Songs of Wars I Have Seen
Richard Morrison at Queen Elizabeth Hall
It's the orchestral premieres with add-on extras – theatre, poetry, film – that have most interested me over the past decade. Of course, these genre-blurring events require far more organisation than run-of-the-mill concerts. But I believe they point to the future.
Heiner Goebbels, the 55-year-old German composer, has been a quirky pioneer in this field, notably with his 1996 work Black on White, which sent an orchestra dancing around the stage. His new work, Songs of Wars I Have Seen, is just as impressive: 50 minutes of gently mesmerising music-theatre.
This time the players stay seated. But they still have to multitask. Goebbels's inspiration is Gertrude Stein's book Wars I Have Seen, written in France during the Second World War. It comprises quietly ironic observations about the tragically recurring nature of warfare, as perceived through the eyes of women stoically going about their daily chores.
Goebbels allots these spoken comments to the women musicians in the ensemble. Playing strings and woodwind, they are grouped closest to the conductor and are quaintly illuminated by table lamps. More harshly lit, the men sit at the back: symbolically wordless but menacing on brass and percussion.
The score, admirably conducted by Sian Edwards, also reflects this duality by using both the period-instrument Orchestra of the Age of Enlightenment and the new-music specialists of the London Sinfonietta. Because Stein refers to Shakespeare's masterly insights into warfare, Goebbels incorporates elegiac snippets of Matthew Locke's 1674 score for The Tempest. But here they are played through an electronic mist – like music dimly heard on a wartime wireless, or like warnings that echo faintly down the centuries yet still go unheeded.
Otherwise the music is acerbic and descriptive, redolent sometimes of 1940s jazz, elsewhere of mayhem lurking around every corner. It suggests ordinary people clinging to the vestiges of everyday life as armies and politicians trash the world around them.
It ends stunningly. As the lights dim, a trumpeter plays a slithering, discombobulated solo – a cracked bugle call? – while all the others placidly vibrate bowls on their laps, producing an endless, ethereal hum. I was reminded of Hardy's line: "War's annals will cloud into night ere their story die." A thought-provoking, hauntingly tender work for troubled times.
The Boston Globe (US), 16 July 2007