While I thoroughly enjoyed the Bernstein, I decided to make this blog post an extended version of the pep-talk I gave before our concert on Friday, in which I talked about the Vaughan Williams. Enjoy!
I first encountered this piece while I was 16, as part of a northern Virginia choral association concert. They mailed me the score (which I still have) and gave me a few weeks to learn it before having two rehearsals and then a concert. I still remember trying to learn the music note by note (since I couldn’t sight read back then) listen to a midi file of the soprano I part on repeat. So this is how I encountered Vaughan Williams--a piano midi file. My first impression, especially once I got to “Beat! Beat! Drums!” was….what the heck is this music. I didn’t really understand the poetry, or the war, or any of the context surrounding this piece. All I knew was there was something about a solemn church and a bridegroom and bugles, and something about snorting horses in Dan…the piece was a mystery to me.
When we had our first rehearsal, the director explained a bit about the piece, and about Vaughan Williams’ experiences in WWI, and suddenly it made so much more sense. I went from being a bit ambivalent about the piece, to falling in love with it. But then, I sort of forgot about it, and didn’t listen to it again until I was at Yale, when, on a whim, I downloaded it to my ipod. Listening to it all the way through, really paying attention to the poetry and what this piece was really saying, the piece was suddenly new to me.
We start out with a wail for peace from the soprano, but it is ignored as we’re caught up in the fervor of war with “Beat! Beat! Drums!” The war fundamentally changes society--we’re now in a state of total war. The churches, the schools, the home, everything is swept up and drowned out by the sound of the bugles. Then we get to “Reconciliation”...and the poetry is just...so powerful. It’s the promise that even after the horrors and carnage of war, even they must in time pass. And then we get to the second baritone solo. And for me, personally, this is the most poignant and powerful moment in the piece. “For my enemy is dead. A man divine as myself is dead. I look where he lies white-faced and still in the coffin. I draw near, bend down, and touch lightly with my lips, the white face in the coffin.” THIS is war. People killing other people. The man the poet has just killed is just as human and seemingly divine as he is. Soldiers often had the mentality that getting killed was something that happened to other people, not to you.
You know, psychologically, killing another human being is one of the most difficult things a person can do. And here, in this situation, the poet has just killed a man. It was likely on the battlefield--kill or be killed. But now, he’s not an enemy anymore, no longer a kraut, or a hun, but a man. Now that he sees him up close, he can no longer deny him his humanity.
It is no wonder that Vaughan Williams includes this text in the work, out of the multitude of other poems about war. It’s the one that deals with it on a most personal level--the fact that war asks men to kill their fellow human beings. While Williams’ didn’t have to kill on the battlefield, his job, that of an ambulance driver, meant seeing the carnage day in and day out. War for him wasn’t about fancy battle plans or politics, it was about human beings, and what such a condition did to them.
Similarly the Dirge for Two Veterans deals with the effect of war on the family. It utterly destroyed them. And then, after all of this terrible war, and death, we get triumph! The last movement is about triumph of life over death, hope, knowledge that this world is finite, that war won’t last forever, that there is something to hope for. But instead of ending there, on a bombastic note, it ends softly and introspectively, like a prayer.
Sometimes it’s difficult to make these types of themes--war and death--relevant to us, and it’s so easy to forget the experiences that these people had, what they went through. It’s all neatly summarized in a history book. But it’s so much more than history. It’s a person’s real life experience. And this is something that can be captured in the union of poetry and music more than any history book can. War hasn’t gone away, even if we may feel far removed from it. For me, this piece be a reminder that history is not just events, but human experiences. History is personal. This piece captures a certain part of the human experience, that though, can be difficult to talk about, is one that should never be forgotten. And I think on Friday, we truly conveyed to the audience what this piece was about--the triumph of life over death, and the promise of hope and renewal after terrible calamities. It's a piece that I think will always be relevant, and certainly one that I'll always come back to.