A Classical Response to War

Philip Shields examines the Mornington Singers' 'Responses to War' programme

Dublin-based chamber choir the Mornington Singers are currently preparing a programme on the theme of ‘Responses to War’. The works presented represent war indirectly: Francis Poulenc’s Un soir de neige, Benjamin Britten’s Hymn to St Cecilia and CH Parry’s Songs of Farewell. Only Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time deals directly with events leading towards the second world war.

The composers in the 'Response to War' programme - mostly of a generation active in the inter-war period - responded in individual ways: Britten and Tippett were avowedly pacifist, with Tippett in fact being jailed because, as a conscientious objector, he refused even to take on non-combatant duties. Britten did, however show considerable political naivety in accepting a commission from the Japanese government, then engaged in imperial aggrandisement, to celebrate the 2,600th anniversary of its empire. Tippett

Poulenc was not active in the resistance, but his setting of Paul Éluard’s poems in La Figure Humaine became something of an anthem for the resistance movement. Parry was a founder of the Music in Wartime committee in 1914, but at the same time urged his students not to enlist, maintaining that they could better serve the nation as musicians at home.

Similarly, when WH Auden, who collaborated with Britten on the Hymn to St Cecilia, decided to participate actively in the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Britten tried to dissuade him, arguing that 'what the Spanish government might gain by joining is nothing compared to the world’s gain by his continuing to write'.

Parry was part of a generation that included Stanford and later Elgar that saw a renaissance in English music. In 1966, Arnold Whittall was able to claim Parry as 'dull and dated 50 years after his death'. However, in recent years his critical reputation has been reassessed, and his works constitute a central part of the choral repertoire.

Parry’s Songs of Farewell are seen as having a personal valedictory character: an easy assumption to make given that Parry was suffering serious and burgeoning health problems during their composition, and that he died shortly after their completion. Composed during the 1914-18 war, they hailed a country where 'above noise and danger', peace reigns supreme.

Poulenc’s music has been characterised as displaying two sharply divergent characteristics: the first frivolous, light-hearted and hedonistic, the second darker and more serious, linked closely to his profound Catholic faith.

Francis PoulencUn soir de neige belongs to the second category. This short chamber cantata for 6-part choir is part of a long and fruitful collaboration between the surrealist Paul Éluard and Poulenc. Written mostly on Christmas Day 1944, it reflects what the American scholar Keith Daniel describes as ‘both the inner feeling of peace generated by Christmas and the bleak solitude of another winter of occupation in France’.

The musical language is a mixture of archaic modalism and lush harmony, not unlike Debussy’s Trois chants de Charles d’Orléans.

Britten wrote the Hymn to St Cecilia in 1942 on his journey back to England from the United States. The text was from Auden’s 'Anthem for St Cecilia’s Day', which the poet had dedicated to Britten as a kind of birthday gift (Britten was born on 22 November, St. Cecilia’s day). The work is partly mindful of Dryden’s 1687 poem 'A Song for St Cecilia’s Day'. But while Dryden’s text culminates in an apocalyptic vision in which 'Music shall untune the sky', Auden’s work sees music as invoking and ultimately overcoming the longing for pre-lapsarian innocence.

Britten’s setting is masterly. The gentle swinging tempo of the opening passage is reprised at the end, and throughout, as a continual invocation to Cecilia, on the words 'Blessed Cecilia'. Her music encompasses all of existence, not just celestial regions, but down to Hell’s abyss, which Britten underlines by a startling change in key. 

In November 1938, Herschel Grynszpan, a young Polish Jew, called at the German Embassy in Paris and shot a German official, Ernst vom Rath, who died a few days later. The Nazis took this episode as a pretext to launch the savage pogrom against the Jews in Germany and Austria, known as Kristallnacht. These events were the starting point for Tippett’s oratorio A Child of Our Time, which he wrote between 1939 and 1941, commencing composition precisely when the war began.

Tippett intended the Negro spirituals within the oratorio to be the modernHubert Parry day equivalent of Lutheran chorales in Bach’s passions, hoping they would function as periods of reflection in contrast to the surrounding dramatic context. The musical treatment takes them quite far away from their original style: this is really 'composed-out' music, not mere pastiche. An original and striking vocal orchestration is provided by the division between the semi-chorus and a double choir, with octave doubling between parts appearing frequently.

Many 20th century musical works stand as worthy monuments to the experience of war. Britten’s War Requiem, Messiaen’s Quatuor pour le fin de temps, Shostakovich’s Leningrad Symphony. However, sometimes composers’ incidental works and casual statements are just as revealing.

Stravinsky wrote in 1914: 'Lord, what a terrible and at the same time magnificent period we are living through… my hatred for the Germans grows not by the day but by the hour.' His Souvenir d’un marche boche, composed in 1916, provided heavy-handed mockery of everything Teutonic, including a caricature of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. Clearly for some composers, war was as much about cultural dominance and conflict as well as borders and political hegemony.

In contrast, Parry and others had hoped a Renaissance in English music would draw inspiration from Germany’s artistic civilisation. The outbreak of the war in 1914 seemed to halt this, and the critic Ernest Newman expressed the fear that war would produce a retreat into a cultural Little England, with a 'small music' based on a narrow nationalism and provincialism: a fear which proved unfounded.

The Mornington Singers perform in St George’s Church, Belfast, at 8pm on Saturday, December 8. Admission £10/£8 concessions.