MUSIC FOR ARMISTICE DAY
by Jennifer Bryce
11th November, 2018 was the centenary of the signing of the Armistice – the armistice that ended fighting in World War I between Germany and the Allies. The Armistice came into effect at 11.11am, French time on the 11th day of the 11th month. It marked a victory for the allies and defeat, although not a formal surrender, by Germany. The war was so brutal and so shattering for most of the Western world that 100 years on, it continues to be represented in all kinds of art forms.
My own writing group, Elwood Writers [https://elwoodwriters.com/ ] had provided a program of short stories and poetry, which we read on the Vision Australia radio program, Cover to Cover [https://radio.visionaustralia.org/podcasts/podcast/covertocover]. It was broadcast on Sunday 11thNovember. That day I also attended two concerts.
In the afternoon, at the Meat Market Centre, Melbourne, we heard the Australian contribution to ‘100 for 100’: a celebration of the centenary of the rebirth of a free Poland, which occurred as a result of the signing of the Armistice.
Daniel Clichy, Director and Editor-in-Chief of a publishing house that has aimed to preserve and promote Polish music over the past 100 years, explained in program notes that for this enterprise 100 works written since 1918 by Polish composers would be presented throughout the world. Concerts took place at roughly the same time in 11 venues outside of Poland: Chicago, Copenhagen, Frankfurt, London, Lviv (Ukraine), Milan, New York, Paris,Tokyo, Vienna and Melbourne, and at 11 venues within Poland. So there we were, sitting in the Meat Market Centre, participating in this celebration of Polish freedom and culture. Programs were different in the various venues, but all concerts were of Polish music composed since 1918.
We heard Contragambilles, composed in 2014 for string quartet, by Andrzej Kwieciński (1984). Program notes suggested that, for Kwieciński, instruments and performers are melded as one whole. The piece is influenced by dances of Rameau where the composer focused on the gestures of musicians as well as sounds. For Kwieciński, the program notes tell us, ‘the noise of the bow rubbing against the strings – the very techniques of sound production become music …’. At the very end of the piece, the violist threw away a tambourine he had been playing, the sound and gesture being an integral part of the music. Jagoda Szmytka’s (1982) piece, Inane Prattle was written in 2013. The piece is for solo trumpet, accompanied by flute, piccolo, transverse flute, oboe, clarinets and strings, with a tape of distorted sounds of an Arab doctor describing a skin disease –the inane prattle that surrounds us in everyday life.
We also heard Kazimierz Serocki’s (1922 – 1981) Phantasmagoria for piano and percussion, composed in 1970 – 1971, Dominik Karski’s (1972) Motion + Form, composed 2003 – Karski lives in Australia, as does Dobromiła Jaskot (1981), whose piece for two flutes, Hgrrrsht, explores the borderline between flute sounds and human voice and breath. The piece included chattering teeth and tongue clicks.
There was also a homage to Poland’s most famous (although pre 1918) composer, Chopin – Sighs, by Marcin Stańczyk (1977). The ‘sigh’ refers to the technique (not notated by Chopin but used when performing his piano music) of slowing down the tempo according to ‘the naturalness of musical phrase and gesture’ (from the concert program) – a technique known as rubato. I have recently read Paul Kildea’s Chopin’s Piano (Penguin Randon House, 2018), where, discussing performance of Chopin’s piano music, rubato is desribed: ‘the best rubato is like a golf ball hovering on the lip of a hole for that interminable moment before it tips in’ (page 263).
Whilst the horrific slaughter of World War I will not beforgotten, it was invigorating to be a part of a celebration of a positive outcome of that war and to sense that in 22 other cities, audiences were, almost at that very moment, listening to and honouring Polish music with us.
We then moved to another concert held at the Church of All Nations in Carlton, where the Arcko Symphonic Ensemble presented a concert in remembrance of 11th November 1918. I suppose 100 years ago,festivities would have focused on victory, but this concert was one of remembering.
The first item, Meditationson Der Krieg (war) was composed this year by Rohan Phillips in response to seven of fifty works created by German artist Otto Dix that captured scenes with which he was confronted as a soldier in World War I. The music was reflective and, according to program notes, almost liminal – outside of time. The next piece, for solo piano, provided a strong contrast with action and jarring rhythms. The Drumfire was Incessant, was composed in 2012 by Andrew Harrison, after reading an account of the Battle of Pozières, in which his great-great uncle was wounded. Helen Gifford composed Menin Gate, also for solo piano, in 2005. The Gate, in Belgium, is a tribute to the 350,000 allied soldiers who died in battles fought at Ypres. The program notes include Siegfried Sassoon’s reference to ‘The unheroic dead who fed the guns’.
The two pieces for solo piano were followed by another by Andrew Harrison for soprano, tenor and chamber orchestra, If Not In This World, composed this year. This was like a miniature opera based on letters written by relatives of the composer: Leslie, a young farm labourer, describes his experience in the trenches while trying to placate his mother’s anxiety ending, ‘Till we meet again, if not in this world, in the next’. Leslie was killed. His voice is contrasted with the authority of correspondence from the Australian War Office, and his mother’s pleading for them to find a good luck ring she had given her son. Not surprisingly, the ring is never found and she is left, a broken-hearted lonely mother. As the composer states in the program notes, ‘The end of the war did not bring closure, but opened up a gaping wound that tore at the internal fabric of society…’ The text is framed by three short instrumental ‘laments’.
The final item in the concert was a poetry reading of excerpts from Frederick Phillips’s An English Vision of Empire (1919). The poet was the grandfather of Arcko’s founder and conductor, Timothy Phillips. Frederick Phillips, like so many WWI soldiers, returned with shell-shock or what we now call Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and after many years of suffering ultimately killed himself. As the program notes say, ‘His story and the poem stand as a testament to the long reaching shadow that war casts over people’s lives.’
People left the concert quietly, probably many, like me, poignantly aware of that long reaching shadow.