These Things Remain (2019)

2222 4331 12 baritone solo, SATB chorus, strings (doublings: picc, cbsn)
14 min.

Given the monumental task of commemorating Canada’s efforts in the liberation of Europe in World War II, and wanting the piece to have an authentically Canadian voice at its core, I sought words by people who lived through the events. Almost immediately, I found that voice in the form of Rhyme and Reason, a slim volume of poetry by Canadian soldiers deployed in Europe during the war. Often anonymous or printed under pseudonyms, the poems range from somber to questioning, and even parodic – a heroic elegy for a broken jug of rum stands out. But the most vivid threads running through these verses are a resolve to stand for the freedom of strangers – even unto death – and a fervent desire to break with the errors of the past and leave behind a more peaceful world. The resulting text is a collage of fragments from over a dozen poems, a tapestry of the soldiers’ hopes and fears, their sacrifices and fond memories of home.

The music begins in media res, with a heartsick plea from the baritone soloist for serenity, a place away from humanity’s worst depravity. The soldiers’ lines are presented throughout as a unified voice, cross-cutting back and forth between soloist and chorus, commenting on the horrors of war, fragile moments of calm amid the chaos, offering prayers for the future – musings both individual and collective. The piece ends in a meditation on the cyclical recurrence of violence, destruction and loss, with the soloist intoning reflective lines from the soldiers’ verses over a choral hymn on the First World War-era Canadian poem “In Flanders Fields,” by John MacCrae. Allusions and outright quotes from this popular wartime classic appear throughout Rhyme and Reason. As it was clearly a source of comfort and fortitude for these later soldier-poets, I wanted to set it in a musical language they would have recognized.

Standing on former battlefields in Normandy shortly before beginning the piece, it struck me that the poppies that cover them – like the wars they symbolize, and the Europe that rose from their ashes – know no borders. MacCrae’s poem is here a condemnation – how have we allowed this yet again? – a call to action in preserving peace and human dignity, and a stark caution against surrendering to our most self-destructive impulses. The natural world, as ever, stands by impassively, unfazed by the senselessness of our conflicts, ultimately subsuming them – and us.

These Things Remain was commissioned by the Winnipeg Symphony Orchestra on the occasion of its May 2020 European tour, commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Netherlands and Belgium by Canadian troops in the final months of World War II. The work is dedicated to the WSO and Daniel Raiskin.