deathAt the Oxford Bach Choir we’ve been rehearsing this nine movement, 50 minute long choral work since mid-January. But it’s often only at our mid-term longer Saturday daytime rehearsal that the music we are working on really starts to come into focus. That was the case this week when composer Jonathan Dove joined us for the day – he not only listened to and commented on our singing, but participated as well – singing the solo parts and playing the piano accompaniment during sectionals. For an Unknown Soldier was first performed on November 9 last year in Portsmouth Cathedral, followed by a repeat the following week in Croydon, both times conducted by the OBC’s principal conductor Nicholas Cleobury.  Our performance will take place at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford on Saturday March 14 when we’ll also be singing Mozart’s Mass in C Minor.

At the rehearsal Dove told us that he likes to think of himself as “a storyteller,” and the work uses a sequence of poems telling the story of what might have been just one soldier’s war – from the initial enthusiasm to enlist through to realization of the horror of war, death, and the bereavement of those left behind. Any composer choosing war as a theme has to negotiate around the overwhelming example of Britten’s War Requiem.  Dove deals with this by setting much less familiar poems of the  First World War, some by poets killed in action, and some by poets who survived.  Among them are those that Robert Graves identified (in Goodbye to All That) as “the three poets of importance killed during the war” – Wilfred Owen, Isaac Rosenberg and Charles Hamilton Sorley.

Two movements in particular have started to stand out for me as I become more familiar with the music. The third movement sets Jessie Pope’s The Call alongside Sorley’s All the Hills and Vales Along. The Call is a patriotic jingle first published in the Daily Mail, echoing then popular sentiments– and sung here by a children’s choir, as if chanting the lines in the playground. This innocence is set against the Sorley poem, which describes men singing as they march to their deaths – all to an accompaniment that sounds like bullets ricocheting. The sixth movement is surely the centerpiece of the whole work, setting the extraordinary poem Dead Man’s Dump by Rosenberg (unknown to me until now). It’s full of harrowing war images.  Here the four choral voices are locked together in jagged and dramatic homophony, with interjections from the tenor soloist.

We’ve still work to do before we reach performance standard, namely the mastering of the technical difficulties so that we can start getting the emotion across. “I can still hear the counting” said Dove as we sang through a particularly fiendish passage of alternating 5/4, 7/4 and 3/2 bars. But we’ll get there.  There are no recordings as yet, but I think this piece will prove to be popular with choral societies in the future.  Come to the concert if you can.

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