So it was an amazing coincidence that last night's Barbican concert, where Ilan Volkov conducted the BBCSO, should include Benjamin Britten's Ballad of Heroes. It commemorates the International Brigades who served in the Spanish Civil War. Men and women joined the International Brigades because they were idealists who were prepared to die if that's what it took to stop fascism. How different things are now when so-called socialists grovel for places at the Royal W! The real conscience of left idealism has effectively been disenfranchised for many years. The big political parties fear change because it threatens their stranglehold.
Britten's Ballad of Heroes was written three years after his seminal Our Hunting Fathers. a much underrated piece whose radicalism still isn't appreciated. This time the tenor is surrounded by a choir, representing the massed voices of the dead and suffering. Offstage trumpet : a reference to distant conflicts as well as to the Christian idea of the last trumpet, for which you don't need to be a believer to acess. Alarums and whips of clarinet, marching ostinato in the orchestra and turbulence in the choral writing. "A world of horror!" Then suddenly the tenor emerges, uncovered.
"....and the guns can be heard across the hills like wa-a-aves at night". A distinctively Britten flourish. Later there are huge leaps within phrases in the vocal line, which Toby Spence negotiates well. The orchestra comments, like a response in the sermon referred to in the text. This time the trumpet call is sour and distorted - a precursor of the horn in the Serenade for tenor, horn and strings. Though it's not a masterpiece, Ballad of Heroes is dramatic and would work well in public spaces. Like Westminster Abbey.
The text is from W H Auden and Randall Swingler, a communist poet of the 1930's HERE is a link to another poem, much better and possibly all Auden, (though it's not, as the site suggests, the text used in this setting). The Spanish Civil War inspired so many artists and writers, from Picasso, to Hemingway and myriad others less famous. Where are the artists now, in our even more polarized times? Have they all been lulled into complicity? Britten's Ballad of Heroes is a million miles from Hanns Eisler and Ernst Busch (who actually took part) but Britten cared enough to make a statement.
The concert, which can be heard for 7 days online HERE, included the premiere of James Clarke's Untitled No 2 for piano and large orchestra, soloist Nicholas Hodges. Fascinating piece, worth listening to. Also Beethoven 3. Heroic evening altogether.
Personal aside: when I was working on the Chinese civil war I found a thin file on The International Brigade. What, I thought, and followed up. Among the many volunteers were a group of 22 German and Austrian doctors who could not return home for obvious reasons and were effectively statelesss. The Red Ctross picked up on them and redeployed them to China where doctors were desperately needed. I tried to trace where they went, though most disappeared from the public record. Some drifted into the Chinese Communist party but most did essential humanitarian work. Amazingly, one of the men I interviewed for another project knew all about them. Even more amazingly, it turned out that I'd met some of these men and women when I was a kid, but didn't know where they'd come from. This doctor was Hong Kong Jewish and wealthy but went straight into China on graduating from medical school (with my uncle). He went into war-torn China and worked for the Quakers. British representives in China attacked the Quakers for not being pro-British. But the Quakers' basic tenets are neutrality and the good of all. Some people will never understand idealism. Or what real heroism is about.