War Passion

a chamber oratorio
‘The garden called Gethsemane
In Picardy it was [. . .]’
Rudyard Kipling

Philip Lancaster’s War Passion is a telling of the story of Christ’s Passion, into which is interspersed words by ten First World War poets, offering both a commentary on the Passion and a parallel narrative recounting the experience and sacrifice of that war. The image of the Cross and of the Crucifixion is a powerful trope in western culture, especially so in a time of war, and when the country in which that war is fought bears in its landscape the iconography of the Cross and Crucifixion, as was the case in northern France and Flanders. It gave rise also to a legend — now believed to be true — of a Canadian soldier having been crucified by some German soldiers, his hands affixed to a barn door with bayonets. This story is embodied in Francis Derwent Wood’s powerful sculpture, Canada’s Golgotha (pictured right).

Here is a short trailer for the piece, giving a small window into some of the music; its procession from warm sanctuary to desolation:

The War Passion was begun under the auspices of a Finzi Scholarship from the Finzi Trust, and the work was subsequently commissioned by the Three Choirs Festival for performance during the 2016 festival. This first performance took place during the weeks in which the centenary of the Battle of the Somme was being commemorated, and it is apposite that some of the poems featured in the Passion were written in response to that event by poets who were caught up in its devastation. The poem by Siegfried Sassoon that dominates the final Epilogue of the Passion, ‘Christ and the Soldier’, was written in the aftermath of the Somme. The first performance fell upon the 121st anniversary of Robert Graves’s birth — a poet who was so badly wounded in the Somme offensive that he was reported dead. Graves’s poem ‘The Assault Heroic’ is a key text in the second movement of the War Passion. Other war poets featured are Edmund Blunden, Julian Grenfell, Ivor Gurney, Wilfred Owen, Herbert Read, Isaac Rosenberg, Charles Sorley, Edward Thomas.

War Passion comprises four movements:

  • Gethsemane
  • Trial
  • Golgotha
  • Epilogue: The Seven Last Words

It is set for four soloists (soprano, contralto, tenor & baritone), chamber choir, and fourteen instrumentalists (string sextet, wind quartet and four percussionists). War Passion was premièred on 24 July 2016 as part of the Gloucester Three Choirs Festival, performed by the Saint Cecilia Singers, conducted by Jonathan Hope, with soloists Anna Gillingham, Juliet Curnow, Peter Harris and James Geidt. Full details here.

Veni sancte spiritus.

War Passion is dedicated, firstly, to two of my grandparents: to Christopher Simkins, who served in the Royal Engineers Railway Operating Company as a Staff Sergeant in Italy and Austria during the Second World War; and to his father-in-law, William Ridgeway, who served in the Royal Army Service Corps during the First World War, and who, haunted by his war experience and confounded by the loss of his wife during the birth of my grandmother, took his own life in 1931 at the age of 39.
More broadly, it is dedicated to those who, like my grandfathers, fought in those wars and survived. While memorials have been erected to those who gave their lives, there were many who returned from those wars to whom no memorial has been erected. They resumed their civilian lives, living with the memories of the deeds and sights of war. These are no lesser heroes than they who perished.

The Finzi Trust
Canada's Golgotha

Detail from Francis Derwent Wood's sculpture of the crucified soldier, 'Canada's Golgotha'