Commissioned by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra with support from the Sidney Myer Fund
First performance by Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Marko Letonja, Federation Concert Hall, Hobart, 18 August 2012
“Although the impulse to compose this piece of music came, initially, from a desire to share the childhood stories of my parents and their friends in Liverpool during the war, and to juxtapose these with accounts from Germany, the music itself took over quite quickly. This is a piece of music, not a documentary.”
Read an article by Andrew Ford about this work: ‘Insight: Blitz for orchestra, chorus and pre-recorded voices’, Resonate 27 July 2012
The voices you will hear in Blitz are those of elderly men and women who were children in Liverpool, Berlin and Hamburg during World War II. After London, the port of Liverpool was the most heavily bombed British city, more than 4,000 people dying there during the course of the war, mostly in December 1940 and May 1941. In Hamburg, during three nights of Allied bombing in July 1943, approximately 45,000 people died. There was similar loss of life in Berlin.
Although the impulse to compose this piece of music came, initially, from a desire to share the childhood stories of my parents and their friends in Liverpool during the war, and to juxtapose these with accounts from Germany, the music itself took over quite quickly. This is a piece of music, not a documentary. And yet in several senses this music relates rather strongly to the stories being told.
There is, for example, the music of the voices themselves. Although the recorded interviews were edited for content, in the context of the orchestra I treated them as solo instruments. In some cases, I composed conversations between a voice and an instrument, such as the duo between my mother and a trombone that begins about five and a half minutes into the piece (‘Most people where we lived had Anderson shelters’).
Blitz also contains two important musical quotations. The first consists of the opening bars of Bruch’s Violin Concerto in G minor, various transformations of that falling three-note melodic figure permeating the piece – in fact the theme is already being transformed before it is heard in its original form. And why the Bruch? Well the slow-motion falling figure struck me as a useful musical symbol for dropping bombs, but also, more prosaically, from 1880 to 1883, the German composer was chief conductor of the Liverpool Philharmonic Society.
The second quote is the great Lutheran chorale, ‘Vom Himmel hoch’ which Bach used so memorably as the basis for his set of canonic variations. At the point in Blitz at which the English voices give way to German voices, I needed something momentous to happen. I was attempting to find a musical equivalent of the firebombing of Hamburg, though of course supposing it were even possible, such music would be too awful to listen to. But what, I wondered, if I were to produce a great peal of C major at this point, lighting up the musical sky, not with horror, but with something awful in the true sense – music that is full of awe. So you will hear three statements of the hymn tune, played simultaneously at different speeds in a kind of ecstatic cacophony.
Blitz was commissioned by the Tasmanian Symphony Orchestra with assistance from the Sidney Myer Fund. It is dedicated to the people whose voices you hear during its course. They are, in order of appearance, Ken and Pat Wilson, Alec and Marjorie Ford (my parents), Hansjuergen Enz, Ursula Ezimora and Edith Bauermeister.
Transcription of the spoken accounts heard in Blitz
Looking back, it was a totally bizarre time . . . It was so strange . . . It’s what you accept, isn’t it? That was your life. At four, you wouldn’t know any different, would you? . . . Too young to be afraid, I think. Didn’t understand . . . That was it. That was life . . . When the war started I was one month short of being 12. So, I wouldn’t remember very much . . . I can’t even remember what happened yesterday.
I was only four when it started but I do remember, not being bombed out, but being what they called ‘blasted’ and all the windows were blasted in. And I was rolled in a blanket and passed out the window . . . We all knew the Germans’ planes because they went ‘Drrum, drrum, drrum, drrum, drrum.’ . . . They were the baddies . . . That was the sound of the planes going over . . . They were the baddies. And we were the goodies, of course . . . If there was an air raid we either got under the kitchen table or, more often, under the stairs. There wasn’t a lot of room under the stairs . . . My brother and I would sleep underneath the dining-room table, which was immediately under the window . . . Our father, he would stand by the back kitchen door. And he said, ‘This is going to be a close one’. I couldn’t hear a thing and I’ve always assumed it was because of his experience in France in the 14–18 War, in the trenches, that this sixth sense, if you like, knew this was coming . . .
It was December 1940 . . . And it turned out it was a landmine . . . The window frame came in on top of the table . . . People living in the houses at the back: they died . . . Took the whole wall at the back of our house, took the whole wall out. Which didn’t alarm my grandfather one iota because he slept in the back bedroom and suddenly the wall of his bedroom had disappeared. But he said he wasn’t going to get up for Hitler.
Most people where we lived had Anderson shelters . . . We didn’t have one of those, although we could have had one, but we didn’t because my father was asthmatic and he couldn’t possibly have gone out into the night air and spent the night in an Anderson shelter. And if he couldn’t go out, none of us wanted to go out without him, so we stayed in the house . . . The worst raid I remember was the night an ammunition train was on the railway line just one street away from where we lived and it was hit with incendiaries and the ammunition was going up with very loud explosions and it continued to go on exploding all through the night and, in fact, into the next day. And every time there was a particularly loud explosion the kitchen door flew open, and my sister who was looking out in that direction saw a landmine coming down. They were mines that came down on parachutes. And she saw this landmine floating down towards us and she let out such a scream! I remember my father, who was very patriotic, saying, ‘Oh, be British!’
The morning after the ammunition train had gone up, everywhere was covered with a grit. Also, the trees were festooned with gun cotton. It was hanging like Christmas decorations on the trees and looked very pretty actually . . . We were taken down to view the centre of Liverpool and the only thing that was there was the Victoria monument. A hideous statue of Queen Victoria: she survived; complete wipe out all round. Lord Street had gone. Church Street had gone. Oh yes, I can remember that little picture . . . Normally, people would be looking for pieces of shrapnel . . . Shrapnel was exchangeable. Well, not every morning but when they’d been and visited us overnight there would still be smoke about. There would be steam about from where the fire brigade had been dousing the fires, I sure I never really . . . You could pick up huge fragments of jagged metal, either from the bombs or the shells which, as lads, this was very exciting . . . you could put them in your pockets and then it would rip the inside your pocket to pieces and you’d get told off by your mother when you got home . . . The only real trophy that we found was the night the incendiary bomb came through our roof . . . I remember my mother and father rushing up the stairs and he took the loft cover off and, of course, there were flames in the loft. He went up the ladder into the loft and I remember my mother picking up a tin bath of sand that we kept on the landing for such an event and she was passing this up to my father in the loft and she was shaking so much he could hardly get hold of it. And he put the sand over the bomb and then had to poke it through to the bedroom below to extinguish it properly. At the same time that this was happening there was somebody hammering on the front door – one of the air raid wardens – shouting, ‘Put that light out! Put that light out!’, not realising that it wasn’t a light at all, it was an incendiary bomb that was blazing upstairs.
During the war my father was in the fire service rather than in the armed forces. I think it was his choice, rather than being directed into the army, but it was certainly no easy thing. One of his comments was, ‘Nobody can go anywhere in Liverpool, but the firemen can. All the barriers go up to let them in’ – even though it was dangerous . . . He told us some, but some he kept very much to himself and they came out after the war. Sort of horrific tales . . . of a school, in particular, I remember, in Denning Road. That the children were, um . . . underneath, and they couldn’t get them out. I think I saw him cry that night . . . Yes, I knew of children who left Liverpool to go and stay with relatives in the States. In fact, the people I’m thinking of were shopkeepers and they would pay for their children to go. But they never made it . . . Their vessels . . . were sunk.
Nineteen fifty-one, I think it was, we went to the Black Forest for a holiday. I was, I suppose, naïve enough to think – probably because my father was patriotic – that we only did good things. That it was the enemy that did bad things. Until we went to visit Freiburg, a little Black Forest town, a cuckoo clock town – noted for its cuckoo clocks, in fact. And it had been very badly bombed during the war. It wasn’t a strategic target, didn’t have any heavy industry or anything very important, but we, the British, had bombed it. And I was shocked at that. I think I viewed war differently after that holiday . . . In 1948–49, I was a national serviceman. I got off the boat in Hamburg and looked out over the city. And it was just like looking at a pancake with an odd building sticking up in the distance . . . you know, two miles away, four miles away. I suppose if you’d counted them you probably couldn’t have counted more than . . . twenty buildings . . . over the whole area.
Blitz is a half-hour-long piece for orchestra, pre-recorded voices and chorus, on the subject of World War II bombing raids on England and Germany, the voices being those of now elderly survivors from both sides. The music is atmospherically dramatic, with frequent use of high harmonics on strings and a large percussion battery giving a 'shiny' effect akin to the flashes of exploding bombs. Players and singers, under the precise direction of chief conductor [Marko] Letonja, delivered a committed, moving performance.
Peter Donnelly, Hobart Mercury