Review by Judith Caldwell
A World War I Centenary concert was presented by the Bach Elgar Choir on with soloists Cassandra Warner, mezzo-soprano, and baritone Alexander Dobson. The concert was inspired by McMaster University’s archive of Canadian material from the era including letters written by soldiers and replies , plus a selection of Canadian music published during the war. The first half of the concert featured sheet music from the McMaster collection.
In 1914, before the advent of radio or television in homes, ordinary people would buy the sheet music of popular songs to take home and play on the piano (in nearly every home) and sing along with the family.
Although this music was played by amateurs, it was often quite sophisticated with thoughtful and witty lyrics. The songs were skillfully arranged by choir master Alexander Cann to expand them to the choral format. The choir was piped into the church by piper Philip Farauto playing ‘The Somme’, then they sang a couple of cheerful, upbeat recruiting marches expressing Canada’s patriotic solidarity with Britain. Between each of the songs in the first half Dobson read excepts from letters of soldiers and from the home front.
We learned that the 27,892 pairs of socks knitted in and sent from Hamilton were most gratefully received and appreciated. While Dobson read in the first half, Warner sang the solo in the sweet and appealing ‘Your King and Country Want You’ and the beautiful lament ‘Take Me Back to Old Ontario’ (and lay me by my father’s side). About the time of Vimy Ridge a song about the ‘lost finest pal’ lying in a hero’s grave was called ‘His Name’s on the Roll of Honour’ – reality is beginning to replace the earlier optimism.
The first half wrapped with a very effective version of ‘It’s a Long Way to Tipperary’ and the choir was piped out to ‘The Bloody Fields of Flanders’. In the second half Warner read the mail, including a very funny German letter about a lost parcel, while Dobson sang selections from George Butterworth’s Six Songs from a Shropshire Lad. Butterworth was a gifted composer who died at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 at the age of 31. Interspersed between these songs were songs of goodbye written by some of the great composers of the time. Sir Hubert Parry’s ‘Songs of Farewell’, Henry Walford Davies’ ‘A Short Requiem’, Healey Willan’s ‘How Softly They Rest’ and Edward Elgar’s ‘My Love Dwelt in a Northern Land’. These expressed the sadness and longing of lost love, and the anguish of death.
Finally we heard of the joy of ‘wildly excited’ people and bands playing after hearing the news that the armistice had been signed. The evening took us from optimism to stoicism to despair and finally to a tired and much less naïve relief and joy that the war was finally over. Cann did a lot of work carefully arranging and presenting the material, Krista Rhodes was marvellous as an accompanist on both piano and organ, and Warner and Dobson were soloists perfectly suited to the material who seemed to both enjoy and greatly respect the music. Next is ‘Messiah’ on Dec. 8th at Melrose United Church.