We have now had the finale of WW1 memories and studies with this Sunday, Nov 11th. It has been a long four years and I suspect that most of us will have learnt a lot – when we were at school the C20th was ongoing and not on the curriculum, so what we learnt – of both wars – came from what we saw or heard from the people we knew – and what a lot was not spoken of. Many of us read the War Poets at school, and graduated from the romanticism of Rupert Brooke to the realism and despair of Owen, Graves and Sassoon. This should have coloured all subsequent thinking on the subject of war, how to remember it and what its legacy should be – peace and an understanding of the trauma still being suffered in ongoing conflicts.
On the whole it has. Cenotaph and Memorial ceremonies are rightly solemn occasions and Remembrance is no longer just about patriotism and glory. I think the most moving occasions I have seen have been the film ‘They shall not grow old’ and ‘The last Tommies’ – both of which have relied almost entirely on archive footage and testimony from men of all ranks who were actually there, showing the full gamut of emotions from initial excitement and sense of adventure to horror, exhaustion and fear for the future. Both concentrate, for historical reasons on soldiers from Britain, though one would now look for coverage of the other nationalities that took part. When we visited the Somme area we went to German cemeteries as well as allied ones – they seem neglected and gloomy by comparison but like ours have graves of all those involved – including many Jews.
I also heard the broadcast service from Westminster Abbey on Sunday evening and was so impressed that this was shared – as was the Cenotaph – with the German President. It was not just our war. Looking at the order of service, two quotations struck me particularly: Winston Churchill in an particularly thoughtful piece: ‘The nations who have drawn the sword in the cause of right and justice, who have persevered together through all the vicissitudes of this fearful journey, …… have now become responsible under Providence for the immediate future of the world’. And a Canadian officer to his wife: In the Army (the peace) will be taken very quietly.’ – War had become a way of life. Men who had had no other career, and who were not sure they would ever have one ….could be bereft without war’s intensity. (Sir Hew Strachan). Messages of great relevance – may they be borne in mind and not just now.
I also spent time in the Bowes Museum exhibition, which focuses on local material from WW1. This is beautifully curated, small and comprehensible. Do go and see it.
As a conclusion to the commemorations, the Concert by Barnard Castle School Choral Society on Sunday evening was hugely impressive. Elgar’s ‘The Spirit of England’ is a powerful work, dramatic and incorporating a great deal of brass in the orchestra. It is certainly less grandiose and less nationalistic than his earlier works such as Pomp and Circumstance, but as he himself said, was dedicated to ‘the memory of our glorious men’. The poems he set are by Laurence Binyon and were written relatively early in the war so concentrate on ‘our glorious dead’ rather than the horrors of the trenches.
After the interval, with a reduced orchestra but with unusually strong use of timpani, we had Haydn’s Missa in Tempore Belli. This is beautiful and demonstrates a much greater range of tempo and poignancy than the Elgar. Both works showed the Choral Society to good advantage and also the power and range of Philippa Dearsley, the Soprano Soloist.
It was a fitting end to a hundred long years.
Simon Dearsley, the Director of Music, appears to have widened the scope and ambition of those under his command and we can look forward to The Messiah in December under his baton, and further inspiration in the future.