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