The Symphony commemorates the centenary of the end of the War to End All Wars, and honours all those who have been impacted by conflicts and peacekeeping efforts across time, on the homefront and on the front lines.
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Series 2 – Salute
Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) composed Wellington’s Victory, Op. 91 between August and October 1813 as a commemoration of the Battle of Vitoria that occurred in Spain earlier that year. On June 21, the Duke of Wellington and the British army were victorious over Joseph Bonaparte and the French which led to eventual victory in the Peninsular War of 1807-1814.
The piece was originally composed at the request of Johann Maelzel who famously patented the metronome and wanted a piece for his other, less famous invention, the ‘panharmonicon’. This unusual mechanical organ was capable of playing and imitating many wind and percussion instruments. Beethoven’s composition grew out of proportion to the capabilities of Maelzel’s panharmonicon and so he orchestrated it for a conventional, although novel, ensemble.
The music and division of instruments is intended to depict the opposing British and French armies at war. ‘Battle music’ such as this was relatively common at the time and the style was known to have dated back to the Baroque era. In Wellington’s Victory quotations of popular tunes such as Rule Britannia and God Save the King are used for the British forces, and Marlbrough s’en va-t-en guerre (also known as For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow) is used for the French.
Musical representations of the scenes of war include drums, marching, gunfire, cannons and the piece eventually comes to an end with the defeat of the French who slink off the battlefield to the sounds of their chosen song. This is followed by a victorious celebration by the British. The fifteen-minute piece was premiered and conducted by Beethoven in Vienna on December 8, 1813 at a benefit concert for wounded soldiers. This program also saw the premiere of his Symphony No. 7 and a piece for another of Maelzel’s curious contraptions, a mechanical trumpet.
Le Tombeau de Couperin was composed by Maurice Ravel (1875-1937) as a suite for solo piano between 1914 and 1917. It was premiered at the Salle Gaveau in Paris on April 11, 1919 and orchestrated for multiple instruments later that year. A tombeau was a piece of music common in France at the time, usually composed in the memory of a deceased colleague or teacher. Ravel began the piece as an homage to the music of the era of François Couperin and designed each movement to highlight stylistic features of eighteenth-century composition.
This plan changed drastically after Ravel returned from serving in the first World War. Initially considered too small and frail to join the army, Ravel eventually followed his brother’s enlistment and was hired as a truck driver and nurse’s aide. During this time, he wrote to a student that he had begun composing Le Tombeau in the style of the Baroque. War took its toll on Ravel and after falling into ill health made worse by the death of his mother, he was discharged.
Once home, he continued composing the suite but now changed his approach and reimagined the piece as a memorial to those who were lost in the war. Ravel dedicated each of the six movements to a friend who had died. As a war memorial, the piece has been notable in its lack of sadness and melancholy. It evokes happier memories and honours its subjects rather than focusing on the tragedy. Ravel is known to have commented that, “the dead are sad enough in their eternal silence.”
The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace was commissioned for the British Royal Armouries millennium celebration concert. It was intended both as a reflection on the most violent century humankind has ever known and also a message of hope and peace for the future. The texts were selected from numerous and diverse sources by composer Karl Jenkins (b. 1944) and Guy Wilson, the Master of the Royal Armouries. Lyrics were gathered from Bible verse, classical poetry, folk song, as well as Japanese, Hindu and Muslim texts. The structure of the piece imitates the Catholic Mass and was dedicated to the victims of the war in Kosovo which was ongoing at the time.
Jenkins opens the mass with a fifteenth-century French folk song, L’Homme Armé, whose lyrics describe the fear elicited by one who is armed. This is followed by the ‘Call to Prayers’, which features lyrics in Arabic traditionally sung from the minaret of a mosque. Next is the ‘Kyrie’, which would normally open a mass, and ‘Save Me from Bloody Men’, which takes its text from the book of Psalms and is sung in a style reminiscent of Gregorian Chant.
The drums of ‘Sanctus’ give us a foreboding sense of the approach of war, and the lyrics for ‘Hymn Before Action’, which depicts soldiers singing and preparing for battle, comes from Rudyard Kipling’s 1896 poem of the same name. ‘Charge!’ includes lyrics from John Dryden’s Ode for St. Cecilia’s Day, which is interrupted by the words, ‘How blest is he who for his country dies,’ – a call to arms by the ancient Roman poet Horace as translated by Jonathan Swift.
Screams of the dying and injured are heard and then a heavy silence is interrupted by a solo trumpet playing The Last Post. The text of ‘Angry Flames’ comes from a poem written by Toge Sankichi, a survivor of the Hiroshima atomic bomb strike. This is followed by ‘Torches’, which is taken from the Mahàbhàrata, a Hindu epic, and shows us the tragic fate of animals caught in the flames of battle. Hope and peace slowly begin to emerge in the ‘Agnus Dei’ and ‘Now the Guns have Stopped’, a poem written by Guy Wilson describing the guilt felt by survivors of the First World War.
The last two movements continue this message of peace and feature lyrics from Thomas Mallory, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and the Book of Revelation. The last movement is briefly broken by an ominous return of the initial theme from L’Homme Armé illuminating the ever-present possibility of a return to war and the cyclical nature of our history.