The auguries are not good. Off the top of my head I cannot think of a single work written to commemorate a great battle which could be regarded as anything like a masterpiece. Indeed, the only one which comes close in my book is Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes; the fact that virtually nobody reading this blog will have ever heard a live performance of it probably undermines my claim that it is something approaching a masterpiece. More than that, not only did Bliss fight in the Battle of the Somme and lost his brother during the Frist World War, but Morning Heroes commemorates far more battles than just those that took place during the First World War.
Beethoven’s Wellington Victory is certainly a novelty but by no stretch of the imagination a masterpiece; ditto Tchaikovsky’s 1812. Shostakovich’s symphonies commemorating various of the battles that underpinned the creation of the Soviet State are possibly not among his best, unless you consider them more social statements than celebrations of warfare. And while there are tremendous battle scenes in Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky, these depict imaginary rather than real battles.
(On an aside; why do Russian composers seem so open to inspiration from wars and battles? Is it because Russians are a particularly aggressive people? I sat next to Russian violinist Alexander Souptel at a concert last night, and a gentler, more harmless man you would be hard-pressed to find in today’s society; unless, that is, he and his compatriots have one personality for public display and another lurking underneath of an altogether more violent bent. If you read the regular diatribes sent in to this blog under the guise of “comment” by my Russian readers, virtually all of which have to be removed due to their willingness to utter spiteful, offensive and libellous comments about named people, you would begin to suspect that Russians do have a bitter and twisted inner persona which only comes out in their writings.)
Of course there are several memorable works depicting battles from the Second World War; not least by Eric Coates, Vaughan Williams and William Walton. But these were film scores that supported powerful visual images rather than standing on their own two musical feet.
What all these musical battles have in common is that they were contemporaneous with the composers’ lives; they wrote with close association to the battles they depicted. True, Walton did write memorable music to go with the Battle of Agincourt scenes from Olivier’s classic film version of Henry V, but outside the cinema and theatre I can think of no significant musical work commemorating one of the great battles from history. Where are the great musical masterpieces depicting the battles of Hastings, Trafalgar, Waterloo, Gallipoli, Boyne, Bulge, or commemorating the Iranian Revolution or the Malayan Campaign (my wife is in the heart of Borneo right now researching her book on that – but I fear her musical accompaniment is more Sheila Majid than Peter Sculthorpe)?
One battle which has largely escaped musical notice is the Battle of Stamford Bridge. Rather overshadowed by the Battle of Hastings, which it preceded by precisely 19 days, this was a battle for control of the British crown in which several thousand Vikings landed on the north east coast of England, invaded Yorkshire, captured York and were finally repelled by King Harold, who had rushed up from the south coast where he had been awaiting the invasion of Normans under William. The battle took place on 25th September 1066, but Harold had only three days to savour his victory before the Normans landed near Hastings and he had to hurry south to meet his doom.
To mark the 950th anniversary of the Battle of Stamford Bridge, the modern-day Stamford Bridge Singers are putting on a concert there which features the world première of a new work – Battle Cantata - by their conductor, Stuart Nettleship. The choir is locking horns with Viking - or, at least, Norwegian - singers, and the concert combines music drawn from the two cultures which collided so dramatically on that day back in 1066. The text is a setting of a poem by Laurence Binyon. He is best remembered for his poem For the Fallen, with its haunting second verse;
While several composers have set this text, with varying degrees of success, and Elgar went on to set several more of Binyon's poems (most notably in his cantata The Spirit of England), he is a poet whose work has not hitherto brought out the best in those who use it as the basis of a musical work. This, and the fact that good and lasting concert music depicting historic battles has hitherto been in remarkably short supply, should not deter Nettleship, who has always been a composer with a distinctly original way of responding to his musical challenges. I am inclined to think that if anybody could produce a lasting musical memorial to a long-forgotten battle, he can, and I am trying to move Heaven and Earth to get away to Yorkshire for the event; although I fear I shall be unlucky.
However, anyone who is around that part of the world – now blissfully peaceful – on Sunday 16th October should get their tickets now from https://battle950.eventbrite.co.uk