Programme Notes – Eternal Voices

Words by Ben Kaye Music by Adam Gorb

For Mezzo Soprano Solo, Boy Treble, Chorus and Wind Ensemble

When asked to write a large-scale choral work involving the Royal Marines on the subject of the present conflict in Afghanistan I sensed that to take any particular stance would be inappropriate. So I hope that in this work, both tub thumping jingoism and anti-war agitprop are not evident, although the mystery of music is that the same melodies, harmonies and rhythms can express totally different reactions and feelings from one person to the next. Think of the end of Shostakovitch’s 5th symphony, is it pro or anti Stalin? Or the song ‘Lily Marlene’ which was made famous by Marlene Dietrich and was claimed by both the British and the Germans in World War 2.

My intentions in this work are more intimate, and to achieve this I have been enormously inspired by the marvellous words by Ben Kaye. Within minutes of receiving his script I was able to imagine a clear structure for this work – in effect Ben had given the piece a totally convincing sense of inevitability before I had written a note. The script concentrates on one particular family, a Royal Marine who loses his life in the field of conflict and the effect it has on his wife and young son. The work is in five unbroken sections, but with interjections relating to the ‘story’ of the work spoken by a narrator.

Salt of the Sea. Describing the Marines themselves, and their determination and fortitude. I wanted to give the sense of a rolling sea and the majesty of the vessels, inspired by the by the extraordinarily vivid and visionary paintings by the great British artist J.W.W. Turner. The opening of the piece features a gleaming falling motif in the brass answered by rising arpeggios in the woodwind, both of which will feature throughout the work. Towards the end of this movement the choir singing ‘A Capella’ intone the title of the work as it refers directly to the combatants: ‘Let Their Eternal Voices Ring.’ This is followed by a build-up in the ensemble that is abruptly cut off leading directly into the next section.
Contact. The word refers to the battle cry used by Marines when there is a threat of enemy action. It also refers to the cameraderie and mutual support in times of battle. This is the fast movement of the work and starts with soft menacing percussion with the word ‘Contact’ first shouted, then sung by the choir. The movement is one long crescendo leading to perceived triumph followed by grotesque unreality with the return of the percussion and finally tragedy. At the end the first solo voice heard is a tenor from within the choir, a marine having been struck down, with his last living thoughts and memories.
Coming home. Up to this point the scoring of the piece has been fairly full with no particular instruments coming to the fore for any length of time. Now an off stage soprano saxophone laments over chromatically descending low brass and this leads to all the male voices in unison: ‘Down the Ramp for Your Last Run Ashore.’ There is a more consoling interlude with the women’s chorus before the tenors and basses return, the last word in the low reaches of the bass register. The soprano saxophone returns and the melody line plunges into the depths of a baritone saxophone, also off-stage.
The Stars. The sound world changes dramatically as a young boy, the dead Marine’s son looks upwards and remembers his father: ‘Daddy, the Stars.’ Piano, vibraphone and glockenspiel come to the fore along with a chamber group of wordless female voices. Following this the mezzo-soprano soloist grieves for her husband in a monotone closer to speaking than singing. These two starkly contrasting musical worlds are combined before a final impassioned plea from the mezzo- soprano: ‘If I Could Hold You One Last Time,’ before she breaks into a wordless melisma linked to the saxophone melody from the previous movement.
Resolution. Beginning with a cor anglais taking over from the mezzo-soprano with a repeating tuba line underneath, the choir return with a message of hope and fortitude: ‘We are as waves that break upon the farthest shore.’ This signals a reprise of the music from the very opening of the work, which in turn leads to the epilogue where soloists, choir and wind ensemble come together as one, although the final bars leaves open as to the possibility of total peace and resolution.
ETERNAL VOICES lasts about half an hour and was commissioned by the Royal Marines Band Service with funds from the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund. The work is dedicated to all Royal Marines and their families who have given the ultimate sacrifice and have been affected by modern conflicts since the year 2000.