Festival of Youth Orchestras 2014 at The Sage, Gateshead.
National Youth Orchestra of Wales, conducted by Jac van Steen. Recorded at The Sage, Gateshead on Friday, 1st August 2014
BUGLES SANG – commissioned by the National Youth Orchestra of Wales for their Summer 2014 tour.
For any composer, being asked to write a work is an honour in itself as it signifies a high level of trust between the commissioner, the performer(s) (if different) and the composer. To be asked to write for a performer or performers that one respects is an even greater honour and a privilege to be treasured. So, for me to receive a second commission to write for the National Youth Orchestra of Wales is not only a great honour but also something very special in my career.
My first commission for the NYOW, Invisible Cities, was premiered in 1999 under the inspirational conductor Christopher Adey who has since become a close friend. I was very fortunate to be invited to take part in the course that year (having been invited to the 1998 course in order to observe the rehearsals and get to know the orchestra) and the experience has stayed with me ever since. Composition for me is not just about writing the piece in isolation but also about getting to know the performers and setting out to tailor the new work not only to their strengths but also, in some way, to their personalities.
Although the work is in one continuous movement, I conceived it as being in four sections which do not directly describe the poetry but do take it as their starting point. The first and third sections are a depiction of warfare and its horrors with scurrying semiquavers and explosive chords whilst the second section, an uneasy nocturne, forms the core of the work.
This nocturne is a tableau of the battlefield at night, an eerily quiet landscape that has been torn asunder by the ravages of warfare, calmly waiting for the horrors of the next day. My ideas when approaching this movement centred around two main themes - the stories of the thousands of men who marched through the Menin gate on their way to the carnage of the Battle of Ypres and how, with the exception of the years of German occupation in the Second World War, the Last Post is sounded there at every sunset. I have tried to allude to this without directly quoting this most distinctive of bugle calls although it is difficult to avoid comparison with its use in music relating to this period in our history.
The second idea came from the story that the Welsh soldiers, whilst in the trenches the evening before going into battle - cold, wet and fearing the worst - sang the Welsh hymn Cwm Rhondda and how the sound drifted across the silent battlefield. I have quoted the hymn in full, using the well-known Arwel Hughes harmonisation, but fragmented and at half speed in an attempt to give it a sense of other-worldliness, total weariness and foreboding. In addition, a solo violin sings out above the hymn, an evocation of the Angel of Mons looking down benignly on the soldiers.
The conclusion to the work presented another problem – to end it on a sombre note to reflect what we now know about the Great War and its horrors or to concentrate on what must have been the prevailing emotions of the time. After much thought I decided to go with the latter as, without knowing of the horrors to come two decades later, the carnage of the Great War would have been seen as justifiable and the conclusion of “the war to end all wars” would have been a triumph. There is, however, a slight allusion, in timpani, celli and bass, to the rhythm from Holst’s “Mars” from “The Planets” as a portent of the war that was to come twenty one years later.