‘So how are you going to get from war songs to the Howells requiem?’ was my question to Tom Morris in the interval. It seemed quite a challenge to get from folk ditties to the cloistered world of an unaccompanied choir, despite the shared theme of the losses of War. Tom was confident, though. ‘You’ll see’, he said, smiling.
And it was a great transition. Out of the dying echoes of a folksong about the British countryside, a solo flute gave the opening to Vaughan Williams’ ‘Lark Ascending’, which is itself like a folk tune you could improvise and whistle in the fields. In the poem from which it was inspired, the lark also represents the soul’s ascent into a different realm. Seamlessly, we went from countryside to cathedral as the Erebus Ensemble sang the opening Latin chant to Howells’ requiem. Howells was close to Vaughan Williams, and his music carries some of the imprints of his older colleague. It was an inspired connection point.
The Erebus are a young choir who, through working intensely together (not least in their very busy week here at the Proms!) have already developed an impressive blend. The requiem is a cry for peace, but a cry all the same. Tom Williams brought out the full emotion of the music and it was sensitively staged to give maximum drama.
The whole evening shared this pathos, though. John Tams brought out all the different colours, nostalgic and ironic, of the songs that went for war. It was great to have such an expert as our guide through the stories behind the songs. I ended up with a far richer understanding of how the music of the time represented the journey of the Tommy from cheery-cheeked optimism to disillusionment and bitterness. Just before the requiem, Tams sang a song of soldiers dying for the ‘lies of their fathers’. It was incredibly moving and having the Requiem as some kind of response felt all the more fitting.