The act of remembrance at the Cenotaph in London and up and down the country this weekend comes with it the inevitable trawling of my personal musical archives.
My school chapel choir (under the direction of the same man who introduced me to Benjamin Britten’s Old Abram Brown) was a major influence on me musically, teaching the group a variety of choral pieces for performance in school assemblies, services and in church life across West Suffolk.
I recall Remembrance Sundays at school most vividly, rehearsals for which often included John Ireland’s Greater Love Hath No Man. As a kid, I found the vocal lines impenetrable and at times incomprehensible when sung on their own. But combined, Ireland dramatic writing made for something which sticks with me even today.
Similarly, Charles Villiers Stanford’s Nunc Dimittis in G seemed to combine both splendour with a poignant sense of loss. The solo line is a joy to sing. Still.
Bruckner’s perennial favourite is agonisingly beautiful in its breathtaking simplicity. The score too fitted pleasingly into one perfectly sized B5 sheet of paper. There was something terribly satisfying about singing something which moved so effortlessly and didn’t require a single page turn. A moment of musical stillness which created a beautiful musical soundscape on Remembrance Sunday.
Locus iste a Deo factus est, / This place was made by God,
Inaestimabile sacramentum, / a priceless sacrament;
irreprehensibilis est. / it is without reproach.
Britten’s War Requiem – and in particular the Lachrymae – has been grafted on to my Remembrance Day musical memoirs by virtue of an entirely separate experience. Back in ’95 working with the English Symphony Orchestra, a memorial concert performance of Mozart’s Requiem, to commemorate the bombing of Dresden and Coventry with Yehudi Menuhin conducting was staged in both cities.
Dresden’s was the most poignant of affairs. After the concert en route back to the hotel, the coach got stuck in traffic ahead of a scheduled procession throughout Dresden. Fascinated, we piled out of the coach, stood at the side of the road and watched as thousands of people processed in silence, each holding a candle. To this day I’ve never seen so many people congreate in silence all in one location.
The same concert in Coventry was poignant for different reasons, the most potent of which was the 60s architecture of the city’s rebuilt cathedral positioned alongside the remains of the original one. This was my first visit to Coventry after having spent some time studying Britten’s anti-war Requiem at university, the place where the work was premiered for the opening of the building. The Lachrymae is now synonymous with Remembrance Sunday for me.
In stark contrast, John Rutter’s predictably sentimental setting of Requiem aeternam is now inextricably linked with chilly, often windy Sunday mornings huddled around the village war memorial singing to a handful of local residents and other members of teaching staff. Snobs still continue to give Rutter a hard time for his musical palette, which is a shame because amongst his prolific output, there are moments in his Requiem which are incredibly thought provoking.
This is a selection of the music which punctuated solemn and often sombre acts of remembrance at a point in my formative years. Remembrance Sunday was intertwined with my then growing interest in history and in particular the two world wars. Maybe I was susceptible to the sense of occasion because of that fascination, as though it was some kind of window into a period of time I had no experience of. I was happy to participate in these events at a point in my life when I didn’t fully understand it. How was I meant to actually feel? Who should I think of? What should I picture? How will I know when I’ve done it right?
At the time I never questioned what I was doing. I didn’t rationalise it. I didn’t think to. It was just something we did. Something we ought to do. Something the adults did. There was perhaps, a sense of duty about the whole affair. I didn’t know anyone who had fought in the war. No family members and no family friends. My parents had been affected by the war but not suffered loss because of it. As far as I am aware there are no family members with a connection to World War One either.
And yet, despite there not being a direct connection – what I think some considerably more cynical than me today think is a obligatory justification to participate in a collective act of remembrance – I didn’t resist participation in the act. That went on for as long as I remained in Suffolk, well into the late 90s.
It waned a little when I moved to London. I was saying so in 2008. Nowadays in London, life is a little different. I don’t attend an event, but have in recent years watched on TV. 2010 was an unexpectedly poignant one. I suspect I am swayed more by the bringing together of people in a shared experience, driven by what I now appreciate is a weakness for live events and a fascination for the collective human experience when observing them. I should add that in 2009, I was listening on the radio.)
Even so, over the past few days I’ve read the many criticisms on Facebook, Twitter and in the mainstream press of poppy sales, the increased ‘commercialisation’ of the fundraising activities of the Royal British Legion and the Remembrance Day service as ‘soldier worship’ and felt unshakeable sense of sadness. I’ve taken a moment to think about why.
Despite my racking my brains and participating in a rather tiresome amount of soul-searching, I find it difficult to reject the idea of remembrance. Yep, I acknowledge that my experiences are based around music which to a greater or lesser extent romanticise sacrifice. Those experiences have also now passed into a noxious cloud of nostalgia at risk of clouding objectivity. But at no point in the past (and certainly not now) did I ever think that the act of remembering was tantamount to glamorizing the act of war, as some I’ve seen on Twitter reckon it does.
Noticing people ten or twenty years younger than me shrugging their shoulders and dismissing the whole idea saddens me on an instinctive level. They don’t care. They just think its boring or pointless. Some reckon its solely about politics. Perhaps they’re right.
In some respects I shouldn’t be surprised, because if as a kid I struggled to understand whether or not I was doing it ‘right’, then maybe I should be a little more forgiving if younger people say they don’t connect with it.
But the most important for, despite my attempts to be objective about the act and strip away any romanticism or sentimentality, the idea that by remembering I am in the eyes of some being rather narrow-minded or ignorant makes me feel strangely humiliated. Those who dismiss the act might as well be pointing a finger at me and laughing heartily at my rather pathetic efforts at reflection. What is the alternative? To not remember? That feels even worse, as though I am doing someone I don’t know as a massive disservice.
Remembrance isn’t about the dead. We might think about them when remembering but it won’t do them any good. They’re dead. No, the point of remembering, encompassed in the poppy, is that its solely for me. Two minutes quiet meditation to reflect. It is a moment of stillness which reminds me I am a respectful person and that no matter how many years ago it was now and how distant it seems to us, those lost in war and what lead to their needless loss should be reflected upon.
That is as much a part of me as the colour of my hair or the sound of my voice. And I’m proud I make that commitment every year.