Un­der the Spire – The World at War 1915 to 1917 con­cert

Malta Independent - - LIFESTYLE & CULTURE - Chan­cel­lor Si­mon

have at­tended a cou­ple of fundrais­ing con­certs for the restora­tion of the or­gan as well as a fu­neral at Queen Ade­laide’s cathe­dral, the Angli­can land­mark in Val­letta. Time was when go­ing in­side any place of wor­ship which was not Ro­man Catholic was anath­ema. I re­mem­ber sit­ting in a class­room at school and look­ing at the English girls round me and think­ing ‘Well, Pope Gre­gory might have be­lieved them to be ‘an­gels not An­gles’ but, poor things, they are all go­ing to hell!’ Well, that is more or less what we were taught, or at least this is the mes­sage we picked up. Now we know bet­ter.

* * * With three mem­bers of my family I at­tended the se­cond con­cert in the WWI se­ries at St Paul’s Co-Cathe­dral. Mar­garet Weaver pro­duced both con­certs. The script and com­pi­la­tion of the spo­ken pieces was also done by her in col­lab­o­ra­tion with David Roberts and Si­mon Walker. The three of them, in fact, make up The Spire Group. Says Si­mon: “We worked with Jaqui Porter on the con­tem­po­rary songs and with Alex Vella Gre­gory and Sarah Spi­teri on the clas­si­cal pieces.”

* * * The whole even­ing was very mov­ing. Be­fore the con­cert ac­tu­ally started Ge­orge But­ter­worth’s was play­ing in the back­ground, a beau­ti­ful, pas­toral piece. The com­poser was in fact killed on 5 Au­gust 1916, dur­ing the Bat­tle of the Somme. He was just 31. His body has never been re­cov­ered. Sarah Spi­teri then played

– a lament for the fallen sol­diers of all na­tion­al­i­ties.

The Nar­ra­tor through­out was Lawrence Porter who set the mood by telling us that that even­ing we were com­mem­o­rat­ing the mil­lions who were touched by this ‘War that will end War’ and ‘cel­e­brate the strength of the hu­man spirit in the face of un­par­al­leled ad­ver­sity. In 1914 Bri­tain and Ger­many went to war. The be­lief was that it would ‘all be over by Christ­mas’. In­stead hos­til­i­ties con­tin­ued un­til by 1918 the Euro­pean war had be­come a global con­flict.’

He re­minded us that the no­tion of gilded young war­riors dy­ing for King and Coun­try ‘gave way to a re­vul­sion, deep­ened by the Bat­tle of the Somme, which lasted from July to Novem­ber 1916. On the first day alone the Bri­tish army suf­fered 60,000 ca­su­al­ties. The mood of the Bri­tish was tipped into fu­ri­ous de­spair.

‘The women who in 1914 gladly sent their men off to war, in 1915 waited and won­dered.’

* * * Mar­garet Weaver read the poem The Sol­dier’s Wife by the left-lean­ing Jean GuthrieSmith. The Nar­ra­tor re­minded us “that the liv­ing are equally the ca­su­al­ties of war as are the dead.” Guthrie-Smith’s hus­band was wounded on the Somme but sur­vived how­ever, she re­tained com­pas­sion for oth­ers, less for­tu­nate than her. Later on she was to lose one of her sons in the Great War. She never got over it and passed away four years later.

The Nar­ra­tor, Lawrence Porter, takes us back and sets the scene of what was hap­pen­ing at the time. “In the ma­jor Euro­pean cities the the­atres stayed open, but the lively the­atri­cal cul­ture was pro­foundly in­flu­enced by the war. Soon, es­capist en­ter­tain­ment re­placed pa­tri­otic furore, and the theatre be­came a war-free refuge. Italy en­tered the war in May 1915, and fought against the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­ian Em­pire un­til 1918. Puc­cini wrote

to­wards the end of the con­flict.” Jac­qui Porter with Jenny Meads at the pi­ano, gave us a beau­ti­ful ren­der­ing of

from Puc­cini’s one-act opera, Puc­cini said of him­self:”I shall feel the story as an Italian, with des­per­ate pas­sion.” Jac­qui and Jenny also gave us

the Bri­tish pop­u­lar song, one of the most fa­mous of the First World War. The lyri­cist Fred Weatherly also wrote the equally fa­mous Ac­cord­ing to Wikipedia, in his 1926 mem­oirs, Weatherly sug­gested that it con­cerned a love af­fair of one of his close friends. “Weatherly trav­elled in France vis­it­ing the Rhone val­ley and Cha­monix. Pi­cardy was a his­tor­i­cal prov­ince of France and this area con­tained the Somme bat­tle­fields – the scene of some of the fiercest fight­ing dur­ing the First World War.” The mu­sic is by Haydn Wood who, in his mem­oirs re­lated that, as he was go­ing home one night on the top of a Lon­don bus, the melody came to him. He jumped off the bus and wrote down the re­frain on an old en­ve­lope while stand­ing un­der a street lamp.

*** Wil­liam Blake’s hymn Jerusalem was also sung by Jaqui Porter ac­com­pa­nied on the pi­ano by Jenny Meads. This fa­mous poem has been used ex­ten­sively in films and so many events. We are all fa­mil­iar with it. “Bring me my Char­iot of fire” in­spired the ti­tle of the film Char­i­ots of Fire. To think that the gifted Blake was largely un­recog­nised dur­ing his life­time.


The Nar­ra­tor re­minded us that “half a world away, Aus­tralia en­listed over 400,000 men to join in the de­fence of the Em­pire. More than 60,000 were killed, 156,000 wounded, gassed or taken pris­oner. To­gether with the New Zealand force many were des­tined for the Turk­ish Cam­paign .... ”

So there was and Jac­qui, Jenny and Stephen Alexan­der also per­formed Irv­ing Berlin’s

which im­me­di­ately changed our mood, and their last song was when many joined in the Cho­rus

* * * Pi­anist com­poser Alex Vella Gre­gory on the pi­ano and Sarah Spi­teri on the vi­o­lin gave us some lovely mu­sic that even­ing, too. They played Berceuse by Eu­gene Ysaÿe the Bel­gian child prodigy. This af­ter the Nar­ra­tor had re­minded us that ‘On Oc­to­ber 12th 1915 in Brus­sels, Bri­tish nurse Edith Cavell was shot at dawn by a Ger­man fir­ing squad for help­ing hun­dreds of al­lied sol­diers es­cape from oc­cu­pied Bel­gium. On the eve of her ex­e­cu­tion she said “Pa­tri­o­tism is not enough. It is not enough to love one’s own peo­ple, one must love all men and hate none”. If only. As the present state of the world shows us, her words have fallen on deaf ears.

*** The duo also played JS Bach’s and two Ele­gies, one by Al­berto Zel­man and the other, per­haps more well known by Camille Saint Saëns. Last but not least they also gave us Charles Camil­leri’s

*** I was not fa­mil­iar at all with Alan Seeger’s Ren­dezvous read beau­ti­fully by Si­mon Walker. The Nar­ra­tor told us that “The Bat­tle of the Somme be­gan on July 1st 1916, in that re­gion of Pi­cardy, which stretches from the sub­urbs of Paris and the vine­yards of Cham­pagne to the beaches of the bay of the Somme. The Amer­i­can poet Alan Seeger died in the Bat­tle, serv­ing with the French For­eign Le­gion, on July 4th 1916. He was 18 years old.” “I have a ren­dezvous with Death At some dis­puted bar­ri­cade...” end­ing “I shall not fail that ren­dezvous.” It was im­pos­si­ble for tears not to well up at the thought of an 18-year-old dy­ing in such cir­cum­stances as so many of them did.

Si­mon also read A Day at Gal­lipoli by Aus­tralian Roy Den­ning Yass.

“Landed on Gal­lipoli 25.04.15. Served un­til wounded in June. Evac­u­ated to Pem­broke Camp, Malta and went on to fight on the West­ern Front un­til the end of the war. That night (May1st) we were work­ing un­til 9 o’clock in pump­ing water, and we were re­turn­ing to our dugouts when we came up with two stretcher bear­ers. On each one lay the re­mains of an Aus­tralian. The stretcher bearer of one, hav­ing a bad hand, asked my friend and me if we would take some of the weight from him, and will­ingly did so and con­tin­ued on to where the big grave waited for its prey...”

* * * David Roberts read ex­tracts from a let­ter by Lt. Wil­liam Britt. “It was fast get­ting light and when we were 600 yards from the shore the de­stroy­ers stopped and we pre­pared to get into the boats. We scram­bled into the boats about 50 in each boat – and started to pull for the shore. By this time the bul­lets were splash­ing all round the boat and a great many of our fel­lows were hit, some fa­tally .... The boat grounded 30 yards from the Beach and I jumped into the water, icy cold and up to my waist. I was car­ry­ing 250 rounds am­mu­ni­tion. Pack with clothes and kit weigh­ing 30lbs. Haver­sack with 4 tins dog bis­cuits etc, a water bag, 3 ce­ment bags rolled up to be used as sand bags. Well I waded to the shore (by this time they had our range and men were drop­ping all round me. They had mea­sured the range pre­vi­ously of course) .... Two of my chums fell here both killed in­stantly. Then one of my lacrosse chums, Cor­po­ral Danes, was shot and a lot more . .... We took the hill and ad­vanced about a half mile and the Turks counter-at­tacked and then the fight started prop­erly .... ”

* * * The Nar­ra­tor Lawrence Porter spoke about the Con­greve Family, a sur­name with which we are fa­mil­iar for Sir Wal­ter Con­greve was a Gover­nor Gen­eral of Malta who died in of­fice in 1927 and was buried at sea. Lawrence Porter told us that ‘He suf­fered two ma­jor losses in the First World War. Firstly, his left arm, be­ing the only Corps Com­man­der to suffer a wound in the con­flict. Se­condly his el­dest son, Ma­jor Wil­liam Con­greve, killed by a sniper dur­ing the Somme of­fen­sive. Wil­liam was awarded the VC posthu­mously, mak­ing them one of the only three fa­ther and son win­ners of the Vic­to­ria Cross. Although Wal­ter Con­greve was not to know it, his se­cond son, Sir Ge­of­frey Con­greve, would be killed in ac­tion as a naval of­fi­cer in the Se­cond World War. Like many fam­i­lies, the Con­greves in an­swer­ing the call of duty, made heroic sac­ri­fices for their coun­try.”

* * * God­frey read – Ataturk by John 1934 and Ken­neth Best MC.

* * * I must stop as I have run out of space. The pro­ceeds of the tick­ets go for the main­te­nance of St Paul’s Cathe­dral. Do go to the next con­cert. We have to con­stantly re­mind our­selves of the many sac­ri­fices so many made for us.

I need a mug of tea. All this is too much for me but what a mov­ing and wellplanned even­ing. Thank you. (I am greatly in­debted to Si­mon Walker for the in­for­ma­tion).

Photo: John Navarro

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