Christopher Bowen’s latest work to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War One.

In August 2014 at the Sydney Town Hall, more than two hundred choristers (including children’s choir), a symphony orchestra and five internationally renowned soloists will perform a work that has been some years in the making.

The journey to create An Australian War Requiem began in 2012, when composer-conductor Christopher Bowen OAM proposed writing a work to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War One and of the Gallipoli Campaign. The Sydney University Graduate Choir subsequently commissioned Christopher, and librettist Pamela Traynor, to complete the work in time to mark the centenary in 2014.

The first step Pamela and Christopher needed to take was to determine the theme, the focus of the work, which would give the work its ‘heart’. Letters exchanged between young soldiers at the front and their mothers at home in Australia became the inspiration for the composition.

The Australian War Memorial holds many hundreds of these letters and poems which revealed the horror of this war, the heartbreak and the love between these young men and their mothers.  This then defined the large scale work, which divides into three tableaux: The Horror of War, Sons and Mothers, and Reflections on Loss. Excerpts from letters and poems are juxtaposed with sections of the Stabat Mater; an appropriate allegory describing the love between mother and son.

Typical of the sentiments expressed in these letters were those heartfelt wishes of Alice Crowley to her son Clive, who was serving with the 33rd Battalion AIF in France. Alice’s letter, written from their home in Cobbadah NSW on March 31 1918, reads:

My very dear Clive,
I am feeling awfully low spirited dearest Clive since hearing such very terrible news relating to this fearful war.
It just feels too heavy to bear.  Whenever will it end and I am always wondering how you are, my poor dear Clive away over in that wretched place…
…We did not sufficiently appreciate those happy days I fear dearest Clive and I would give anything to enjoy such very happy times again together.

Alice was not to see her boy again. Young Clive Crowley died of wounds in France on June 25, 1918 aged 27. He succumbed to gas, being reported as saying ‘I’m done. Get your gas helmets on boys’ as he staggered out of the front line.

Another of the treasures discovered in the search for original material was poetry written by a member of the 7th Field Ambulance, Private Reginald James Godfrey who served both in Gallipoli and on the Western Front. After witnessing a burial at sea in mid 1915 he wrote his tribute ‘On a Dying Soldier’, painting a picture of courage, stoicism and ‘duty done’.

Christopher Bowen’s completed score reveals a depth of emotional intensity that more than matches the sentiments in the text. It depicts the heartache, grief, loss and finally acceptance and peace of those whose lives were irrevocably changed by the events of 1914-1918.

The premiere on 10 August will feature distinguished soloists Ayse Göknur Shanal, Celeste Lazarenko, Andrew Goodwin, Adrian Tamburini and Christopher Richardson.

An Australian War Requiem will premiere at the Sydney Town Hall on Sunday August 10 at 3pm.


Dying but in every stir
Fighting death the arbiter

As the hours go slowly by
Ever fearless, comes no sigh
Lips are firm and teeth are set
Yet there comes not one regret
Cheeks are pale and eyes are dim
Yet no murmur comes from him
Dying yes but like a man
Knowing now that life’s short span
Full of tears, draws to a close
Cherished hopes and mingles woes
Noble sacrifice to Maker
Thy life is given for freedom’s sake
Duty done, brave soldier, blest
Thy battle’s fought, for thee is rest.

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