Event review: The London premiere of Jonathan Dove’s ‘For An Unknown Soldier’, Fairfield Halls

By - Tuesday 25th November, 2014

Beauty and brutality in the Ashcroft Theatre

Photo by Eddy Van, used under Creative Commons license.

“Dad, you have to hear Dove – it’s so dramatic!”, enthused my 8-year-old son after one evening’s choir practice at Croydon Minster.

Who could resist? So on Friday 14th November I took a front-row seat in the Fairfield Halls for the London Premiere of Jonathan Dove’s For an Unknown Soldier: A Cantata of Remembrance. For an Unknown Soldier was co-commissioned by the London Mozart Players (Croydon’s resident orchestra) and Portsmouth Grammar School, and is a setting of nine WW1 poems for tenor solo, local children’s choirs, adult chorus and chamber orchestra.

The evening’s dual aims were to commemorate the war and celebrate young Croydon talent – in singing and performing, curating war memorabilia and displaying their artwork.

The Edwardian pieces evoked soon-to-be-shattered innocence

The first half of the evening featured composers who wrote or fought during WW1. However, these were not war pieces but evocations of a pre-war English pastoral idyll. Holst was represented not by Mars, the Bringer of War (1914) but St Paul’s Suite (1912), delightful folk dances written for the pupils of the school where he was musical director, and the LMP were appropriately joined for this by young instrumentalists of Croydon Music & Arts.

Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow has additional poignancy, knowing that the composer went on to die in the Somme aged 31. And the Croydon Salvation Army band gave Elgar’s already nostalgic Nimrod the full Brassed Off treatment.

These Edwardian pieces evoking soon-to-be-shattered innocence formed a perfect foil and introduction to Dove’s war commemoration. So I would have omitted Ibert’s Concerto for Flute and Orchestra, written by a French composer long after the war (in which he served), and chosen mainly to showcase brilliant young flautist Emma Halnan (2013 Croydon Festival Concerto Competition winner).

The evening was by turns viscerally dramatic, shocking, and gently poignant

Dove’s Unknown Soldier didn’t disappoint – though it did disturb. The climactic opening line “War broke” (from Wilfred Owen’s 1914) recalled Orff’s O Fortuna, before entering a Tavener-like soundscape of soaring strings and complex chords. Dove’s music was by turns viscerally dramatic, shocking, and gently poignant. The setting of war poems nods to Britten’s War Requiem, but overall Unknown Soldier felt most comparable to James MacMillan’s Seven Last Words from the Cross – a similarly beautiful and brutal choral-orchestral commemoration of human suffering and sacrifice.

Dove’s cantata moves between drama and pathos, the horrors of the front and the grief of the bereaved back at home. Some of the lyrics are horrifyingly graphic, particularly Isaac Rosenberg’s poem Dead Man’s Dump: “A man’s brains splattered on / A stretcher-bearer’s face”. Perhaps it was fortunate for younger listeners that (as with most choral works) it was sometimes hard to make out the words, though Nicholas Sharratt’s tenor line soared bugle-clear.

Powerful, moving and harrowing stuff

And after all the dramatic percussion of battle, the work fades out to eerie quiet at the end with the words “This is the path to glory” accompanied by tolling bells, leaving the audience shell-shocked in their seats. Powerful, moving and harrowing stuff.

So it did feel a little incongruous to emerge from this to the sound of Croydon Brass jauntily oompah-ing ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’ in the foyer – though it was good to have something more child-friendly. Also, if I were running the event, I’d have made it shorter and earlier for the young participants, some of whom were clearly up way past their bedtime.

Nonetheless, Unknown Soldier is a brilliant and fitting new work, the musicianship was excellent, and the evening proved a truly historic concert in all senses.

Harvey Edser

Harvey Edser

Harvey Edser has lived by a cemetery in Croydon for 13 years. By day he’s a web editor for Royal Museums Greenwich. In his other lives he blogs about theology, writes music and poems, plays various instruments and loves nature, Harry Potter and cake.

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