It’s known as the One Day of the Year but the bittersweet truth is that there’s enough music reflecting the world at war to last from one Anzac Day to the next.
Martin Buzacott shares his recommendations for music to mark the day.
1. The Flowers of War
This visionary, ongoing project is like a one-stop shop for recordings and documentation on Australian music and musicians in theatres of war. The headline projects have included the multi-composer Gallipoli Symphony and Diggers Requiem, plus the first recordings of the complete works of Frederick Septimus Kelly. Directed by the Australian War Memorial’s Artist-in-Residence Christopher Latham, The Flowers of War is now turning its attention to the Vietnam War, but what makes the project unique is that everything is available free-of-charge online. A truly remarkable achievement and an authoritative documentation of Australian music in war.
2. Peter Sculthorpe: Small Town
If, like Peter Sculthorpe himself, you come from regional Australia, “Small Town” is a piece that inevitably fills you with nostalgia for your childhood. With its famous opening oboe melody and later trumpet solo, it speaks of those long hot summer days filled with possibilities, the calls of crows and magpies, the smell of your neighbour’s flower garden wafting into your nostrils as you rode by on your bike. And of course, the centrepiece was the town’s war memorial, standing like a silent sentinel, always somehow there, wherever you’d go in town, bearing witness to the sacrifices of local kids who went off in uniform to faraway lands and never came back. Gone but never forgotten.
3. Anzac Voices: Gallipoli From Those Who Were There
Anzac Voices is the story of Gallipoli, told by those who lived through it: regular troops, senior commanders, stretcher-bearers, signal operators, a nurse and a Turkish general, as well as Australia’s official war correspondent. The transcendent voice of music interweaves these accounts, providing a poignant musical reflection on this nation-defining event from composers including Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar, Peter Sculthorpe, Ross Edwards and Frederick Septimus Kelly, whose Elegy was sketched behind the lines at Gallipoli. (This project was created, written and produced by Martin Buzacott.)
4. Vaughan Williams: A Pastoral Symphony
Although aged in his early 40s and not required to serve, Vaughan Williams volunteered as an Ambulance Wagon Orderly in World War I. On the bloody battlefields of France, he witnessed human death and destruction on a mass scale, troops dying on the stretchers he carried. Climbing Mont Saint-Eloi on rare hours off-duty, he looked out on the carnage in the surrounding battlefields near Arras and tried to make sense of it all. Vaughan Williams himself survived the war, but he’d lost many friends, and most of all, his beloved younger colleague George Butterworth. Later, he captured the pain and loss of war within the haunted strains of his Pastoral Symphony.
5. Ross Edwards: Symphony No. 1 “Da Pacem Domine”
In the early 1990s with the Iraq War raging, Australian composer Ross Edwards’s imagination became haunted by an insistent drumming, a low timpani rumble that wouldn’t leave him alone. It was to be the starting point of one of Australia’s most remarkably-structured and moving symphonies, a single-arc structure, all of it slow, that is simultaneously a howl of rage at the horrors of war but also a deeply humane plea for peace.
6. Dora Pejačević: Symphony in F sharp minor
Like other members of the Croatian aristocracy, composer Dora Pejačević was appalled by the horrors of World War I, but unlike so many of her peers, she actually did something about it. When the wounded started arriving in her hometown of Našice she took an active role as a volunteer nurse. Between shifts caring for the maimed and the shell-shocked, she began work on one of her masterpieces, her impassioned and powerful Symphony in F sharp minor and by war’s end it was close to completion.
7. Ivor Gurney: In Flanders, Severn Meadows, By a Bierside
Ivor Gurney wrote these classic songs while serving as a machine gunner in World War I. Stationed in the region around Pozieres and what is now the Thiepval Memorial, he captured all the emotions of war — the lost innocence, the homesickness and the grief. By nature a sensitive soul, Gurney’s compelling, starkly beautiful settings from the trenches came at a terrible cost. Physically he survived the war, but it severely impacted his mental health, and he spent the rest of his days in psychiatric care.
8. Messiaen: Quartet for the End of Time
This legendary chamber music masterpiece was composed by Messiaen while a prisoner of war and was premiered in a German stalag in January 1941 in front of an audience of 400 fellow prisoners. The only available piano was clapped-out with keys and pedals that got stuck, and the clarinet and strings were scarcely less decrepit. In the depths of winter amidst such deprivation, no one seemed to care, for this epic work with its spare instrumental textures and long solos touched the very souls of all who heard it. As Messiaen himself later recalled, “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and comprehension.”
Martin Buzacott presents Mornings on ABC Classic (Monday to Friday, 10am–1pm).