Absent Voices #4: Giving Voice to the Dead and the Non-living: Music and Collaboration on the Battle of Vimy Ridge

Canadian National Vimy Memorial in Northern France. Designed by Walter Seymour. Completed in 1936.

In early April, Canada will mark the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge: a seminal conflict in the First World War, relying on the successful collaboration of British and Canadian forces on the French battleground, and which was to be the first true moment of nationhood for the infant Canada. Indeed, the battle was hugely successful in military terms, which saw the soldiers retake the ridge from German forces in three days. But lest we forget, such success also inevitably relies on the deaths of thousands.

To that end, let us also consider the Vimy Memorial: a monolithic, modernist construction unveiled in 1936, comprised of two stone pillars jutting up from the battleground at Vimy. It is grand, imposing; the structure dominates the ridge and peers over the picturesque French landscape below. Around the base of the structure, some 11,000 names are engraved: the dead Canadian soldiers whose locations remain unknown. However, in a startling juxtaposition of style and form, the pillars are inlaid with twenty neoclassical statues, each variously personifying virtues, symbols, people, and tableaux. At the base of the memorial, Mother Canada (both a personification of the nation and a symbolic Mater Dolorosa), looks despondently upon the now-peaceful ridge, still scarred by this century-old battle.

What, then, is my stake in all of this? This is my cultural heritage as a Canadian, a major part of our collective national identity. Although we live in relative peace, I am far from home, and I can imagine the fear and trepidation of those soldiers: a world in turmoil; Canada a distant memory; fighting a battle that’s not their own. As a composer, my only option is to honour their memory through music.

Last summer, I was fortunate enough to receive a commission from the John Armitage Memorial (a new music charity in Kent) and Pro Coro (one of the premiere professional choirs in Canada). The task: to collaborate on a new work for choir and cello, commemorating the centenary of the Battle of Vimy Ridge. Indeed, like the battle itself, this project involves a Canadian-British collaboration between myself, Scottish composer Tom Harrold, and Welsh poet Grahame Davies. In November, we chose to travel together to the Vimy Memorial in France, to see first-hand the gravity of our subject matter. For me, it was truly an emotional experience. The memorial itself is powerful, and the parkland contains several graveyards of Canadian soldiers, the tombstones each engraved with mournful epitaphs and biblical allusions. The sorrow is all-encompassing.

Names of 11,000 fallen soldiers engraved at the monument’s base.

Shortly after, Grahame had finished his text: ‘Voices of Vimy’, a complex tripartite poem which combines references to gravestone epitaphs, popular song, war tactics, and the verbalized grief of the dead soldiers’ families. In the virtuosic middle section, Grahame gives literal voice and agency to each of the twenty statues on the Vimy Memorial, culminating in a statement of Canadian identity: ‘Kindness, compassion, courage, Canada.’

Herein lies the challenge: as Tom and I now embark on the task of setting Grahame’s text to music, how does one give voice to the dead and the non-living? How does the cello (a solo interloper to the communal choir) affect or contribute to the dialogue? Should we be trying to exert our own agency in the music, or attempting some form of imitative post-mortem?

These are questions I continue to address in the act of composition – but I’m not convinced any of them have a definite answer. My portion of the music is only half-done and many challenges still lie ahead for me, but as a form of conclusion to this little essay, please consider the following two pages: on the first, a lullaby for the soldiers, followed by a dissonant trio, both giving voice to the mothers of the deceased; on the second, a quiet statement of Canadian identity, coloured by a swirling cello line ascending into the heavens. So then: whose voice is this? I’ve clearly exerted my own agency over these voices, but do we still hear faint murmurs of the dead?

Excerpt #1: Music ©2017 by Stuart Beatch. Text ©2016 by Grahame Davies. Used with Permission.
Excerpt #2: Music ©2017 by Stuart Beatch. Text ©2016 by Grahame Davies. Used with Permission.

 


Stuart Beatch is a Canadian composer, currently completing a master’s degree in composition at King’s College London. With a focus on the choral arts, his music has been performed by vocal and instrumental ensembles across Canada and the UK. To find out more about Stuart’s music, visit his website stuartbeatch.com or follow him on Twitter @beatchmusic.

His collaborative project with Tom Harrold and Grahame Davies, ‘Voices of Vimy’, will be premiered by the BBC Singers and cellist Jamie Walton on 15 July 2017 as part of the JAM on the Marsh Festival; Pro Coro Canada will present the Canadian premiere on 12 November 2017. For more information, please visit jamconcert.org and procoro.ca.

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