We’re excited to be working with Canadian composer Abigail Richardson again! We last worked with Ms. Richardson in 2012 when the CPO, along with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra and National Arts Centre Orchestra co-commissioned a piece called The Hockey Sweater, based on the classic Canadian children’s story.
This Season, we’ve partnered with Ms. Richardson again to commission two new works – Song of the Poets and Alligator Pie. Song of the Poets, a piece created in commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of WWI, will premiere at our concert this Thursday – “Classical Superstar Joshua Bell.” We asked Ms. Richardson to tell us the story behind this composition, who “the poets” were, and what she hopes people will experience.
How did this collaboration between you and the CPO come about?
There are a few answers to this question:
I was first approached by the National Arts Centre for a collaboration with The World Remembers, an organization run by Canadian actor R.H. Thomson. The World Remembers honors people who lost their lives in WWI by projecting their names on the outside of public buildings leading up to Remembrance Day. (This is currently in nine countries, I believe, with more being added during the year these countries joined the war a hundred years ago. Example: if they joined the war in 1915, they will join The World Remembers project in 2015). The NAC co-commissioned the piece for their UK Tour which is currently underway. I was delighted when the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra and the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra joined as co-commissioners. There are also a number of partner orchestras performing the work this fall, including the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra where I am composer in residence, Newfoundland Symphony, and the Kamloops Symphony.
I am also writing Alligator Pie for the CPO, after the success of The Hockey Sweater, which was co-commissioned with the CPO. I grew up outside of Calgary, went to high school (Western Canada High School) and did my undergrad in Calgary. I’m so happy to return and share my music at the CPO with family and friends! Also, I’m really impressed with the orchestra and the administration. For the CPO premiere of The Hockey Sweater, the conductor fell ill the night before the concert. The CPO arranged for another conductor to fly in during the early hours of the morning for a matinee show the following day. As a result, some of the other repertoire on the program had to be changed. I hosted the show, and I have to say, the musicians handled the changes brilliantly. No one in the audience knew a thing was wrong.
More directly, I know Heather Slater from my time at the Toronto Symphony Orchestra. We were there at the same time together – I was Affiliate Composer from 2006-09.
How long did it take you to write this composition?
The composition itself took a couple of months but I was working on the various different arrangements for a few months beyond that. I created 14 different versions of the same piece with full choir and piano, children’s choir and piano, solo voice and piano, all combinations of English, French, German, bilingual, plus full choir with orchestra.
What does the title, Song of the Poets, mean?
It has a very literal meaning. The text comes from five excerpts from poet soldiers who served in WWI on both sides. As I wrote in my notes, “These are not graphic poems of fighting, nor are they propaganda to gain support for the war effort. Each of these poems looks at the outcome of war, told with the perspective of poets able to see beyond their own circumstances.”
What do you want people to take away or experience from Song of the Poets?
I see this piece as a sort of time travel back to the war. We start off wandering through the graves, row on row, of John McCrae’s In Flanders Fields. We then go back to the battlefield with English poet Wilfred Owen’s Futility, as a soldier suggests how to wake a fallen comrade by moving him into the sun. French writer Louis Aragon writes of the emotional weight soldiers carry and shows the glittering diamonds of waves which suggest a way out (suicide). German writer Gerrit Engelke poses questions from one German soldier to a soldier on the other side, making the sides of the war seem irrelevant. And finally, French poet Luc Durtain writes of only being remembered as a fallen soldier on a plaque, on a stone. After that, we touch on the Owen poem again, and end up walking the rows of graves with In Flanders Fields. I think the different perspectives allow us to experience what it might have been like to live the life of a soldier.
What about Song of Poets are you most proud of?
I’m pleased to have a composition which is really versatile. All of that “copying” was certainly time consuming, but now I have a piece that can be performed by a children’s choir in English with piano or a professional choir singing in three languages with orchestra and many versions in-between.
I’m also proud to be presenting both sides of the war with this piece. I’m English (I was 6 when I moved to Calgary) and my family had a strong connection to WWI. My mother’s house was the home of the 33rd regiment with the officers staying in the home and the soldiers in the field. I grew up with those stories. Now I’m exposed to a completely different side because I married a German. Not only am I learning German, but I hear his family stories, interact with his family in Germany, and realize that both sides suffered. This piece is very much about that.
Anything else you’d like to add?
There are a number of choirs performing this in the UK, as part of the NAC’s UK tour. For example, it is at London’s Royal Festival Hall on October 27th. I was born in England and this is a nice chance for my family in England to hear some of my music in concert.
Stay tuned for details of the CPO’s next commission from Ms. Richardson, Alligator Pie, premiering on May 31, 2015!