This July, I met up with seasoned travelling companions Chris and Rosemary in Amsterdam. We have conspired on several international adventures in France, Italy, and the far west coast of North America, but this summer we had a quest to learn all we could about the events of 1914.
We spent a few days decompressing in Ghent: a cyclists’ heaven. Cars, pedestrians and bikes all share the road with decorum and respect. There are bike racks in front of every public building, and cycling along the canals is a peaceful way to explore. We gaped at the treasured Ghent Altarpiece, saw a wonderful “Judith” in the Museum voor Schone Kunsten, and sampled Genever and Belgian beer. In Antwerp we caught up with Dirk and Jeroon of the Voces Capituli who sing my music in their male voice choir in several churches in Antwerp. During our lunch of traditional Belgian mussels and garlic, we learned that a plane had been shot down over Ukraine. We had been blissfully unaware of the real world, and that news brought us back to reality since we had passed through Schiphol only days earlier.
We continued on to France in a rental car to do some World War I research. We specifically wanted to find Chris’ great uncle’s grave, and to learn about 1914 in this centenary year. We trekked through fields of barley, corn, grass, over chalk, gravel, clay and mud to reach some very remote WW1 cemeteries. Beaumont-Hamel, Cerisy-Gailly, Courcelette, Morisel, Ors, Vimy, Notre Dame de Lorette, Toronto Cemetery, Theipval, Villers-Bretonneux – we paid our respects and signed all of the guest books. Without exception these final resting places of Canadians, Australians, Brits and Germans are meticulously cared for, with green grass perfectly mown, and flowerbeds flawlessly weeded. We did manage to find Chris’ uncle, and Wilfred Owen’s grave, but thousands of these headstones have the same inscription: “A soldier of the great war. Known to God.”
Our time in France was not all grim. We loved the town of Amiens with its extremely lofty cathedral whose nave rises 139 feet (dwarfing Worcester cathedral’s nave, a mere 67 feet high.) A “son et lumière” show on the cathedral façade delighted a large local audience after dark, preceded by an elderly gentleman playing a weird cranked up pipe organ to the delight of many children.
To round out our experience we flew to Worcester, UK for The Three Choirs Festival, which opened with Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem and closed with Elgar’s The Apostles. Sharing this with my family and friends, living in the former lock master’s cottage on Diglis Island was a highlight of the summer. The usual hike in the hills included a stop at Malvern Priory, hosting an unusual display of a quilt for peace by a group who promotes “nonviolence in action.”
The final few days of my journey involved seeing Highnam Court where C.H. H. Parry lived, and the beautiful Victorian church built in memory of his mother. Pax Christi Chorale will be performing Parry’s oratorio Judith in the spring, so it was wonderful to walk in the cow pastures where he grew up, with a perfect view of Gloucester Cathedral.
My friend Renée took me to visit Jemma Pearson who sculpted the Elgar in Hereford statue. After viewing her studio in the peaceful town of Clun, she and her husband gave us a glorious lunch around a roaring hearth. Jemma’s discipline inspires me, and reminds me that spending a great deal of tedious time alone working on a piece is the only way to get it done!
So for me it’s back to composing music. I finally found my text for the Winnipeg Organ Festival from Isaiah:
For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.