Yesterday’s RBA concert was titled Celebrating the Invictus Games. Now the Invictus Games is a sporting competition for athletes disabled on military service. It has royal patronage and has clearly become part of the official pageantry of celebrating all things military, as witnessed by the presence of the Lieutenant Governors of Ontario and Alberta at yesterday’s concert. For me it raises all kinds of questions about why we put the military on a pedestal and how we do it and that is very tied up with the choice of rep at a concert like yesterdays. I’ll come back to that at the end of this piece, after reviewing what we actually heard.
First up were Simone McIntosh and Rachael Kerr with Rebecca Clarke’s not so well known setting of the Salley Gardens. This was nicely done. It’s, I think, trickier than the better known Britten setting with piano and voice less integrated. It brought some thoughtful playing from Rachel and showed that Simone is a competent technician as well as an entertainer. Next Samuel Chan and Rachael gave us Butterworth’s Housman setting The Lads in their Hundreds. Later they would be back with Is My Team Ploughing? I guess these songs are a kind of rite of passage for any British or Canadian baritone and here they were given the kind of text sensitive and lyrical treatment that canon demands. Really quite impressive.
Weill’s setting of Whitman’s Beat! Beat! Drums perhaps lacks the sting of his German work but it was probably the nearest thing to irony on show. Sam Pickett’s penetrating voice and dramatic attack suited this well. Stéphane Mayer, at the piano, once more surprised me with the range of colours he can get from the instrument.
There was Ives. Megan Quick sang Tom Sails Away and there was a very clever arrangement for three voices (both Sams and Megan) and three hands of He is There! I wish I could bring myself to believe that these songs are ironic but I hear nothing in the music the contradicts the appalling texts. Still the arrangement was neat and performed with aplomb. I almost enjoyed it.
Dominick Argento’s War (June, 1940) was performed with appropriate intensity by Simone and Rachael. Here, at last, was a piece that actually seemed to see war as regrettable. There’s an unsentimentality reminiscent of Keith Douglas here. And so it went on through a bit of Cancon, some more or less sentimental texts and more English pastoral (Finzi/Hardy Channel Firing).
I have to say that the material chosen for this concert brought out the best in the singers and pianists performing and it was a very classy job. But why this material and what was “the message”?
I think there are two problems involved in curating a concert around the theme of the sacrifices that people make in war. One is to achieve an appropriate tone; giving thanks to those who risked and sacrificed, regret at the waste, repulsion at the sheer horror of modern war. All these I think are entirely legit. The challenge is to do this without glorifying warfare itself or buying into the more laughable aspects of wartime propaganda. The second problem is that there just isn’t much directly relevant material to choose from. And much that is is horrible!
There are, as best I can tell, no song settings of Owen or Sassoon (Britten’s War Requiem aside). Still less of Rosenberg or Keith Douglas or Gavin Ewart or Randall Jarrell. Nothing, in fact, that is redolent of the smell of blood or burnt flesh or disembowelled horses. So one must fall back on what there is and the answer seems to be a mixture of WWI propaganda inflected material (Ives) and early 20th century English pastoralism. The association of the latter with WW1 (or war at all) is really odd. What have Butterworth’s settings of Housman or Finzi’s of Hardy to do with war, or sacrifice, or courage? In both cases they involve composers drawing on a lyrical/pastoral tradition to set words by poets who fetishize death in all its myriad forms. And in both cases text and music substantially predate WW1 and any of the ideas of modern war that it conjures up.
It’s easy, of course, to slip into a pattern of repeating how things have been done before without thinking too deeply about it. It’s only occasionally that we get serious and ask whether our assumptions need to be challenged (the recent debates around Louis Riel at the COC being a good example of what can and should happen). Maybe we need to have those kind of conversations about how we deal with issues of war and the military?
I’m going to leave the last word to Keith Douglas and ask why does no-one set texts like this? Here’s the last stanza of Cairo Jag.
But by a day’s travelling you reach a new world
the vegetation is of iron
dead tanks, gun barrels split like celery
the metal brambles have no flowers or berries
and there are all sorts of manure, you can imagine
the dead themselves, their boots, clothes and possessions
clinging to the ground, a man with no head
has a packet of chocolate and a souvenir of Tripoli.
Illustration: Keith Douglas