Saturday, 8 September 2018

A substantial monument: Patrick Hawes talks about The Great War Symphony

Patrick Hawes & the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios (Photo Tony Simpson)
Patrick Hawes & the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios (Photo Tony Simpson)
Patrick Hawes' Great War Symphony premieres at the Royal Albert Hall on 9 October 2018 with the composer conducting. It is a big work, a symphonic piece with chorus and soloists lasting an hour and representing a musical memorial to the people and events of the First World War. Having interviewed Patrick before [see my interview] I was interested to know more and we met up for a coffee whilst he was in London recently

Patrick Hawes (Photo Tony Simpson)
Patrick Hawes (Photo Tony Simpson)
Patrick got the idea originally in 2013, and it would take two and half years to create, though 18 months of that was researching the text. Patrick assembled the text himself, from a large variety of sources. Though he had lots of advice, he felt it was up to him to choose the texts he wanted to set based on the way they had to slot together (each movement is made up of a mosaic of different texts). And it was the texts which dictated the structure of the symphony. From the outset it was going to be choral, with soloists central to the drama as the tenor represents the fighting man whilst the soprano is the loved one back home (mother, wife, fiancee).

A monument, to those who gave their lives in the First World War.


Patrick wanted to create a substantial musical work which would serve as a memorial, a monument, to those who gave their lives in the First World War.
He felt that it was vital that during the four years of the Centenary artists of all types bequeath large scale works to future generations. For Patrick, after opera, the symphony is the most substantial musical genre and he feels that this new work is very much a symphony and not an oratorio. Patrick sees the latter genre as being more focused with much more uniform texts, whilst a symphony has something universal about it which cannot be contained in an oratorio. For the Great War Symphony, he uses a vast array of texts from well known war poets to writers from USA and Australia, as well as his grand-parents.

The four movements of the symphony could reflect the four years of the war.


One of his first realisations was the four movements of the symphony could reflect the four years of the war, and it was this that drew him to the symphonic structure in the first place rather than a requiem, an oratorio or an opera. It is also important to Patrick that the work does not just distil the four years of the war into the musical format, but hangs together as a symphony. Patrick would like to think that it represents the early 21st century English symphony.

Patrick has always engaged with English music from the period and has particularly felt an affinity with the music of RVW, who in fact died the year Patrick was born. Patrick talks about the way RVW felt he had found the antidote to modernism in English folk-song and, to a lesser degree, plainchant. RVW made the extraordinary statement that all English music after him would owe something to folk-song, something that two world wars and the events of the later 20th century would shatter. Patrick feels that composers in the 21st century have to be aware of this and that given the distance from events, creative people have to take over where RVW and others left off. So Patrick feels that he is picking up the torch for deeply authentic English music.

Most of his ideas that arise and are talked about, seem great at the time but never go anywhere.


The work was effectively commissioned by HM Treasury via a grant from the LIBOR fund which financed projects connected with the armed forces. Both the concert and the recording are being given in aid of SSAFA - The Armed Forces Charity, with the venue for the concert being the Royal Albert Hall and the event, is hosted by Classic FM (which is recording the concert for broadcast the night after). From the outset, Patrick knew that he would be using the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain because Ben Parry (director of the National Youth Choirs) was present at the first discussions about the work in 2013 with record producer Andrew Sunnucks. Patrick admits that most of his ideas that arise and are talked about, seem great at the time but never go anywhere, but this one simply grew and when the LIBOR grant appeared in 2016 things were set.

It was quite a long and sometimes frustrating journey for Patrick, but he has found it thoroughly exciting and rewarding. He has learned a lot both as a composer and of all things English, literature and poetry. And he feels that he now understands the importance of what the hundreds of thousands of men gave their lives for.

Patrick will be conducting the premiere at the Royal Albert Hall (on 9 October 2018), and the American premiere at the Carnegie Hall (on 11 November 2018). There are other performances planned too, in Plymouth, in Malta and there is a simultaneous American premiere in Minneapolis.

An all consuming act of remembrance for the First World War.


Patrick wanted to have as much outreach as possible associated with the premiere and in some movements, choirs from around the UK will be participating via performances beamed into the hall. Technically it was too risky to have these done live, so they are being pre-recorded. The band of the Household Cavalry is also participating, as is the Invictus Games Choir. There will also be footage of World War One shown, and this is being curated by artistic director Christopher Joll. The result is very much designed to be a multifaceted performance. Patrick wants it to be more than just an aural experience, he feels it should be an all consuming act of remembrance for the First World War.

And it was important that a youth choir was involved specifically to encourage young people in acts of remembrance for the war. This is something about which Patrick feels strongly, that there is a danger of the First World War becoming a distant memory and less relevant to modern life.

Patrick Hawes & the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios (Photo Tony Simpson)
Patrick Hawes & the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at Abbey Road Studios (Photo Tony Simpson)

The work is more difficult than a lot of music Patrick has written.


The work is more difficult than a lot of music Patrick has written, both for the singers and players, but he likes to think that it is still singable/playable in a way that some contemporary works are not. When writing, Patrick always things carefully about the singing or playing experience so his music is very linear. But, in the symphony, there are challenging intervals and key changes, and he explores the extremes of range and tessitura, and there are demanding rhythmic patterns.

In some areas, the writing took him out of his comfort zone as a composer, and he has created some of the most dissonant music he has ever written, taking his style a step further than his choral work Revelation, because the texts demanded it at such moments as the end of the second movement which sets words from Siegfried Sassoon's diary, 'There has been hell let loose'. But Patrick describes himself as 'always respectful of dissonance' and tries to keep it in its place. He feels that a lot of contemporary composers glory in dissonance, but that is not for him.

To combine the excitement and vivacity of live performance
but with the control which comes from editing.


Unusually, the recording of the work has already been made, thanks to the LIBOR grant and this has also enabled the recording to be made in a way few classical CDs are nowadays, with a high degree of separation between orchestra, choir and soloists. There were separate sessions in Abbey Road Studios for the separate constituents of the piece and then a good month was spent mixing. The idea was to combine the excitement and vivacity of live performance but with the control which comes from editing, along with the superb sound which comes from the Abbey Road Studio.

The sound engineer was Sam O'Kell and the producer was Andrew Sunnucks. Patrick feels that it is important that the right team is in place for a project, and comments that a composer needs enables, people who believe in his music and Patrick feels fortunate in his team. The recording is being released on the Classic FM label on 21 September 2018.

Patrick is now having a bit of a breather, and it is in fact a long time since he gave himself a few monts to rest and think. But there are still projects on the horizon, a new family opera based on a children's book, and new choral works for a publisher in America where there is a growing interest in Patrick's music. He also wants to leave plenty of space once the symphony has been experienced to allow for developments in the direction that he wants to go.

Patrick Hawes - The Great War Symphony
Patrick Hawes' The Great War Symphony premieres at the Royal Albert Hall, in partnership with Classic FM, on Tuesday 9 October 2018, with Patrick Hawes conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, London Youth Choir, Berkshire Youth Choir, Invictus Games Choir, Louise Alder (soprano), Joshua Ellicott (tenor) and Military Bands. Full details from the Royal Albert Hall website.

The work receives its US premiere on 11 November 2018 at Carnegie Hall, with Patrick Hawes conducting the Distinguished Concerts Singers and Orchestra. Full details from the Carnegie Hall website.

There is a simultaneous US premiere on 11 November at Northrop Memorial Auditorium, University of Minnesota, with the Oratorio Society of Minnesota, University of Minnesota Men's and Women's choirs, guest orchestra and soloists, conducted by Matthew Mehaffey, and the performance will feature the hall's newly restored Aeolian-Skinner organ. Full details from the Northrop Auditorium website.

The recording of the symphony, on the Classic FM label with Patrick Hawes conducting the National Youth Choirs of Great Britain, Louise Alder, Joshua Ellicott and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, is released on 21 September 2018. Available from Amazon.


Elsewhere on this blog:
  • A vivid theatrical, orchestral experience: John Eliot Gardiner's all-Berlioz prom   (★★★★½) - Concert review
  • Mesmerising: Simone Spagnolo's new philosophical, operatic mono-drama 'Faust, Alberta'  (★★★½) - Opera review
  • Certainly not boring: Rolando Villazón in Mozart's La clemenza di Tito on Deutsche Grammophon (★★★½)  - CD review
  • Sleeping Beauty awakes with a lively afternoon of Victorian & Edwardian light music at the BBC Proms  (★★★★) - concert review
  • Language, Catalan culture & audience engagement: I chat to mezzo Marta Fontanals Simmons - Interview
  • Lyrical & striking: Howard Goodall's Invictus: A Passion (★★★★) - CD review
  • A return to the Wonderful Town from Rattle's opening season with the London Symphony Orchestra (★★★★) - CD review
  • Sheer delight: Vivaldi's Concerti da Camera  (★★★★½) - CD review
  • A real discovery: Loder's English romantic opera Raymond and Agnes (★★★★) - Cd review
  • Bayreuth’s Die Walküre is pulled from the pack and given another airing conducted by Plácido Domingo (★★★★) - opera review
  • Popular tunes, segregation & pioneers: Gershwin's Porgy and Bess - feature article
  • A different side to Julian Anderson revealed in this disc of choral music from Gonville & Caius (★★★★) - CD review
  •  In Sorrow's Footsteps: The Marian Consort in Gabriel Jackson, James MacMillan, Palestrina & Allegri (★★★★) - CD review
  • Home

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