This work for orchestra and choir is a setting of the famous Wilfred Owen WW1 poem. The choir is a column of soldiers: ‘Bent double, like old beggars under sacks, Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge’. A gas attack sends them into a spiral of confusion as one man dies ‘guttering, choking, drowning.’ The organ only enters near the end, after the man has died, and a solo soprano (an ‘innocent tongue’) sings the titular text in latin. Of course its meaning – ‘sweet and noble it is to die for country – is intended to be scathing and ironic. The organ music sounds deformed: a sunken instrument in some bombed out church nearby – only “half beautiful”.
London Mozart Players
Portsmouth Grammar School Chamber Choir
Graham Ross, conductor
Dulce et Decorum Est / by Wilfred Owen
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge, Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of tired, outstripped Five-Nines that dropped behind.
Gas! Gas! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling, Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling And flound'ring like a man in fire or lime...
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light, As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face, His hanging face, like a devil's sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs, Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,— My friend, you would not tell with such high zest To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
- wilfred owen