Essays / Heads Up / Music

The Great War: Helen Gifford’s Choral Scenes…for the fallen

By Nicholas M Tolhurst

As Australia celebrates the mythos of Gallipoli, Astra Chamber Music presents a concert on 19 April at the Church of All Nations (CAN) in Carlton, featuring a major work by Melbourne composer, Helen Gifford.

Gifford’s Choral Scenes, The Western Front, World War 1 was commissioned by the Astra Chamber Music Society and first performed in 1999. Choral Scenes demonstrates Gifford’s close affinity to setting text, a hallmark of her lifelong work as a composer. In the 1970s and 80s Gifford worked extensively with the Melbourne Theatre Company in productions for directors such as Tyrone Guthrie, Ray Lawler, Bruce Myles and John Sumner for plays by Brecht, Congreve, Shaffer, Shakespeare, Sophocles, Stoppard and Tourneur.

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Helen Gifford, composer

The First World War—the ‘Great’ War—had a profound effect on Gifford. Turning 80 this year, she would have been born into a family who, in 1935 was still feeling the effects of loss from the war, like so many Australian families. The statistics are real and unimaginable: 59,342 Australians were killed and 152,171 wounded in WW1.

Choral Scenes has been released as an Astra CD and I borrow somewhat from the liner notes in describing the work as a cycle of settings of poetry by English, French and German poets who served in World War 1. Alongside the better-known English poets such as Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon, Gifford has set works by the French poets René Arcos and Guillaume Apollinaire and the Germans, August Stramm and Wilhelm Klemm. Sourcing the approval to set and perform some of the poems proved the hardest task for Gifford in creating this major work.

Her approach to the various texts is consistent with her compositional approach to text elsewhere and that is to use sound to bring the text to life in performance. Don’t expect an oratorio-like rolling out of number after number; Gifford’s Choral Scenes immerses the performers and the audience in soundscapes (and song) to bring to the fore the horrors, futility and bitter humour of a soldier’s experience in the trenches.

Gifford’s other ‘Great War’ works include The Tears of Things (2010) first performed by Astra. The work relates the story of Australian nursing sister May Tilton in World War I combined with short Latin excerpts from Virgil’s Aeneid, sung by the choir. Unlike Choral Scenes, The Tears of Things has a  central narrative role, written for actor Jane Nolan.

Gifford has also written the piano work Menin Gate, the first performance of which was given by Michael Kieran Harvey in September 2005. The Menin Gate in Belgium was built by the British as a tribute to the 350,000 dead of its armies, who perished in the great battles fought at Ypres between 1914 and 1918. Gifford’s work is also tribute to those soldiers and is inspired by the Longstaff painting of the memorial gate, painted after the Gate’s unveiling in 1927. The work alternates between massive, magisterial chords and shimmers of barely heard sound. In her foreword to the score Gifford describes the effect of rain and poison gas on the soldiers and the landscape and the una corda (soft pedal) and half pedal effects she uses could reflect the deadly miasma that pervaded the Ypres and nearby Passchendaele fields of war.

Gifford’s piano work has an interesting backstory. In 1990 the pianist Sally Mays commissioned Gifford to write a showpiece for her formidable skills. Gifford began work on Toccata Attacca and then suffered a severe heart attack at about bar 74. Looking at the score, you can see the fierce and technically demanding and percussive chords have begun to thin out, to flat line, by bar 73, almost as if she knew her heart was fragile. By bar 74 Gifford suddenly stoped writing. When she recovered her health the music continued to flat line and then, as she gathered strength, the score picke up its extraordinary virtuoso crafting.

At this concert outstanding violist (and Arcko favourite) Phoebe Green will give the premiere performance of Gifford’s Desperation, composed for Green in 2014. This work for solo viola is the latest production of works of Australian composers published by Astra Publications.

The other major work at the Astra Concert on 19 April is Alexander Kastalsky’s Requiem for Fallen Brothers. Written in 1915 this is the first Australian performance of the work and a powerful example of Director John McCaughey’s unmatched skill and sensitivity in programming. Kastalsky’s work is for soloists, choir and orchestra. For this performance, the orchestral part has been arranged for string quartet by Australian-born composer Graham Hair. If you didn’t know otherwise, you would think this was Katalsky’s original intention.

Kastalsky has written his Requiem using both the Latin and Russian liturgy with additional texts in English. The Requiem was first performed in Birmingham under Henry Wood in 1917. The music is strong yet quite comfortably located around conventional keys. Like Gifford, Kastalsky works to the theatre of the texts. He enhances the drama of the work by giving instructions to the choir to sing Chante serbe, Chante russe and Chante catholic, i.e. sing like Serbs, Russians and catholics. The only time the choir is instructed to Chant anglais is on the brief text, Lord have mercy on us. I can’t help myself; perhaps Kastalsky was not enamoured of the English choral sound. It is not a sound you will hear much of in an Astra concert.

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