Just when you thought Westminster Music Library’s Behind the Lines programme* was drawing to a close, along comes another workshop, featuring the First World War music of Ralph Vaughan Williams.
This was a specially commissioned adult music workshop for members of Open Age, an organisation with whom Westminster Music Library has forged a fond and fruitful relationship in recent years.
Thanks to generous funding from the Vaughan Williams Charitable Trust, we were able to re-enlist musicians from The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to facilitate a workshop, focusing on the life and music of Vaughan Williams during The Great War, a composer who holds a special place in our hearts as he opened the library to the public in 1948.
This was also to be a morning of ceremony as we were joined by two distinguished guests – Lt. Cdr Tony Pringle and Honorary Alderman Frances Blois – the former to present to the City of Westminster a copy of the magnificent reference guide – “Stepping Forward” – a tribute to the Volunteer Military Reservists and Supporting Auxiliaries of Greater London 1908 – 2014, compiled by The Reserve Forces’ and Cadets’ Association for Greater London. The book was first published in 2008 as a simple guide to Titles and Battle Honours of the Territorial Army in Greater London since 1908. This new and revised edition now includes all Reserve unit links with the London Boroughs (including Westminster) and contains historical listings of Reserve Forces Centres and the locations of memorials to the fallen.
But back to the music… the focus was first on A Pastoral Symphony. Contemplative in nature, it’s a meditation on a lost generation as well as a celebration of the return of peace; the work embodies a hope that the nation might be healed and made whole again. This symphony is the third of nine symphonies he wrote, and was composed between 1916 and 1921. It reflects Vaughan Williams’ experiences in France as a wagon orderly during WW1, not the common misconception that it reflected the English countryside. The final movement of this symphony includes a wordless soprano line, which the group learnt as the first interactive group activity. In performance, this is often sung by the soprano from a distance to create a sense of space and emptiness, adding a ghostly lament to the music that depicts the tragedy of the war. The first half of the session also included an in-depth discussion about the composer and his music.
Following a break we moved on to look at Dona Nobis Pacem – a cantata written at a time when the country was slowly awakening to the possibility of a second European conflict.
Premiered in 1936 and with its dramatic settings of Latin liturgical text and Walt Whitman’s poetry, its emphasis is on reconciliation. Dona Nobis Pacem was performed at countless festivals and concerts in the years leading up to the Second World War.
Given its connections with both World Wars it reminds us that war inevitably brings misery and loss. Vaughan Williams, like everyone else, was a member of his community, and while he was ready to warn his countrymen of the horrors that might lie ahead, he had no hesitation in playing his part in both of the Great Wars once they had started.
Following an interesting discussion between the musicians and participants, the whole group performed their version of two sections of the cantata: Agnus Dei – a fervent cry for peace, and Dirge for Two Veterans – a mother, portrayed by the moon, watches over the funeral march for her son and husband, who were killed together, symbolic of all families’ losses in lives cut short from one generation to the next.
Time was rapidly running out on our workshop and there was still an important presentation to be made. On behalf of the Reserve Forces and Cadets’ Association for Greater London, Lt Cdr Tony Pringle presented Honorary Alderman Frances Blois with “Stepping Forward”, in memory of all those men and women from the City of Westminster who gave their lives in the Great War 1914-1918. A fitting finale to our workshop, and one which I suspect RVW would have approved.
* Between September 2013 and August 2014, to mark the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, Westminster Music Library teamed up with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for a programme of workshops focusing on composers who lived through and were influenced by the conflict.
Funded by Arts Council England, Behind the Lines featured interactive and creative workshops for adults, families and primary and secondary school children and concluded with an inter-generational Summer School and final performance at St John’s Smith Square. Using the resources and collections of Westminster Music Library and the expertise of its staff, the workshops were facilitated by a team of musicians from the RPO.