Tag Archives: Behind the Lines

Westminster Music Library – our next big adventure

Westminster Music Library logo

As the dust finally settled on our Arts Council funded project Behind the Lines (a year long programme of music workshops featuring the music and composers of the First World War), I was pondering during the depths of winter 2014 over what we in Westminster Music Library could do next…

Some might argue that being the award-winning Westminster Music Library – one of the largest public music libraries in the UK – ought to be enough. All those fabulous books and scores, staff with amazing music knowledge, interesting events for everyone from toddlers to senior citizens… but the problem is – well it’s not a problem exactly, it’s just that we do love a challenge.

Last November I discovered that The Army were offering funding for projects that would ultimately raise awareness of the British Armed Forces in civvy street, surely we could come up with something for such a worthy cause? Hadn’t we already worked with a bunch of musicians who were based just a step away in Wellington Barracks, all those brilliant recitals with members of the Welsh Guards Band? So that just left the “civvies”, how on earth could we join the two up and still involve Westminster Music Library?

Choir

Some scratching of heads and drumming of fingers later the light bulb came on, and we had it – a choir! But not just any old choir, one that would be made up of both army personnel and civilians, accompanied by musicians from the Corps of Army Music, and to add a bit of an extra challenge, grand finale concerts held in the Guard’s Chapel at Wellington Barracks.

So (apart from asking for the money) how would this involve Westminster Music Library? That’s the easy bit: you want something for your choir to sing? Doubtless we’ll have it, and if we don’t, we will pull out all the stops to get it for you. You want somewhere to rehearse? Our newly refurbished Library has just enough space for a choir, and of course there’s a rather nice piano here too.

British ArmyNow all we needed was a bit of cash to get it up and running – would our military friends like the idea? You bet they would, so move over Gareth Malone, let battle commence!

[Ruth]

Stepping into Vaughan Williams’ shoes

Behind the Lines: The music and composers of the First World WarJust 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.

Open Age workshop on Vaughan Williams, November 2014

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.

Open Age workshop on Vaughan Williams, November 2014

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.

Presentation of the book 'Stepping Forward' - Open Age workshop on Vaughan Williams, November 2014

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.

[Ruth]


* 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.

 

Sights and sounds Behind the Lines

On 4 August 2014, the 100th anniversary of the day the First World War was declared; we opened a four day Behind the Lines creative summer school, due to end with a grand finale performance by participants alongside musicians from the RPO at St John’s Smith Square.

Several people who read our previous post about the Summer School and the performance at St John’s Smith Square asked whether the concert had been recorded. We’re pleased to say that this video about Behind the Lines, including the amazing summer school is now available to view:

 

Take a look at the Gallery too!


The summer school featured two of our First World War composers who were also good friends, Maurice Ravel and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Ravel had wanted to be an air-bomber, but was rejected because he was too small; he was finally allowed to become an ambulance driver, and he saw and experienced the horrors of the front-line at first hand. Vaughan Williams was a stretcher-bearer, who also knew the unimaginable tragedies of the trenches. Both of them made their war-time experiences part of their music; Vaughan Williams in his ‘Pastoral Symphony’, and Ravel in his suite ‘Le tombeau de Couperin’. These works would be the focus of the summer school, using them as inspiration to create a new work for our final concert.

Pupils from schools across Westminster and adults from local community group Open Age all contributed material for the final work, which was performed in front of an audience of VIPs, family and friends. From the opening chords to the incredibly moving finale – an off-stage performance of The Last Post – what started out as a lot of disconnected ideas, transformed into a very moving and fitting tribute not only to our chosen composers, but also our many First World War heroes.

[Ruth]

The Last Post

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.

Behind the Lines Summer School 2014Having 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.

Behind the Lines Summer School 2014

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.

Behind the Lines Summer School 2014

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.

St John's, Smith Square

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.

Behind the Lines Summer School 2014

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.

Behind the Lines Summer School 2014

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.

[Ruth]


*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

The final countdown

Gustav Holst 1921Our last Behind the Lines* School workshop brought this part of our amazing project with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to a close, but what a brilliant finale it was. An enthusiastic bunch of pupils from Servite Primary School in Kensington joined us on a musical adventure through the solar system. With workshop leader Detta Danford and musicians from the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, English composer Gustav Holst was our very own “stellar” musical guide.

Mars, BonattiFollowing a short warm up, the RPO musicians introduced us to Holst’s Planet Suite which he composed between 1914 and 1916. Each of the seven movements is named after a planet of the Solar System and its corresponding astrological character, opening with Mars – The bringer of war. The RPO musicians played some very war-like excerpts from Mars, got everybody clapping along in time with the music, and asked us to describe what it reminded us of. There were lots of ideas that fitted with the “outer space” theme ranging from ‘menacing’ to ‘invading aliens’, very fitting for a planet associated with Martian invasions.

The Seven Planets - JupiterThe musicians then blasted off into the solar system all the way to the fourth movement of the Suite: Jupiter – The bringer of jollity. As soon as we’d listened to the opening bars, it was easy to understand why the composer described it as being “joyful”; it’s a much brighter and happier piece than Mars. This was a great excuse to make up some words and sing along with the musicians: “Joyful, cheerful day, we’re so happy!”

But it was soon time for the musicians to re-launch the space ship to our final planetary destination: Neptune – The mystic, very dark and mysterious music, it almost sounded like the soundtrack to a horror movie.

Not wanting to linger too long in this eerie and scary place, we stopped our space travel for a while, came back down to earth and explored the Music Library’s shelves. Time for our RPO musicians to be put to the test and show off their fantastic sight reading skills, being presented with scores by Mozart and Richard Strauss proved to be no problem at all. Even better than this, music from The Lion King and The Jungle book didn’t phase them, but the highlight was undoubtedly a rendition of Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror for vibraphone, glockenspiel and violin. These guys really know their stuff!

Solar systemThere was still plenty of time to go back to our exploration of outer space and a return “trip” to Jupiter, this time for a musical re-imagining of this jolly planet. All the new ideas, rhythms and melodies the group created which had been inspired by Gustav Holst’s original Suite came together for a very “out of this world” final performance, before the return voyage to Planet Earth.

A very exciting journey of The Planet Suite for our young musical explorers, one which we hope will inspire all of us to learn more about this much loved symphonic work. Here’s a few interesting facts to get you started:

  • Gustav Holst studied astrology which inspired him to compose The Planet Suite
  • There are two missing planets: Earth and Pluto (the latter was undiscovered at the time he composed it)
  • The Planet Suite premiered in 1918 when The First World War was still raging.

For most of his adult life, Gustav Holst taught music at St Paul’s School for Girls in Hammersmith, part of our very own Tri-borough. He paid tribute to the school and the area in his St Paul’s Suite for strings, and Hammersmith, prelude and scherzo for military band.

[Ruth]


*In 2013 Westminster Music Library teamed up with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra for Behind the Lines, a large-scale programme of musical activities focusing on composers and music of the First World War. Our adult, family and schools Behind the Lines workshops may be over (for now – we’re busily planning lots of future musical activities – watch this space!) but there’s still our Summer School to look forward to next month where we’ll be commemorating the music and composers of World War One, and ending with a grand finale performance by participants alongside musicians at St John Smith’s Square.

To find out more or to grab yourself a place on the Summer School, visit: www.musicbehindthelines.org/workshops/summer-school/