top of page
  • Scott Williamson

The Pity of War

The Pity of War: A Recital commemorating the 75th Anniversary of D-Day

Below are some of the images to be projected, interspersed with a few of my epigrammatic comments and observations on the program's composers, poets and contents. I hope to see many friends Sunday, June 30, 3 pm at South Roanoke United Methodist Church (2330 Jefferson St, S.E.) This program is also made possible by the cooperation of Temple Emanuel and the co-sponsorships of the Thursday Morning Music Club and the Roanoke Valley Veterans Council. Thanks to everyone!

The program is divided into halves. The second half consists of American musical theater songs written during and about WWII, from Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Kurt Weill.

The first half concludes with a set of three war-time songs by German-Jewish refugees to the US: Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler. The opening sets of the program juxtapose Benjamin Britten's songs of Scots poet William Soutar, "Who are these children?" with songs written on the front by soldier-poet Ivor Gurney, including a tribute to Gurney from Gerald Finzi.

Benjamin Britten, center (with Rostropovich, Oistrakh, and far right, Shostakovich

My subject is war, and the pity of war / The poetry is in the pity…

Wilfred Owen (British poet and soldier in WWI; killed Nov. 4, 1918, aged 25)

Benjamin Britten’s magnum opus may be his War Requiem, which premiered at the newly renovated Coventry Cathedral in 1962 (see image below). Juxtaposing the Latin Mass for the dead with the harrowing war-time poems of Wilfred Owen, the War Requiem is one of the most powerful and widely known creative responses to WWII. It is an epic precursor to the miniature songs of conscience in Who are these children?

Wilfred Owen. Ivor Gurney. William Soutar. Killed, marred and scarred by the “Great War” – “the war to end all wars.”

Britten’s polarities: Songs of Innocence and Experience. (William Blake) Childhood purity and adult corruption. Simple folksongs and grinding tonalities. An artist who is unafraid “to embrace platitude in order to refine it.” (Peter Evans, The Music of Benjamin Britten)

Ivor Gurney, “Poet of the Severn and Somme,” as his epitaph reads. He described the poems he wrote from the front and in the trenches, as “the central fires of secret memory.”

Finzi and Gurney. The younger (Italian-Jewish) of these two British pastoral composers, Finzi furthered Gurney’s reputation. After the latter fell into obscurity, following his institutionalization for mental illness (PTSD) suffered during WWI, Finzi saw to the publication and programming of Gurney’s poems and songs, even setting one of them himself. Finzi lost his brother and teacher in the war. Like Wilfred Owen, they were killed just before the armistice.

Britten’s “The Children”: A song that faces unremitting tragedy with intense yet never indulgent melancholy. (Peter Evans) Listen for the outline of an air-raid siren in the opening piano glissando.

The blood of children corrupts the hearts of men. (“The Children,” Soutar)

Poets are the legislators of humanity, Keats. Romantic poet beloved by Owen, Gurney, Soutar, and among others, Britten & Pears.

a bombed out Coventry Cathedral

The Auld Aik: the felling of a great tree as metaphor for destroyed Cathedrals and Synagogues.

Cf. Coventry Cathedral (the slide accompanying the song) and Britten’s humanist War Requiem.

Lotte Lenya and Kurt Weill

Kurt Weill: I refuse to recognize the difference between ‘serious’ music and ‘light’ music: there is only good or bad music.

Walt Whitman at 200: A hero of the Civil War who volunteered as a nurse and tended literally thousands of wounded soldiers. Beloved by British war-time composers like Vaughan Williams and Holst.

Walt Whitman, poet and Civil War nurse

Weill, upon returning to America after his first post-exile visit to Europe:

Strangely enough, wherever I found decency and humanity in the world, it reminded me of America.

Weill began composing his Whitman Songs as a creative response to Pearl Harbor.

“O Captain, My Captain!” was the first to appear on December 25, 1941.

Hanns Eisler: Served his country in World War I. Exiled from his country for being a Jew. Blacklisted in Hollywood for being too liberal, or for being a suspected communist, depending upon which side of the aisle one sat in the McCarthy hearings...

Hanns Eisler, a German soldier in WWI

The Moon in this program’s poetry: Soutar’s “silver moon” (Bed-time). Whitman’s Dirge for Two Veterans: “Lo! the moon ascending! / Up from the east, the silvery round moon; Beautiful over the house tops, ghastly phantom moon; / Immense and silent moon.” #Apollo50 #DDay75 #Whitman200

The moon and starry night in a classic design for Mozart's The Magic Flute

Rodgers and Hammerstein: creative pioneers of “American opera” (Rodgers, writing in Opera News). Among other innovations, their 3-dimensional protagonists, like Billy (Carousel) come as close as Broadway musicals do to creating Shakespearean figures; at once products of their time and universal...

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear / You’ve got to be taught from year to year

It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear / you’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be carefully taught was too bitter a pill for many Southern leaders to swallow c.1950, and was consequently banned in Georgia when the critically acclaimed, “instant classic” musical, South Pacific embarked on its national tour. Now, it is an anthem regularly sung in NYC to commemorate 9/11; it is sung by Jewish musicians in response to hate crimes; it is sung all over the world to raise awareness of the consequences of racism and prejudice.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late / Before you are six or seven or eight

To hate all the people your relatives hate / You’ve got to be carefully taught.

Edelweiss: the last lyric written by Oscar Hammerstein II.

Zichronam liv’rachah. May their memories ever be for a blessing.

(From the Jewish liturgy of the Mourner’s Kaddish, recited in daily prayer and weekly services).

Author photo, poppies near Pompeii, Italy, 2012

One appreciates the light for having experienced darkness... (Anonymous)

This program moves between dark and light, with the light, like a hard-fought battle, eventually winning the day. It has been powerful and meaningful for Judy Clark, Julia Goudimova and me to put together this month. We look forward to sharing a special and memorable afternoon with friends this Sunday, June 30, at 3 pm at South Roanoke UMC.

21 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All
bottom of page