Preview: “Lest We Forget” concert by the Renaissance Choir

“Lest We Forget” is the title of the next Petersfield concert by the Renaissance Choir. It is a commemoration of the end of World War 1.

This concert provides the astonishing programming opportunity of performing works from three composers who served in their respective armies in the war: the British Army (Ralph Vaughan Williams), the French Army (André Caplet) and the German Army (Paul Hindemith). Adept programming is a mark of the choir that was recognised when the choir received its most recent award from “The News”.

The programme will also feature the written word, with poetry being read by Piers Burton-Page, a Petersfield resident and erstwhile broadcaster on BBC Radio 3.

In a change to its usual unaccompanied programmes, Vaughan Williams’ Dona Nobis Pacem will be performed along with St Peter’s organist, Mark Dancer, as well as with Cameron Todd playing trumpet and Nik Knight (timpanist).

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) wrote this work in 1936 as a response to his time in the war where he obviously experienced many traumatic events.

The work goes a long way to refute the minority view that he has little to say as a composer and that he relied too frequently on insubstantial folk melodies. This work firmly establishes his credentials as a man who can paint the full range of human emotions in his writing.

Dona Nobis Pacem is regarded as his catharsis, finally setting aside the horrors which he must have seen when acting as a stretcher-bearer in the trenches. He saw a great deal of action at the front but, despite writing many letters during this period, he kept quiet about his experiences. Dona Nobis Pacem has brutality and battle, excitement, fear, pain, courage and bravura and, finally, resolution, which is borne by a belief that the best of the human spirit and the desire for peace will prevail.

It is almost certainly also a response to a worry about war coming again, written in the year in which the Germans marched into the Rhineland and David Lloyd George visited and admired Hitler.

Poems by Walt Whitman (1819-1982) form the central texts for the work. Whitman was a pacifist who had been a nurse in the American Civil War. Vaughan Williams was an admirer of his and set his poems in many of his other pieces.

There’s a great variation of and a huge contrast in musical styles in this work. The choir moves from beautiful chamber textures and intimate sacred choral writing to a huge operatic recitative and choruses. The phrase “Dona nobis pacem” is repeated and re-framed in four different ways in the piece, underlining the composer’s deep desire for peace.

André Caplet (1878 – 1925) composed his beautiful Messe a trois voix in 1920, just a few years before he died from pleurisy in 1925 as the result of a wartime gas attack. This work is full of haunting references to the injury which had such a dramatic effect on him.

As a composer, he experimented with unusual combinations of voices and instruments, producing intriguing timbres. In the Mass, there are points where the three female voice parts produce an almost exact representation of an air-raid siren. More poignantly still is the fact that some vocal effects appear to represent the sound of gas shells, or, as Wilfred Owen put it in his poem Dulce et Decorum Est, “All went lame; all blind; Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots of gas-shells dropping softly behind.”

Paul Hindemith (1895-1963) wrote his Six Chansons in 1939. These songs are very similar in style to the music of Francis Poulenc, a composer with whom the Renaissance Choir has a particular affinity. Hindemith enlisted in the German army in 1917 but didn’t see much action because his c/o, a musician, wanted him kept safe to play in the regimental string quartet!

The Chansons use rustic poems written by Rainer Maria Rilke (1875-1926). “The Doe”, “A Swan”, “Since All is Passing”, “Springtime”, “In Winter”, and “Orchard”, were written in French, in a beautiful lyrical style.

Hindemith’s settings echo the lyricism of the poetry. They are wonderful to sing – each one is different in character and mood. You can easily see the swan gliding majestically over a glassy pond, and the doe bounding gracefully through the forest. We tend to think of Hindemith in terms of his later instrumental music, but these earlier a cappella pieces are anything but atonal.

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