"Song of Flanders" began in 1997, while I watched the the televised national cenotaph ceremony in Ottawa. At one point, a childrens' choir sang a setting of "In Flanders Fields", by John McCrae. Immediately I thought "of course" but why children? Why aren't the adults who caused the whole thing out there? Why not a powerful orchestral/choral treatment with music as dramatic as the poem; something that could carry us through the tragedy of collective memory yet provide comfort and musical strength to those who must face the continued living out of their lives?
The thought would not leave. Eventually I listened to eight settings of the poem. Not one came within striking distance of a tune? Odd, I thought, these men would have sung "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" and "The Whiffenpoof Song" with friends and family around the parlour piano in family sing-songs as a matter or ordinary life. To my mind the memory of these men and this time needed an old fashioned melody, something simple and singable.
One day at 4AM on a winter's morning, while driving my heaterless truck along the dark of Highway 7, the first melody appeared to me. I have always believed that God hands you the music of your life and you choose to write it down, yea or nay. I couldn't stop to write it down, but sang it lustily at the top of my lungs all the way in to work, and wrote it down quickly on some videotape labels.
The Toronto Waldorf school gave me the first opportunity to set the idea for Children's voices with tenor solo. Three years ago, I re-set the work for full adult choir and orchestra.
Last year Fran and Lanny Pollet premiered a version with the First Metropolitan United Church choir, and reduced orchestral forces, in Victoria. This year I set the piece for soloists, large choir and orchestra. In September, my wife Frances and I journeyed to the National Radio 1 Studios in Sofia to record the work in with Philharmonia Bulgarica, led by Maestro Valeri Vatchev, and the Philharmonia Bulgarica choir, led by Sofia Byrdarska.
Movement II -is dedicated to my Uncle Max Saville, the first Allied soldier to land in Sicily, and is my setting of "In Flanders Fields". I imagined fife and drum leading a regiment over the hill towards us. As the drums draw nearer, we realize many of the men are wounded; there is a darkness and grim determination about. When the orchestra joins in, the march takes on an "asymmetrical" sighing quality. The strings enter with a sort of New Orleans "dead march". The first voices we hear are the altos, imitating the regimental snare drums, at last a solo tenor states my main "faux-Celtic" theme. My big Bulgarian basses join in singing right down to their boots on low D's! When we reach the part of the poem where larks flutter vulnerably over the battlefield, I thought that when you try to fly a kite, you must tug on the string periodically so the kite swoops upwards to the rhythm of the winds. I shaped the soprano line in a similar sort of way. At the words "We are the dead". The choir's singing becomes sprechtstimme (sung speech) I had a real need to stop the action and claw "the larks" immediately to earth. Gradually the theme is released and drifts upwards as the poet reminisces about the gift of living. When McCrae hurls his "curse", ("If ye break faith with us who die"....) I divided the musical ideas in two. First the men hurl the curse as strongly as they can, then the women join in with a supplication, a distinct qualification, moving in simple block harmonies as generations of hymns have done ("To you from failing hands....") The initial theme returns, and moves upwards to a new key. The regimental drums reprise, the march of the wounded returns more urgently, we rise to a grand climax and the sort of lovely grand smash up of a noise, composers love to imagine. The sopranos shriek sextuplets at the top of their range and their lungs -admirably done by the Bulgarian sopranos who neither complained about the altitude nor the difficulties, but simply triumphed over them. The timpanist has an absolutely glorious time. If you ever hear this live, sit near the timpanist, or at least watch him go!
Our fife leads the retreat from final glory over the hill and far away. There is still a bit of mischief and play in an old soldier, despite all he has seen and done. John McCrae believed one could triumph over evil if you could simply stamp it out. I cannot share the poet's belief. I cannot glory at the destruction of anyone; and at this point our ideas must part ways, but I can at least put forward a fervent musical wish that human nature might one day change enough that we would no longer see the need to periodically destroy one other.