last Post at the end was stark and heartrending.
Here are some comments from members of the audience:
“A lovely evening with readings and songs and a very moving Last Post”
“Wonderful to have a singing event! Very nostalgic and very moving”
“Wonderful – released all sorts of emotions- excellent readings by Ruth. Whole concert was well thought out and performed”
Finally, we would like to extend our gratitude to South Westminster and Church Street Community Choirs for their support.
Here are Andrew and Jon performing The Last Post:
[Andrew and Jon]