August 2014 marked the centenary of the outbreak of World War 1—the ‘war to end all wars’—a conflict which saw Australia first fight under its own flag, lose 60,000 to death and more than a hundred thousand to injury, and which helped define its fledgling sense of nationhood.
But amongst the historic discussion of military strategies and political outcomes lie the almost forgotten personal stories, and, in particular, the memories of the grief and loss of mothers who bade a brave farewell to their boys marching off to war, and who were denied the joy of welcoming them home again.
To honour this important anniversary and that of the Gallipoli campaign, the Sydney University Graduate Choir commissioned Music Director Christopher Bowen OAM to compose An Australian War Requiem. The composition was inspired by letters between soldiers at the front and their mothers at home, and included excerpts from the Stabat Mater, that ancient work depicting the grief of Mary at the suffering and death of her son.
Mr Bowen and Ms Pamela Traynor, who wrote the text, received invaluable assistance from the Australian War Memorial in finding suitable material for this work. In addition, in 2012 the composer made a self-funded visit to Gallipoli and the battlefields of the Western Front, in order to absorb the atmosphere of those places.
On his return, Mr Bowen wrote:
As one travels through the idyllic-countryside of Picardie, better known to us as the Somme, suddenly in the midst of a cornfield there is a cemetery with row upon row of white headstones…
…There are literally thousands of such places to be found in this area. From a distance a cross can often be discerned on the horizon rising up to the heavens and it is inconceivable, beyond comprehension that once, such a gentle and beautiful landscape was a quagmire, a sea of mud, trenches, craters, a place where the stench of death was all around.
I cannot forget the cemetery just outside of Villers-Brettoneux. Set on a gentle slope and with a cold wind blowing in the early morning light, I was profoundly moved and inspired by the sounds, the images which invoked a haunting music.
In the village there is the Victoria school, its hall’s interior built with wood from Daylesford Victoria. And from within looking out through the windows onto the playground there is the sign ‘Do not forget Australia’. There is such a moving and tender sincerity here with the flags of France and Australia fluttering together in the wind, side by side.
…Not far away there is the town of Albert and from the distance a statue covered in gold leaf gleams in the sunlight and can be seen from all around. It is a powerful image…The statue is huge and sits on top of the cathedral’s spire and depicts Mary, the mother of Christ, holding her son high above her head reaching into the sky.
Scored for four-part chorus, semi-chorus, children’s chorus, soloists and large orchestra, the Australian War Requiem premiered at the Sydney Town Hall on 10 August 2014.
You can find more information on the Premiere here.
This article is an adaptation of one written by Rosalie O’Neale and originally published on the Sydney University Graduate Choir blog.