Philip Lancaster's War Passion draws on beautiful material – but lacks feeling

With a lot of commemorative art to compete with, the premiere of Lancaster's new piece could have used, well, more passion.

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In a letter home from the front, dated May 1917, Wilfred Owen wrote, “Christ is literally in no-man’s-land.” He was referring to the prevalence of Catholic iconography in rural France and commenting that even the statues he saw everywhere were not immune to war wounds. In the opening of his poem “At a Calvary Near the Ancre”, he took this imagery and wrote of a roadside statue of the crucified Christ: “In this war He too lost a limb . . .” Decades later, the poem became one of nine set to music by Benjamin Britten for his War Requiem, cementing the connection between the suffering Christ and the losses of the First World War.

It is this parallel that Philip Lancaster has sought to explore in War Passion, his new work for chamber choir, ensemble and soloists which premiered at the Three Choirs Festival in Gloucester on 24 July. Lancaster, like Britten, has used the poetry of the First World War, interspersed with other, often religious texts. His selections range across a number of poets who died in or survived the war, including Edward Thomas, Siegfried Sassoon, Julian Grenfell, Edmund Blunden and Robert Graves.

The choice of texts is intriguing, as several of the poets from whose work he borrows were openly atheist or anti-Church at the time of the war. For instance, the last entry in Edward Thomas’s war diary, written shortly before he was killed at the Battle of Arras in 1917, was: “I never quite understood what was meant by God.” You wonder what he and others of similar mind might have made of the inclusion of their work in a Passion.

The piece is intended, on one level, as a narration of Christ’s Passion according to the Gospel of Mark, and also as a commentary on the parallels between the sacrifice of Jesus and that of the soldiers. The opening contains some of the best music in the work:
a merging, intertwining dialogue between two cellos that sets a sombre, eerie mood.

A lot of the effect of this section was lost in performance, however, once the full orchestra and chorus got going. The sound of the former was so overpowering that the words of Grenfell’s “Into Battle” (the first poem of the sequence to be used) were mostly inaudible. This remained true throughout the 67 minutes of the piece as the narrator and other characters, as well as the chorus, were all but drowned out by the ensemble, a situation that was not helped by the blurry acoustics of Cirencester Parish Church. For a piece that relies so heavily on the interaction of different texts, this was a problem.

An exception to this was the soprano aria fashioned from Isaac Rosenberg’s “The Tower of Skulls” for the Golgotha section of the Passion, in which the soloist Anna Gillingham made full use of her higher notes to bring a piercing, unearthly quality to the “gleaming horror” of the poet’s vision of “layers of piled-up skulls”. The chorale-like chorus setting of parts of “The Death Bed” by Sassoon also came across well. In general, the music was unremarkable – self-consciously contemporary and percussive with lots of dissonance and rhythmic shifts, but lacking the harmonic underpinning or depth of feeling that would make it particularly memorable.

The various First World War centenaries that are being celebrated at the moment have provided us with an awful lot of war-related cultural output – from exhibitions to plays and everything in between. To stand out in this crowd, a new offering has to give us a fresh perspective on what are commonly known events and images. The parallel of the suffering of Christ with that of the soldiers on the Western Front is well worn almost to the point of cliché, as evidenced by Wilfred Owen’s use of it. Even the war memorial outside the church where the War Passion was premiered is topped with a carving of the crucifixion.

Alongside Lancaster’s Passion, the St ­Cecilia Singers gave us Herbert Howells’s Requiem. Howells wrote this relatively short, unaccompanied work in the 1930s, partly in response to the death of his nine-year-old son, Michael, from polio, but it wasn’t performed until the early 1980s, just before the composer died.

This was an atmospheric performance, though it was slightly marred by the perennial problems of amateur choirs: falling pitch, poor diction and quavery tenors. But the two hushed settings of the Latin text “Requiem aeternam dona eis” were admirably focused, and more evocative than ­everything else on the programme.

Caroline Crampton is a writer and podcaster. She was formerly an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue