The annual Remembrance Day concert presented by Chor Leoni, the celebrated Vancouver men's choir, has been a highlight of that city's musical season for 27 years.
"[It] allows us to take a day and stare the concept of war in the face," explains Erick Lichte, the choir's artistic director. "The more we contemplate the horror of war, the less we will want to wage it in the future."
This year, to mark the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I, they've got something extra-special planned: the world premiere of When There is Peace, an oratorio by Zachary Wadsworth. It's an hour-long work that traces a journey "from the horror of war, into that tenuous moment when word of the armistice first broke, and finally to the delirious ecstasy when the guns fell silent and hope bloomed once more," Lichte says.
Those unable to attend the Vancouver performances at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church (Nov. 10) and West Vancouver United Church (Nov. 11) can hear When There is Peace on a special edition of CBC Music's Choral Concert, hosted by Katherine Duncan, on Sunday, Nov. 11, at 9 a.m. (9:30 NT).
Scored for soprano and tenor soloists, men's choir, percussion and string quartet, When There is Peace is the first music to result from Wadsworth's two-year tenure as Chor Leoni's composer in residence. "He has a wonderful affinity for writing for voices," reflects Lichte, "but the rigor of his pieces goes beyond the usual scope of many choral composers. I also think all of his works have an enormous amount of humanity and heart."
Wadsworth's specialization in vocal music is tied to his earliest musical experiences, as he recently told us: "I started out singing in choirs as a child — it was my first kind of musical expression — and then pivoted into piano lessons and composition lessons after that. But all along my path of becoming a composer, I've been singing in choirs and always have loved the communities that I've been a part of in choirs."
'I always try my hardest not to look down on choral composition in general as being somehow lesser than writing orchestral or chamber music because I think the emotional impact and depth of meaning in choral music must be just as deep.' — Zachary Wadsworth
With Wadsworth onboard, Lichte enlisted theatre director and playwright Peter Rothstein to help him compile the libretto for When There is Peace. "Peter and I had collaborated on the creation of All is Calm: The Christmas Truce of 1914," Lichte explains. "I knew Peter had done an extraordinary amount of research into the First World War [and that] he would help bring some of the found texts and first-hand accounts to the piece to allow it to maintain a personal and intimate feel amidst the music and poetry."
The resulting libretto is a careful assemblage of poetry from the period — including verses by Siegfried Sassoon, Robert Service, Sara Teasdale and Ivor Gurney — as well as excerpts from soldiers' letters, all organized into four sections: Prologue, War, Armistice and Epilogue.
"Once we had the libretto set up, writing the music became very straightforward in the sense of having a direction," Wadsworth recalls. "It's a lot of work to write a through-composed piece like this. We wanted to create a sense of connectedness. A lot of these poems express the horrors of war and the experiences of people going through the war. We didn't want to create something where there would be a lot of breaks and silences and shifts. We wanted instead to create this continuous dramatic flow from the beginning to the end."
Lichte concurs: "I specifically asked Zach for no recitative. I wanted the piece to live in a more melodic place and to make sure the libretto was tight enough that it did not need recitative to move the narrative forward."
That narrative is carried by both the choir and the soloists in When There is Peace. "Choirs are excellent at expressing the large and universal ideas," notes Lichte. "Soloists are better at delivering the intimate and personal. However, I also asked Zach to explore the idea of using unison male choir singing in the piece, to allow the choir to function as an über-soloist and to show off how well Chor Leoni sings in unison. I think these unison choral moments are some of the most striking of the piece."
Another preoccupation was to avoid cliché character tropes. "We didn't want Arwen Myers, our soprano soloist, to sing texts about the girlfriend or mother waiting at home for bad news," Lichte says. "It's time we move past this kind of thinking. So, in When There is Peace, the soprano soloist actually sings the battle sequence, with text by Siegfried Sassoon. We also have the most tender moments sung by the male choir. I feel this sort of role re-imagining is going to be far more emotionally effective than had we stuck to traditional roles."
For Wadsworth, composing the music for certain texts was emotionally trying. "When the chorus sings [Francis Ledwidge's words], 'When the war is over I shall take/ my lute a-down to it and sing again/ songs of the whispering things among the break,/ and those I love shall know them by their strain' — I thought that was very heartbreaking and we have it return twice [in the piece]. That was a tricky one to write, especially where it comes in the piece: in the midst of the most horrible battling. That, to me, was one of the most emotionally raw moments."
Irish poet and soldier Francis Ledwidge served in WW I as a lance-corporal with the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers. (Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
How does Wadsworth hope the audience will experience When There is Peace?
"I really hope that people will think about the meaning of war and the meaning of our search for peace," he says. "The armistice that ended the First World War was interpreted — and in some places promised — as the ending to all war, won through such monumental loss of life. We wanted to explore the tragedy of that idea as well: that although the war ending was a good thing, what it promised to be never quite came to fruition. And so, I really hope that it will cause people not only to think about the enormous sacrifices that people from all around the world made in this war, but also the ongoing narratives that we have about winning peace through violence, and questioning those narratives."
Chor Leoni will present three performances of When There is Peace. Details below:
- Saturday, Nov. 10, at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m. at St. Andrew's-Wesley United Church.
- Sunday, Nov. 11, at 3 p.m. at West Vancouver United Church.
Chor Leoni Men's Choir
Arwen Myers, soprano
Lawrence Wiliford, tenor
Martin Fisk and Robin Reid, percussion
Borealis String Quartet
Erick Lichte, conductor