Remembering the Somme

I’ve always had what I thought was a weird fascination with acts of remembrance.

Early on I assumed I was drawn to the theatre of death. That may well have had something to do with school chapel choir: all the swishing gowns, the heads hung low, everyone striving for stoicism.

It’s only recently I’ve come to see those acts of school-time acts of remembrance for what they were: educational. From an early age, the Sunday morning church services, the gathering around the memorial, and the wreaths were in fact fulfilling a need I hadn’t acknowledged as a teenager.

It’s obvious to me now. Remembrance and, in particular, those occasions when two minutes silence are observed, offer a collective moment to gain private perspective.

These special moments that have, as far as I can make out, arisen because of the carnage of the First World War, and the trauma it inflicted on the families waiting for their loved ones to return.

But as the years pass so it becomes more and more difficult to find the triggers that help those reflective moments mean something. As a teenager, it was the music of remembrance. John Ireland’s Greater Love Hath No Man still transports me. Good or bad, John Rutter’s Requiem is, as a result of numerous school events, inextricably linked with Remembrance Sunday. All bronzed autumn leaves, a stiff wind, and the threat of rain.

Today marks the centenary since the start of the Battle of the Somme. Two minutes silence at 7.28am and a day of commemorative events in France and the UK. I’m embarrassed to say that work got in the way. Proceedings played out on screens all around me at work, but I didn’t once look at what was going on. Present-day self-inflicted dramas seem to be dominating my thinking. Forgivable, I think.

I suspect I’d prefer to commit to remembering the terrifying loss of life when we commemorate its end. Marking the moment it started brushes up a little too close to a celebration. No one was triumphant. The Somme was folly. Arrogance masquerading  as strategy. Some things haven’t changed.

Britten’s War Requiem – a commission for the opening of Coventry Cathedral  in the 1962 – combines poetry by WW1 poet Wilfred Owen with the Latin Requiem Mass. It is a stunning creation: an unequivocal statement of Britten’s pacifism that still conveys the futility of war in our information-saturated present day world as being reminded of the total number of lives lost – 310,486.

Britten’s seminal work has been lacking from today’s events. Maybe that’s not surprising. The timing may not be right. Might we see it at the end of the 1914-1918 centenary. I hope so.

In the meantime, this performance, of the Britten’s Lacrimosa recorded at the Royal Albert Hall ad broadcast on BBC Two in 1993, featuring soprano Makvala Kasrashvili and Anthony Rolfe Johnson, helps.

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