On the 11th day of the 11th month, something very familiar—music and words reflecting on the waste and devastation of the First World War—and very new. We may think that there’s nothing left to be discovered or said about the poetry of 1914-18, but two years ago Jonathan Dove wrote a cantata,
For An Unknown Soldier, setting mostly unknown texts by First World War writers: Harold Monro, Jessie Pope and WN Hodgson as well as the better-known Wilfred Owen and Isaac Rosenberg — four of whom died in action.
Dove has a profound feel for literature as well as a protean compositional talent and he sets the words in such a way that the thoughts of soldiers serving on the front line are juxtaposed with the fears of women waiting back home or the shrill taunts of a recruiting officer are offset against the trepidation of men marching towards their doom. To add another dimension of pathos he also interpolates two much older songs: The British Grenadiers and the sea-shanty Tom’s Gone to Hilo.
His music is an expertly crafted synthesis of minimalist and film-score techniques, drawing out all the tragic nuances of the poetry with ferociously angry or eerily disquieting orchestral effects. If there are echoes of Tippett and Britten there is also much else that sounds fresh and striking. And Dove’s matchless experience of writing community operas is evident in the way that choirs of young children, older children (Portsmouth Grammar School) and adults (Oxford Bach Choir) are each given a distinct strand of the narrative.
If there is a fault it’s that the recording, with the London Mozart Players conducted by Nicholas Cleobury, sounds as if it were done on one session too few. Nicky Spence is wonderfully tender in the tenor solos, but there are some untidy choral moments and a more generous acoustic would have helped.
Still, it’s a marvellously atmospheric work and should be heard. The filler is a complete contrast: Dove’s exuberant and mischievous An Airmail Letter from Mozart, catapulting a theme by the 18th-century master into late 20th-century harmonies, with delicious writing for string quintet, a pair of horns and scampering piano by Melvyn Tan.