Saturday, 13 November 2010

Remembrance Day 2010

Remembrance Day 2010


Most people reading this are, I think, aware of the basics of Remembrance Day (Veteran's Day in the US), which comes around every November 11.

Not every country commemorates Remembrance Day, of course. As a rule of thumb, it is a special date particularly for those countries who participated in the 1914-1918 World War (November 11, 1918 being the day on which the armistice officially ending hostilities on the crucial Western Front took effect), a specialness reinforced given that almost all of them ended up taking part in the 1937-1945 World War (yes, that is a deliberate date choice, more on that later). Remembrance Day's significance is enhanced by the subsequent participation of commemorating nations in conflicts, UN peacekeeping, and military readiness through the Cold War, and down to the present with the interventions in the former Yugoslavia in the '90s and the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq (and to a lesser extent, Somalia) today.

I would like to touch on, in this post, a review of some pieces of music related to the commemoration Remembrance Day itself, to events associated with the themes of the day, and with other cultural artifacts (namely, cinema) that also touch on the themes of Remembrance Day.


In Flanders Fields


In Flanders Fields is the iconic poem of commemoration. While specifically tied to the 1914-1918 war (it was written in 1915 by Canadian Army doctor John McRae), it has become, in Canada if no where else, an integral part of the Remembrance Day mythology.

Lt. Col. John McRae, MD, Army doctor and poet par excellence.
Wimereux, where McRae was buried after his death (from pneumonia).

Not surprisingly, the poem is often set to music. Here are a few samples, which I was fortunately able to find YouTube videos for.

Paul A. Aitken
This arrangement is perhaps one of the least remarkable of the group. I admit being quite impressed with it the first time I heard it (now well over a decade ago), and it has its virtues. In fact, it can be very good in the hands of a skilled choir.

The tenor ostinato can, if performed lightly and delicately, be excellent. I think this recording (the best I found - anyone finds a better one of this setting, please share in the comments) is a little slow, which makes the ostinato feel clunky.

Apart from the tenor line, however, the piece feels a little too conventional: it is not simple or emotionally compelling enough to move the listener through the force of the lyrics, but it is not complex enough to excite the intellect and move the listener through the study of the subtleties and weaving of the themes.

Michael Capon
A warning: The link to this piece takes you to a direct play of an mp3 file, rather than to a YouTube video.

This setting by organist Michael Capon is certainly more interesting, from a musical standpoint, than the Aitkens arrangement (that is, as a musician, I find it more exciting to come to grips with the material and bring it to performance). I am not certain it is more compelling in performance from the perspective of an audience member.

On the other hand, some of the moments, such as when the choir intones "We are the dead" for the first time, and when the lyrics "loved and were loved" occur, are simply not to be missed (likewise when the choir exhorts the listener to action, to 'take up the quarrel with the foe'). The extensive use of augmented triads, which are not often seen, are impressive with their biting sound.

At the same time, it is long, and if you don't make a habit of listening to more contemporary forms of art music, probably hard to listen to.

I think it is an improvement on the Aitken in terms of how the music is written to fit the lyrics, though.

Charles Ives
I'm really just throwing this setting in because I think it's kind of cool that Charles Ives wrote an arrangement of In Flanders Fields.

I like a lot of Ives' music for voice & piano, but I think that his setting of this piece is just too 'Charles Ives' and not enough 'In Flanders Fields'.

(Contrast the arrangement of In Flanders Fields with the next piece in the same video, which starts with a gorgeous piano introduction, and has some sparkling moments within).

Stephen Chatman
This setting is probably my favourite. It is the least complex in terms of its musical construction, which I feel for this text is a virtue: the text is potent enough - especially when one considers the context surrounding it - that you don't need to gussy it up. I certainly think it is more potent set to some sort of music, but the music has to be, for lack of a better term, a force multiplier for the significance of the text, not an obstacle to its transmission and reception by the listener.

However, the arranger does not skimp on effective musical construction. There are moments of well-done word painting. The introduction, which begins with a unison/solo voice and expands to all parts, is very effective. Although the melody follows a verse structure, each stanza of the poem is set slightly differently (always a plus to avoid monotony).

I am sure there are dozens - hundreds, perhaps - of musical settings of In Flanders Fields, and I encourage readers to share their favourites in the commments.

The Litany of Remembrance


The standard litany of remembrance, which encompasses the one or two minutes' silence, generally includes an excerpt from the poem For the Fallen. The excerpt referred to is noted in the Wikipedia article on the subject. I will reproduce it, here:


They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning,
We will remember them.

It is custom in Commonwealth countries to repeat the final refrain.

There are, of course, settings to music of this text. Due to self-imposed constraints, I wish to discuss only one.

This is Exhortation and Kohima by contemporary English composer John Tavener. I was unable to find a YouTube link, much to my regret, so all I have to link to is a site with some 30-second samples.

The 'Exhortation' is the above excerpt from For the Fallen, sung mostly by a larger choir, in an exposition-development-recapitulation format. The chorus part is echoed by a small semi-chorus, whose purpose in the piece is symbolic (per the dimly-remembered programme notes on the score).

The 'Kohima' portion from the song is the epitaph from the Kohima War Cemetary, located in the Kohima district of India. The region was the site of one of the key land battles in the Burma-India campaign in the Second World War. The epitaph goes as follows:


When you go out, tell them of us and say:
For your tomorrow, we gave our today.

This is, I think, a worthwhile sentiment for the theme of remembrance.

By the way, if any reader finds a full-length recording of this piece on YouTube or elsewhere in the future, which would not be against any Canadian copyright law for me to share, please do share it in the comments!

War and Remembrance in Wider Culture


The enormous impact that the wars of the twentieth century had on the formation of the contemporary world order and on the cultures of the participants is not hard to find. Literature, painting, sculpture, architecture, broadcast works, and so on, abound regarding modern wars and the need to remember.

I could scarcely attempt to summarize all of it here, so I will instead draw your attention to two specific examples.

Letters from Iwo Jima
This 2006 film, directed by Clint Eastwood, was perhaps unique as a film marketed to Americans in exclusively presenting the Japanese perspective of the Second World War's Asia-Pacific theatre.

Suffice to say, in this film, it is individual Japanese characters that we, the audience, get to know and empathize with. The Allied forces are presented as an unstoppable (the lead-up to the actual invasion of Iwo Jima shows the Japanese defenders being steadily deprived of assistance by the diversion of friendly airpower and the destruction, elsewhere, of Japanese naval assets), overwhelming (the sight of the invasion fleet at sea is awe-inspiring), nameless mass, who are humanized (in an echo of All Quiet on the Western Front) when the Japanese capture a wounded American Marine, and, apart from relieving his pain, are helpless to stop him from dying. His sole wish: to return home to his family farm, a sentiment that we expect the Japanese soldiery (particularly the main character, a baker) share.

Fortunately, the film does not shy away from some of the uglier aspects of the Pacific War: the particular codes of honour adopted by the Japanese leads to some agonizing scenes, and the misbehaviour of Allied forces comes to light when we see two Japanese prisoners shot dead in cold blood.

I would, of course, draw your attention to the music of the film. The main theme is a combination of a traditional-sounding Japanese melody (played on piano or trumpet) and a melancholy accompaniment of European triadic harmony (played on strings).

I, personally, found the theme to be a very efffective piece of music. When the trumpet had the theme, and especially when undergirded with snare drums, one has a completely different take on it (militaristic, warlike) than when the piano has the theme (mournful, regretful) - especially when the latter follow on the heels of the former midway through the track I have linked to.

I occasionally, when working on writing, like to load up the official film website. This plays the main theme, solely with piano, repetitively. It is very soothing and relaxing after a while.

Highway of Heroes
Of course, in Canada, there is a quite recent conflict in which the Forces have been participating, in Afghanistan, which has had its own unique impact on the national Zeitgeist.

Perhaps one of the more interesting impacts is the creation of the "highway of heroes". This is a stretch of Ontario provincial highway 401 (the MacDonald-Cartier freeway) (incidentally, the 401 as a whole is the highest-volume freeway in North America), stretching from Canadian Forces Base Trenton to a coroner's office in Toronto where fallen Forces personnel from Afghanistan are shipped upon return to Canada.

The 'highway of heroes' designation became official in 2007.

There happens to be a song about travelling down this stretch of highway, by Canadian folk group The Trews, called Highway of Heroes. As the song's inspiration was the 2006 death, in Afghanistan, of a Canadian Forces officer, I am not certain if its writing precedes the designation of the segment of the 401 as the 'highway of heroes' or not.

While the song is not in a genre that I pay much attention to or particularly enjoy, it is, I think, a well-constructed piece of music, which, like the Stephen Chatman arrangement of In Flanders Fields has a simple, easily-remembered melody, which allows the text to come through all the more forcefully. The not-quite-too-obvious references to the Canadian national anthem are also, I think, a nice touch.

Camp Songs


One final musical element that I would like to mention in this rather meandering post is the phenomenon of the camp song. Not, I should be clear, songs to be sung around campfires. I rather mean songs that were written by the inmates of concentration camps, generally for the benefit of their fellow inmates.

One of the most famous examples of camp music is the Quator pour la fin du temps, written by Olivier Messaien after he had been taken as a prisoner of war by the Germans in 1940. The work was premiered in a camp for French PoWs in 1941.

I should like to draw your attention to the Dachau Song, written by inmates of KZ Dachau. I am led to understand that I saw a photograph of the original score for this piece when I visited the KZ Dachau memorial site (comprising the grounds of the old concentration camp) one fine Sunday morning in 2007. The recording you hear was made some decades after the war, and was directed by one of the original composers of the work.

Monument in the centre of KZ Dachau, with the multilingual pledge of 'Never Again'.

The composer of this lullaby, on the other hand, was not so fortunate. Czech Jew Ilse Weber, who wrote children's books before the war, spent part of the Second World War working as a nurse in Theresienstadt concentration camp, where she tended to Jewish children. She wrote many poems, which she set to music. I have been led to understand, in Richard J. Evans' book The Third Reich at War, that she sang the lullaby Wiegala (recording linked to earlier) to the children she accompanied into the gas chambers of Auschwitz to calm them shortly before their deaths.

Why It Matters to Me


Apart from a general interest in the history of the twentieth centuries great wars, I have a personal interest in maintaining the remembrance of conflicts past and present.

Like most people my age, I assume, I have (it may be the case now that it is just 'had') relatives who served in the Second World War who were alive at some point in my lifetime.

My paternal grandfather was an officer in the Royal Canadian Navy who served on the Royal Navy ship HMS Nigeria. To the best of my knowledge, my paternal grandmother served as a woman's fire auxiliary in London during the war, helping coordinate firefighting activities in the wake of German air raids.

His Majesty's Ship Nigeria

Both my paternal grandparents are now deceased, and indeed, with each passing day they are joined by so many of their compatriots. I read this past Monday (November 8) that somewhere between 400-500 veterans of the Second World War pass away on a weekly basis. Canada's last veteran from the First World War died some time ago. It will not be long before there are none who have first-hand knowledge of either war, whether they served in the armed forces of one of the belligerents, or simply lived in one of the affected countries. In many cases, they are passing away with their unique accounts, experiences, and insights being lost to posterity and to the memory of future generations.

In short, Remembrance Day matters to me because, it seems that "Much that once was, is lost, for none now live who remember it."

Postscript: Why 1937?


You may recall that in my introductory paragraphs, I described the Second World War as the 1937-1939 World War, which may cause some to wonder what I am playing at. After all, did not the war begin with the German invasion of Poland?

I think, in some respects, that that is a Eurocentric vision of what was, after all, a truly global war. It would be akin to an American asserting that the Second World War began on 7 December 1941 (although it certainly cannot be doubted that the war became a truly global conflict on either that date, when Japan attacked British and American territory, or on the day after, when Hitler declared war on the United States on behalf of Nazi Germany).

It so happens, that a full-scale war between two great powers erupted on July 7, 1937. This war, between Japan and China, was one of the proximal causes for conflict between Japan and the United States and its European imperial allies. It became a key front of the Second World War (the majority of Imperial Japanese Army forces would remain stationed in China for the bulk of the war, forces which could surely have tipped balances elsewhere in the Asia-Pacific theatre had they been available in Japan's favour). In terms of lives lost, it is almost as significant as the 'Eastern Front' (the theatre of war between Germany and allies and the Soviet Union from 22 June 1941 to the end of the war in Europe). Indeed, the war between Japan and China had direct effects on the war in Europe as it was one of the reasons Japan decided to maintain its nonaggression treaty with the Soviet Union (which would have key repercussions in December of 1941 when the German Ostheer was battling on the outskirts of Moscow).

In short, I think it does us a discredit to suggest that this part of the war (which, apart from the Rape of Nanking, is perhaps not well known at all in Canada and the United States) does not count as part of the Second World War until four-and-a-half years in.

1 comment:

  1. Canadians might be familiar with the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong, as many Canadian soldiers served there are were captured, as you know; actually, most Canadians today probably know more about the internment of Japanese-Canadian citizens than anything to do with the course of the war.

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