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Fresh terror sirens’ moaning heralds

by
11 October 2013

Roderic Dunnett hears the new Blitz Requiem

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THE London Blitz, commemorated in a thrilling new choral work by the organist and composer David Goode, spanned some nine months, from early September 1940 to May 1941. The bombing of Coventry and other cities such as Birmingham, Plymouth, and Bristol was fitted in between. The iconic photo of St Paul's bestriding London burning dates from December 1940.

But the raids did not stop after that: Salford, Manchester, and Liverpool were attacked, as were Scotland's cities and the southern ports. London had a second and then a third drubbing, from Wernher von Braun's V1s, "doodlebugs", and then the V2s, rockets that pre-empted the NASA and Soviet space progammes.

Now David Hill has directed the 180-plus-strong Bach Choir, nearing its 140th year, in a work by an exemplary musician. Goode (born 1971) is a celebrated recitalist and a former organ scholar, under Nicholas Cleobury, of King's College, Cambridge. He is currently director of organ teaching at Eton College, which, under Ralph Allwood, is top of the league for music-teaching.

This work is exemplary: it has a warmly conceived, well-mapped score - all the link passages delivered by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were shiveringly expressive - and a profoundly evocative text by Francis Warner (b. 1937). Blitz Requiem does more than shiver the timbers: it melts the heart.

Let me cite an example. Warner, like many others who were boys and girls at the time, recalls living in terror of being wiped out overnight. In the poem and his introduction, he cites two instances when the Luftwaffe bombed - by design or accident, possibly disposing of a redundant bomb-load - schools in Petworth and Catford. The latter, in south-east London, was also machine-gunned, like the retreating combatants at Dunkirk. At the sites, some 76 staff and children were left dead, including the Petworth school's headmaster.

Goering's pilots were also victims in their way. Like ours, they were little more than boys, young men fresh out of the sixth form. "And small boys look up in wonder As one youth explodes in fire, And another flying higher Mushrooms down from funeral pyre." This is pure Wilfred Owen. Our killers might have been our friends. Had not fate accorded them a fiery end, they might have lived to be respected seniors in Angela Merkel's Germany.

Warner's words are not as perfected as Owen's or Seamus Heaney's, or as finessed as those of a similar nostalgic elegy, The Bargee's Wife, introduced at Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester this year. But his imagery hits the nail on the head.

It takes quite some music to match and convey this. With perhaps two exceptions, David Goode's music is wholly up to the task. He incorporates the requiem mass, or part of it, as other recent composers have done, to salient effect.

The richness of this score is too extensive to encapsulate here. All of Hill's soloists - Emma Tring, Susanna Spicer, Matthew Long, and Robert Davies - were well up to the mark at filling the vast space of St Paul's.

Goode's score, by design or not, echoed aspects of the first half: the descending bells of Arvo Pärt's 1977 lament for Britten; the wonderful instrumental semichoruses of Vaughan Williams's Phrygian-imbued Tallis Fantasia, with staggering viola solo from the small ensemble, and leader's violin solo from the main orchestra; or the Sibelian mystery and haunting pizzicati of Vaughan Williams's Towards the Unknown Region - there's something of all this in Goode's music, and the range here gives an idea of the rich variety and huge intelligence of his writing.

So there is isolated yearning (Warner's Absolve - Deliver us - appeal preceding the Kyrie, and yielding to Gerontius-like passion); a splendid battering, not overdone, to emphasise the Dies Irae's rat-a-tat effect ("What fresh terror sirens' moaning Heralds?": this echoes both Dvořak and Verdi); and a mother's agony (she gives birth under a table, just as Warner's mother gave birth to his younger brother Martin: evidence of how well autobiography sits here with universality).

There was also the musical teasing out of an almost Dantean terza rima: "On the playground; pencils scattered, Homework, little things that mattered Like these bodies shrapnel-shattered."

I found the rather dutiful scherzo (Sanctus) that followed less apt, despite lovely hints of Copland and something that sounded fabulously like soft organ bombarde (the excellent Philip Scriven, formerly of Lichfield Cathedral); and the ensuing, slightly "pi" Responsorium felt a little functional and hasty.

But there were parallels with Whitman in the verse, and not so much French as Brittenesque Impressionism (Les Illuminations) later on. With whispers of Duruflé or Frank Martin to boot, and some exquisite paired flutes from Emer McDonough and Helen Keen (just one of countless instrumental touches - violas and cellos followed - in this beautifully turned music), to the final "Shine and deliver", this was a rich hinterland of intense warmth.

Blitz Requiem could have been sentimental, crowd-pleasing, and trite. It is no such thing. This is a major work from an exciting composer.

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