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Nurse’s understated memorial

23 October 2015

Garry Humphreys attends the London première of Eventide


OF THE ongoing commemorations of the First World War, nothing seems to have caught the public imagination quite so much as the centenary of the execution of Nurse Edith Cavell. Among the many events, one of the most poignant has been Eventide: In memoriam Edith Cavell, by the composer Patrick Hawes.

It was written for the Sheringham and Cromer Choral Society and Gresham’s School, Holt — reflecting Cavell’s Norfolk origins — who first performed it in Norwich Cathedral on 12 July 2014 to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the war.

Its first London performance was in St Clement Danes on the actual centenary of Cavell’s death, 12 October, and for this occasion Hawes revised it, reducing the full symphony orchestra heard at Norwich to a smaller ensemble, comprising trumpet, harp, organ, and strings.

The vocal resources, unchanged, are a solo soprano, SATB chorus — often dividing into eight parts — and a unison semi-chorus. The semi-chorus — on this occasion, the Tiffin Boys’ Choir, in a gallery above and to the left of the other performers — was responsible for singing one verse at a time of Henry Francis Lyte’s hymn "Abide with me", to William Henry Monk’s tune — now inseparable from the words — Eventide.

The hymn recurs as a leitmotif throughout the piece, sung by the boys, until near the end when the final verse is taken up by the other singers, in memory of the evening of Monday 11 October 1915, when Nurse Cavell was visited in prison by the Revd Stirling Gahan, chaplain to the British community in Brussels, and together they recited the hymn (Feature, 2 October). Reports do not say whether they sang it, but Monk’s tune had even then been associated with the words for 50 years, and would certainly have been familiar.

Around this hymn, Canon Andrew Hawes, Vicar of Edenham, in Lincolnshire, and brother of the composer, has put together a wonderful libretto, using extracts from Cavell’s letters, eyewitness reports, religious texts associated with Cavell’s imprisonment, trial, and execution, and the official declaration of sentence.

Such an inspiring text has drawn beautiful music from the composer, whose revised orchestral clothing seems to suit it very well, giving intimacy to an occasion that, when it became public knowledge, was to outrage the world, Germans included, leading to a surge of recruits in Britain under the slogan, "Remember Edith Cavell".

Patrick Hawes is proud to carry a torch for such composers as Ralph Vaughan Williams, and, indeed, the trumpet part — played by the excellent Paul Archibald — is often reminiscent of the bugle call that Vaughan Williams heard on active service in 1916, and five years later put into his Pastoral Symphony.

The music of Eventide is slow-moving and understated, but superbly judged and structured, with rhythms that reflect the ebb and flow of the words and their mood. The strings provide the foundation, the harp adds colour and light, and the trumpet evokes the atmosphere and loneliness of the battlefield.

The use of the organ is less clear. Sometimes it plays alone: there is a magical moment at the end of the Prayer of Humble Access, when it echoes a trumpet call, which in the version for full orchestra is a second trumpet. Sometimes it supports the choir. But when it appears to duplicate what the strings are playing the texture becomes thicker and less clear — though this may partly be due to the rather extraordinary surround-sound acoustic of St Clement’s.

The music for the choir is singable and yet challenging, and the Addison Singers were well-rehearsed under their conductor, David Wordsworth. But words are crucial to this work, and need to be articulated and projected much more clearly than on this occasion. This also applied to the soprano soloist, Charlotte LaThrope, who sang Cavell’s own words: her intonation was not always perfect, though she settled down as the work progressed; but some of the famous lines — "Patriotism is not enough," for instance — required more gravitas; Cavell was nothing if not a figure of authority. And there was a curious shortening of many held notes at the ends of the solo phrases, on which the surrounding instrumental parts depended.

The recognised pronunciation of Cavell’s surname has the emphasis on the first syllable; setting the declaration of sentence for the chorus, Hawes puts it firmly on the second.

The trouble with works devoted to a specific event such as Cavell’s execution is that the occasions for performing them are limited. This is a pity; for Eventide deserves many outings. Despite the appropriateness of this revised version, I’d love to hear it in its original form with full orchestra — a fine addition to a stable of works commemorating the First World War by Patrick Hawes.

This concert was part of the Brandenburg Choral Festival of London Autumn Series 2015, and the orchestra was the Brandenburg Sinfonia. The composer and librettist were in the audience.

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