Love's As Warm As Tears

Ulster Youth Choir commemorate the outbreak of the First World War

There is little doubt that the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has received an extraordinary amount of attention in the arts and media in recent weeks.

Inevitably, a whole raft of commemorative events, religious services and television and radio programmes have stressed the elements of history, tragedy and humanity associated with the Great War. The Ulster Youth Choir’s concert in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast explores all of these aspects of the war and more, through a choral repertoire composed in response to diverse aspects of war and remembrance.

The programme includes elements of the order of the mass in Christian liturgy, beginning with a setting of the Kyrie by Jacob Obrecht, from his Missa L’homme Armé. This work, and the choir’s singing of it, establishes clearly the power of music to – in the words of the next programme note – 'transfix and transform'.

The sense of choral balance, colour and attention to harmonic detail is ever-present, whether the music consists of sinuous, intertwining lines or solid, multi-faceted chords. William Walton’s 'Where Does The Uttered Music Go?' established another of the Ulster Youth Choir’s strengths, that of superb diction.

Though texts are generally not included in the programme notes, the choir’s words are projected so clearly that any kind of transciption is not absolutely necessary – and in the rather ample space of St. Anne’s Cathedral, that is saying something.

Indeed, the famously buoyant cathedral acoustic is used to excellent effect by conductor Greg Beardsell, who allows time for choral sonorities to build and dissipate in the course of each piece. His control of the singing is concise but relaxed – the concentration of his choristers never wavering, the sound always solid.

There are wonderful solo voices deployed in some of the works. A new piece by Belfast composer David Byers, 'Strange Hells', combined choir and solo cello to very good effect. Byers chose the words of three First World War poets for this commissioned work, and his setting clearly has the vast sound of St Anne’s in mind.

Often, voices within the choir followed one another in close canon, or the cellist followed the voices. The resulting effect was one of echo upon echo, a tapestry of sound that illuminated the very contrasting texts. Cellist David McCann provided a poised and focussed counterpoint to the choir, who again were keen and clear in their words and harmonic weigh-points.

Later in the programme, Richard Rodney Bennett’s A Farewell to Arms also combined cello and choir. This nostalgic work takes the point of view of an old soldier looking back, the cello line suggestive of his thread of memory. There was again a wonderful sense of spaciousness and balance in Beardsell’s approach and the choir’s response.

St Anne’s is one of the most thrilling and humbling spaces in Belfast, full of history directly relevant to the time of events being commemorated and other moments in time. It is the Ulster Youth Choir’s programme, however, that joins up the artefacts of war and remembrance and gives them broader significance.

The final work, a change from the intended programme, is a setting of the CS Lewis poem from which the concert takes its title. This contemporary work by Paul Mealor is barely a year old, and the text explores the nature of love in all circumstances.

Again, the Ulster Youth Choir sings with mesmerising control and concentration, providing both one of the most powerful climaxes and also the softest singing of the evening. It is heartfelt and breathtaking. In August 1914, young people like these would have been preparing for war. One hundred years later, they sing about love. And for that, we can all be thankful.

Visit the Creative Centenaries website for information on First World War commemoration events taking place across Northern Ireland.