Co-commissioned by Aldebugh Music and 14-18 NOW: WW1 Centenary Art Commissions, supported by the National Lottery through the Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England and by the Department for Culture Media and Sport.
First performed at the Snape Maltings Concert Hall, on 17th June 2016 by the BBC Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Oliver Knussen.
...the ghost legions (D.H.Lawrence)
...oh death where is thy sting-a-ling-a-ling? (The Bells of Hell, anon. - quoting from 1 Corinthians 15:55)
...nothing but the mist and the snow and the silence of death (Helen Thomas).
It opens with an 8-note motif. In musical ‘set theory’ terms (where C=0, C#=1, D=2 and so on up the chromatic scale) the opening C#-A-C#-F# ‘spells’ the year 1916; the answering phrase C#-A-C#-G#, 1918. The motif recurs at key moments whilst the resultant F# minor tonality vaguely recalls Haydn’s Farewell Symphony. The crux of the piece however is an extended oboe melody which is based on the rising sixth interval found in many recruitment songs of the time;‘Good-bye-ee!’ being a particularly apposite example. This wends its way through the rest of the woodwind section but is eventually supplanted by an increasingly agitated sound world and disappears, only to be returned like a memory to the oboe at the very end of the piece. Other contemporaneous popular songs are dotted around the score; ‘found objects’ that lie like the war dead, splintered and mutilated across the aural landscape.
The orchestra is slightly smaller than that deployed by Berg in his Drei Orchesterstücke Op.6 but large never the less: 17 woodwinds including a contrabass clarinet, 13 brass, 4 percussion, timpani, 2 harps, piano/celesta and strings. Berg is acknowledged in two other ways: his obsession with the number 23 is reflected in my piece’s being 184 (23x23) bars long and in my decision only to use those instruments (and mutes) that would have been familiar to Berg (which thankfully includes the vibraphone!).
Rifleman Joseph William Stock, known as Willie (12th Battalion - King’s Royal Rifle Corps) died aged 25 on 2nd April 1918 after being shot by a sniper during the 2nd Battle of The Somme. He had enlisted three years earlier and had made it through the 1st Battle of The Somme (1916). His war diaries reveal a highly literate, conscientious, teetotal soldier with beautiful handwriting. The sole surviving photo shows a fresh faced, good looking young man, full of life and promise. Like hundreds of thousands of others then (and since), his life was summarily snuffed out. He is the ‘unknown soldier’ I’ve chosen to memorialise because he was my uncle.
Programme note © 2016 Gary Carpenter