A Farewell to Arms - Armageddon to Armistice
On the lawn outside the ancient Chapel of Queens’ College are rows of tiny white crosses. Only a small College I stopped counting at 200 the names on the wall to mark the students - and teachers- who died in the fierce furious slaughter of the First World War. Amazing to think that in those privileged serene cloisters was a cadre of doomed youth, soon to join. the thousands and then unbelievably , millions of men in the prime of their intellect and the peak of their physical powers about to fall forever felled by an industrial scale savagery.
Geoff Page a young Cambridge composer presented the premiere of his original work ‘Battle Cries’ for a performance by the super -talented Fairhaven Singers on the eve of the Armistice Centenary. Invited by their leader Ralph Woodward, himself a considerable composer ( his work in memory of the assassination of Robert Kennedy opened the evening) Geoff Page described how he cast about for a theme around which to structure the piece . He stepped away from the well worn War Poets - and towards William Blake. A brilliant move ; who knew the author Jerusalem and Tiger Tiger was fired with quite so much original stirring poetry?
“O for a voice like thunder, and a tongue
To drown the throat of war! When the senses
Are shaken. and the soul is driven to madness,
Who can stand?’
Page did shake the senses with his magnificent musical invention. Yet the even control of the Fairhaven Singers contained the feeling before it tipped towards madness, losing nothing of the manic tinge of outrage running through the music. The sopranos were sublime, they added a mystical thrill of otherworldliness to the warmer tones of the contralto section throughout, whilst the bass and tenor sections sustained a controlled grounded yet threatening presence.
Out of little known Blake verse, Geoff Page has fashioned a piece of music which begins with kingly certainty, through less predictable impetuous ‘ jaggedy rhythms’ towards a slower third movement climaxing with a final fourth of despair at war,
The sunshine light, it seems to me, as pale
As the pale fainting man on his death-bed
It makes me sad and sick at very heart
Thousands must fall today’
A final resounding base bravely sang out in a solo conclusion for this remarkable work - yet his sonorous defiance felt all the more ironic as the mournful choir resumed their funereal themes.
Here is a work, performed by talented experts, worthy of the solemn marking of this dreadful day of loss. Nothing here was expected or had been heard before . Almost impossible to find a new theme on war and make it stick emotionally, but Geoff Page guided by England’s most visionary poet , has done it. His piece and Blake’s long forgotten lines will surely be heard over again when we reach out for some solace, a glimmer of understanding of what was and is the most inexplicable aspect of humanity.