LIKE many communities up and down the country this summer, Durham has seen fit to pay tribute to the dead and wounded of the First World War. Its people have spread their net wide.
Make your way to Palace Green, in the shelter of the cathedral and its tower, and you can encounter the extensive, well laid-out exhibition “Somme 1916: From Durham to the Western Front” (until 2 October); and side by side runs a packed collection of summer talks and events: a programme that lasts till 22 August.
Durham remembers with pride the Durham Light Infantry (DLI), its county regiment, which paid not just a heavy, but a devastating price: more than half its number were killed, wounded, or missing. From a mining county, large numbers perished tunnelling deep beneath the soil and chalk of Picardy.
But the northern city and county have celebrated their fallen in a fresh, original, and richly creative way. Entitled The Durham Hymns, it united brass instruments and voices to present in the cathedral a magnum opus that approached the deprivation and ghastliness affectingly.
First, the merit of this large-scale undertaking — apart from the musical vibrancy — lay in the highly original concept. A dozen or so readings included significant extracts from letters, or memoirs, by some of those soldiers and officers. One or two others — “White Feathers”, for instance, set by the composer Jessica Curry almost as a medieval folksong — commemorated some other aspect of the war: here, the often unjustified cruel taunts meted out to those who had not signed up.
But this was a many-layered work. Each of the mostly strikingly optimistic documents — revealing the men’s courage, and their loyal determination not to scare or cause pain to their loved ones — was set to music, not in its bare, stark initial form, but in a new poem prised from the original text by the Poet Laureate, Carol Ann Duffy.
It was the craftsmanship and subtle workmanship by which she carved the texts, sometimes, but by no means always, echoing or reworking the writer’s actual words — and they way they were married to new music by two sensitive composers, Curry and Orlando Gough — which brought the poems to life. The treatments were admirably designed to cater for the talents of members of the Centenary Choir and Brass Band.
After a brief, apt contribution from Wilfred Owen (”The Send Off”: “Shall they return to beatings of great bells In wild trainloads?”) came the first of the evocative Duffy poems (”I watched love leave, turn, wave, want not to go, depart, return; late spring, a warm slow blue of air, old-new”).
The setting by Curry of another, “The Soldier’s Hymn” (in Duffy’s gripping version, “I am your father and keep you safe, though I have been to war, saddled a horse to ride through liquid mud, through fire and gas”) was teased out initially at a leisurely pace by the perceptive conductor, Alan Fernie, to marvellous effect, and then taken up with aplomb by the vital chorus as a whole.
Another movement, “Bear me up”, gained it strength from four aspects: the poetic text, which graphically evoked the DLI miners’ struggles underground: “The mine was dark, but darker is the trench No light to guide, and all around War’s stench.” Gough’s emotive music, trudging, exhausting, was rather like a plodding folksong; and featured the dark sound of low brass, fearsome and evocative.
It was the brass again, some four solo trumpets dotted around the cathedral at front and rear, which brought intensity, like a Last Post, to the next passage, “Lovely Manhood”, somewhat akin to a carol, showed the true quality of this disciplined and highly polished choir, married to superbly expressive brass.
Another, “Oranges”, describing a simple food transaction within earshot of the guns’ booming, was buoyed up by the tenor soloist Euan Williamson, and produced an effect of scintillating beauty from all Fernie’s attentive and delicately poised forces.
Williamson and the soprano Hannah Reynolds were soloists in the dark and disturbing “No Man’s Land” — in Duffy’s elegant verse, ‘For Everyman in no-man’s land, his face against the earth. Knows no-man’s land is every man’s — the grace and gift of birth.”
Perhaps most moving of all was the letter home by the DLI’s Sgt Joseph Furness, foreseeing his death and urging his young wife, in that case, to marry again without any sense of guilt. “Kiss the Bairns”, a hymn-like setting characterised by a gentle semi-chorus, made a touching envoi: “If you are weeping now forgive this sorrow’s cause in case I die, but bless these words of love, till you too die. Kiss the bairns goodbye”; together with “Last Post” — “that moment shrapnel scythed you to the stinking mud. . .” — and the bitterly ironic echo of Wilfred Owen, “Dulce — No — Decorum — no — Pro patria mori’, a negation of the whole dreadfulness of the Great War.
Often these documents are simple missives, pieced together with moving humility.
If Duffy’s poetry lent this weighty work its intense poignancy, the greatest credit should go to the performers. I am never a fan of the use of loudspeakers in choral
works, but here the effect of amplification was that one could hear lucidly just how fine, unified, and magnificently tuned the chorus’s voices (trained to this rare precision by Simon Fidler) and brass ensemble were.
This was a performance of distinction, beautifully rehearsed, superbly conducted, and magnificently played. The idea of having the profoundly impressive Centenary Brass Band perform a new work by way of a prelude, a tribute to the life and music of George Butterworth, a composer-officer killed in the war, drawing on his best-known works, but especially The Banks of Green Willow — and by implication to the entire DLI.
The composer here, Jonathan Bates, produced a work of great sensitivity, and set the tone perfectly for The Durham Hymns, those moving vocal extracts that were to follow, so as to conjure up the pain, the pathos, and, contrastingly, the optimism of those caught up in a dreadful conflict.