April 11, 2015
“I CAN'T help comparing the music to the way our men died. They got shot but others went on. The spirit in them fresh as ever and though thousands are in their graves we can still take up the triumphant spirit and hope to continue on the same way.”
So wrote Ivan Walker, a young Melbourne soldier, only a few months before he, too, was lying in a grave, killed in the Battle of the Somme, aged 18.
Private Walker’s words live on in Larry Hills’ cantata,They Went with Songs, written to mark the centenary of Gallipoli and the Anzac legend that sprang from it. A combined choir of 80 and orchestra of 14 will perform the song cycle over the Anzac weekend in Wonthaggi, Leongatha and Foster.
The songs follow the narrative of a country boy getting recruited, going off to war and coming back and trying to pick up his old life. Hills says it doesn’t glorify war, but nor is it anti-war.
“It’s not deep. It’s just images of the war. A lot of the stuff I read about the war was so disturbing ... a lot of the stuff doesn’t get told.”
The American-born Hills says his outsider status allows him to look at the Gallipoli legend and Anzac Day more objectively.
“It was a war machine coming through and gathering up all the young men. The World War 1 soldiers were glorified as heroes. In fact the soldiers coming back didn’t want to be heroes. They didn’t want to talk about it for the rest of their lives. They just wanted to forget all about it.”
Growing up in the US, he was not very conscious of the First World War, and knew nothing of the Gallipoli campaign, but it doesn’t take a great stretch of his imagination to put himself in the shoes of the young Australian soldiers.
In 1970, aged 22, he was drafted into the US army after he finished university. Most of the people in his company were sent to the Vietnam War. Through a series of scarcely believable coincidences – he had studied music at university and so ended up as a chaplain’s assistant – he escaped that fate.
Instead he was assigned to a battalion that had just returned from Vietnam. “They had all experienced war. A lot of them were a little crazy. I heard enough to know it was not a good place to go.” By the time he’d served his 18 months, they were bringing the troops home, and he came to Australia soon afterwards.
When he arrived in 1972, the Vietnam War was still going and the popular mood was anti-war. “The Anzac ceremonies were very different – much less patriotic than they are today.”
Hills started looking for his next major project about five years ago, following his 2009 cantata Starscapes and Vision, about the settling of Gippsland, and Miners’ Requiem (2010), based on the 1937 Wonthaggi mine disaster in which 13 miners died. (The Witchita Songman)
Larry Hills during a performance of the Miners’ Requiem. Photo: Foon Photographics
Four years in the making, Larry Hills’ new work follows the story of a country boy going to the First World War.
“The Anzac centenary seemed the biggest thing on the horizon. I started looking for different things. Light and dark. For the first three years it was largely searching for the pieces that would make up the final work. I tend to find the text first. Only a few I wrote the text myself.”
He started with The Farmer remembers the Somme by Australian poet Vance Palmer, which describes the thoughts of a poet coming back from the war to the farm. “It’s a pretty amazing poem. I thought it would be wonderful to set that to music.”
The title of the cantata comes from Ode for the Fallen by Laurence Binyon, which plays such a central role in all Anzac services. This is another not-so-well-known verse: “They went with songs to the battle, they were young/Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow./They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,/They fell with their faces to the foe.”
The words struck Hills because he’d been reading Ivan Walker’s World War 1 diaries and letters, lent to him by his rehearsal accompanist, Inverloch’s Dorothy Warren. The tiny diaries were returned to Private Walker’s family after he was killed in 1916. With the aid of a magnifying glass, Dorothy read and transcribed them and his letters home.
One diary entry gave Hills an insight into the central role that music played in the Australian armed forces.
“Ship’s crew gave a concert tonight,” Private Waker wrote. “Band was dressed up. Conductor had black dress coat filled out. 2 were dressed as women. Instruments – big barrel for large drum, 2 biscuit-tin drums, a bar of steel clarionette and megaphone. I took part in the singing. You would be surprised to hear the men sing. There are some very good voices and it’s really stirring to hear the great volume of sound and watch the faces of the men as they sing the old well-known hymns – ‘Nearer My God to thee’, ‘Stand up, Stand Up’, ‘Light of the World’, etc.
“Every night the buglers play retreat in honour of those who fell at Gallipoli. It is an impressive piece of music, which starts high and goes down, then makes an attempt to get up again and so the cadence goes on and ends in a triumphant medium key. The drums then beat three times. I can’t help comparing the music to the way our men died. They got shot but others went on. The spirit in them fresh as ever and though thousands are in their graves we can still take up the triumphant spirit and hope to continue on the same way.”
Another friend, Carol Thorn, gave him a bunch of letters from her uncle writing home from Broadmeadows camp in early 1915 telling all his adventures in camp. “My dear dad ...” one letter starts, and goes on: “Tell Mum not to worry ... the tucker’s hard but it’s good.” He describes eating bully beef for breakfast, stew for dinner, and bread and jam for tea.
A choir member lent him The Somme Mud: Transcripts of a Diary and he turned a passage into a song. Socks, a light solo, is based on a poem sent in a parcel to soldiers at the front, wishing the wearer a safe return to Australia. Perhaps the most moving song is A Soldier’s Kiss, from a poem by Mary Gilmore, about a soldier farewelling his horse. In his research, he discovered that Gippsland supplied more horses than anywhere else in Australia and none of them came back.
Hills started writing the songs last year and finished orchestrating them mid-year. The performance is a massive undertaking. There are 80 people in the choir, 14 in the orchestra and up to a dozen young men who will sing snatches of World War 1 songs to transition between one movement and the next.
The singers have been rehearsing since July in three different choirs: the Bass Coast Chorale (directed by Hills, who is also directing the orchestra), the South Gippsland Singers (directed by Jennifer Holm) and the Prom Coast Singers (directed by Claudene Marie Adams).
There was considerable nervousness when the first combined rehearsal was held last week. “It was amazing!” Hills said. “Three different choirs with three different numbers and parts and they all complemented one another. The orchestra was amazed at the choir and vice versa.”
They Went with Songs will be performed three days in a row in three different venues – the Wonthaggi Town Hall, Mosley Hall in Leongatha and the Foster Town Hall – adding to the complexity.
Locals are organising each event, Hills says, so he doesn’t have to worry. “I just need to concentrate on conducting.”
The Farmer remembers the Somme
by Vance Palmer
Will they never fade or pass!
The mud, and the misty figures endlessly coming
In file through the foul morass,
And the grey flood-water ripping the reeds and grass,
And the steel wings drumming.
The hills are bright in the sun:
There's nothing changed or marred in the well-known places;
When work for the day is done
There's talk, and quiet laughter, and gleams of fun
On the old folks' faces.
I have returned to these:
The farm, and the kindly Bush, and the young calves lowing;
But all that my mind sees
Is a quaking bog in a mist - stark, snapped trees,
And the dark Somme flowing.