To mark the centenary of World War One, Sally Beamish has written a new choral-orchestral work Equal Voices based on the war poetry of Sir Andrew Motion. One of Britain’s best-known contemporary composers, Beamish’s recent pieces include Flodden, written for the Scottish Chamber Orchestra to mark the 500th anniversary of the Battle of Flodden, and Variations on a Theme of Benjamin Britten, to mark Britten’s centenary. Andrew Motion was poet laureate from 1999-2009, during which time he wrote Regime Change in protest against the Iraq war and The Five Acts of Harry Patch about ‘the last surviving Tommy’ from the First World War. Equal Voices, a co-commission by the London Symphony Orchestra and Royal Scottish National Orchestra, will be premiered this November.
Andrew, could you set the scene for how this project came about?
Andrew Motion (AM): In the last part of the last decade, I pretty much stopped writing poems. I sort of went blind in the razzle-dazzle of it all somehow, and felt I had lost a necessary feeling of quietness and freedom. I thought in my darkest moments that maybe I had killed myself off as a writer. But when I stood down from being poet laureate, to my delight and relief it was like aeroplanes in the fog: my poems hadn’t disappeared but were in a stack waiting to land.
I had a burst of writing that I’ve never had before and it hasn’t stopped. And it turned out that a lot of these poems were about men fighting, in essentially Western wars. But why? Partly I think because, like a lot of other people, I have been very agitated by events in Iraq and Afghanistan. And more intimately because my father had died. He had fought in the Second World War, landed at D-Day, and had stayed on in the Territorial Army. His father had fought in the First World War. I think that these poems are on some level about him, a form of grieving.
All these war poems were collected in Laurels and Donkeys. The longest individual poem of the series is ‘An Equal Voice’ which takes the great bulk of its text from books about shell-shock and in particular from a book called A War of Nerves by Ben Shephard. I extracted bits and pieces – found them, arranged them and trimmed them, introduced a sort of steadiness of tone and cast them as unrhymed sonnets. It gives voice to people who Shephard himself says are very often unvoiced. It lets the victicms speak for themselves.
So, Sally, you were given this collection Laurels and Donkeys as a starting point. Why did you then choose ‘An Equal Voice’ from the collection?
Sally Beamish (SB): Immediately I could see from the page that the poem is in sections, which means it is an entitity in itself but can also be divided up – that structure really appealed to me. When I got into it I realised it absolutely struck a chord with me because of my personal feelings about war and its human cost. What it does to people to train them to kill one another and to witness scenes of such horror. It’s a very powerful poem but very dark. Actually, I was worried because it was so dark and distressing, and I started to think about other texts to use with it.
AM: There’s not much light or hope. It’s a grim account of a grim affliction.
And you’ve chosen passages from the Song of Songs, I understand?
SB: Yes, which is about love. The central part of the piece, which has five sections, is a love duet from the Song of Songs, for soprano, baritone and just strings and woodwind. There’s a line in the Song of Songs ‘Love is as strong as death’, and I wanted to have this vision for the future in there. The whole piece ends with the idea of flowers appearing on earth and birds singing – there’s the idea of the dove as a voice of peace.
How did you go about composing Equal Voices?
SB: I spent about three months sorting the text out. It took me a long time to decide exactly what other texts to use, put them together in a meaningful way and work out what soloists I wanted. It was only relatively late on that I realised I needed a female voice. It was all about trying to get the right shape and balance: I tried three, four and ended up with five sections. All of that happened before I’d written very much. I had written the four chorales that are the basis of four of the parts early on, so I had those. I had wondered whether I could write the piece in piano short score first, but that didn’t happen as I tend to start with orchestral sounds and colours.
Do you, Andrew, ever have in mind that your poems might be set to music?
AM: I think, to be honest, I rather did hope that it woud be set to music, which may seem rather ‘Empire State Building’ of me. But I am so interested in music as sound. And it has been my great good fortune to have such happy experiences of having poems set to music in the past, mainly by Peter Maxwell Davies, when he was Queen’s ‘Music-ing’ and I was Queen’s ‘poet-ing’. I often listen to music involving voices – opera or lieder. I almost always have somewhere in my mind that this might be settable.
There are many striking sounds and images from nature in ‘An Equal Voice’…
SB: I have called the second movement ‘Pastorale with Seascape’, because there are passages in Andrew’s poem which kind of use a nightmarish view of nature, for instance the sound of a shell before it explodes: ‘a soft siffle like a distant lark’. And of course nature is there in war – the birds are there. There’s also this idea of war as a horrendous sea storm.
But the fourth section, which I’ve called ‘scherzo’, is the most nightmarish of all – it’s about the scenes in mental hospitals with people whose minds have been completely destroyed by what they have seen. Actually, it’s also quite inspired by my mother who has dementia. I spent a lot of time in the old people’s home – there’s a sort of counterpoint of people doing weird repetitive things. One man kept saying ‘cigarette’, and someone else was talking very slowly about making a cake. The images in the poem reminded me of that. I’ve used little phrases, repeated by the choir and soloists all the way through.
The fifth part if called ‘paen’ which means thanksgiving, but I’ve used it as a vision of a world at peace. It finishes on the word ‘land’, repeated over and over. It seems to me that it’s ownership of land that we fight over. But are we talking about our country or the earth?
The voices in Andrew’s poem are the voices of the people – the patients and doctors – who have experienced war. Does it make a difference knowing these are real experiences?
SB: Yes, absolutely. One knows all those images, particularly from World War One, the stoical description ‘dulce et decorum est’ and the irony, but we don’t so often hear about it from the point of view of those who have been damaged psychologically by it. Using the voices of people whose minds have been altered, who have been sent into madness, puts yet another horrible spin on it.
Do you think even today we are still reticent about dealing with that?
SB: Yes I think so. After all, today, if you join the army you are trained to use a gun and there is only one reason for that – to destroy another human being. That is quite a leap from how we are all made – to love and to connect. So what does it do to someone to give them a gun? What does it actually do? I find that quite interesting – the psychological effect of battle and whether there is enough support for people who are then damaged by the experience of having to put that into practice.
Is this piece then both a commemoration but also a way of questioning?
SB: Yes, very much so. It’s what we call in Scotland a ‘minding’. In our daily lives we often experience the seeds of war. We tend to confront rather than to resolve and discuss. I come from a Quaker standpoint – the idea that there is a part of God in everyone, in the enemy as well. We’re all made the same.
Is there a sense that poets, composers and writers have the responsibility or power to give voice to unheard individuals ?
AM: That’s nice of you to say that. And that’s very much what I think. You have to be a little bit careful not to sound as though you’re doing them a favour – I don’t mean it in that way. But there is perhaps an opportunity for voices to be heard that may not have been. And very often when I read war poems by people who haven’t been there, however well intentioned, I almost always feel that there is something grandstanding about it. I am very anxious to avoid that. I think one way around it is these ‘found’ or ‘collaborative’ poems, which uses the testimony of those who really were there. It can be very powerful.
Photos: Paul Joyce (Andrew Motion and Sally Beamish); Ashley Coombes (Sally Beamish)