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Mark-Anthony Turnage discusses his new orchestral work Passchendaele, written to commemorate the First World War, to be premiered in Flanders on 14 October.

How did the commission of Passchendaele come about?

It started with the Concertgebouw in Bruges requesting a 12-minute orchestral score for its commemoration of the First World War. Then the commissioning group was joined by two youth orchestras, the CBSO Youth Orchestra and the Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra in California. The Philharmonia Orchestra will premiere the work within the Gone West series running throughout the West Flanders region this autumn. Thinking of all those terrible iconic battles on the Western Front, I titled the piece after one on Belgian soil, Passchendaele, which was fought in 1917.

Around the time of your opera The Silver Tassie you wrote two other war-themed works: Silent Cities and The Torn Fields. What is it that draws you back to the First World War?

For The Silver Tassie I did a lot of research into the conflict and I’m still interested in learning about the history and its effect on human lives. There’s also a personal reason as both my grandfathers fought in the war and survived, and there were stories told by family and friends when I was growing up. Interestingly, those that fought didn’t want to recall the horror - it was more the generation that followed that needed to talk about it. One image has stuck in my mind since I was a child: I learnt that my maternal grandfather’s best friend had died in his arms after a head injury, and my grandfather had carried the body across the battlefield.

Is the landscape of Passchendaele and Flanders important to the piece? Have you visited the region?

I’ve been to Ypres and visited many of the war graves. What always amazes me is how peaceful and idyllic the countryside is. It’s hard to imagine the devastation and violence of a hundred years ago. You can no longer feel the mud. It is as if the landscape has grown a new skin over the wound, but as you walk around you know that hidden beneath your feet is war debris, mines and human remains.

In your work how do you balance the epic destruction of war and the plight of individuals caught up in it?

This is a very difficult task because the subject matter is so emotional. It inevitably tugs on the heart strings and you have to be very careful not to sentimentalise or be over familiar. After all, I wasn’t there, so what do I really know? I’m much more drawn to the testimony of individuals rather than glamorising the act of war itself and the victory of the state, as might have been demanded of composers, say, in the Soviet era.

You’ve declared yourself a pacifist. Could you ever believe in a ‘just war’?

Well, it’s easy to say you’re a pacifist in times of peace when you’re not personally faced with moral dilemmas. It’s a complex issue, and I was surprised that my position shifted a little after I had kids. I naturally feel protective towards them and I began to wonder if I could kill someone if my children were threatened? Perhaps that is how some people felt when they went to fight in 1914? What hasn’t changed is the anger I feel towards politicians over recent conflicts like Iraq or Afghanistan. In my view they are war criminals but will probably never be brought to trial. I could never celebrate war and can’t understand it when people talk of the ‘glorious dead’ – there was nothing glorious in the way they died in Flanders.

Passchendaele is a purely orchestral piece. How does this demand a different approach to an opera or song-cycle?

The natural thing to write would be a text-based piece with poetry from the period, but I’d already done that with The Torn Fields. Even there I’d picked some texts that were less familiar or gave different perspectives on the human loss. I wanted the new piece to be instrumental and more abstract, rather than being programmatic. It starts with hymn-like music led by trombone which provides a collective point of reference, without quoting any specific religious tunes. This becomes submerged as the anger and musical density grows, with outbursts subsiding in the final section to reveal lonely brass voices.

The premiere is an English programme with Elgar and Vaughan Williams, both deeply affected by the First World War. Do you see a musical lineage or do you react against this heritage?

When I was a young composer, admiring Elgar and Vaughan Williams was unfashionable, but I think both the Cello Concerto and the Pastoral Symphony are powerful pieces. They have survived and earned their place in the core repertoire. I don’t see this music as being massively important to my compositional style, which is much closer to European or even American models. That said, there is a vein of lyricism in English music from that period I feel close to – not the folk or pastoral flavour, but rather the melancholic sense of regret or loss that you can also hear in Blues.

Do you have a view how the modern public should approach the war commemorations?

The main thing the centenary should do is make you think for yourself. As time passes the nature of the commemoration has to change. There are now no survivors left, so it should definitely not be about jingoism or nationalism. My parents’ generation had lived through the Second World War and there was still a lot of anti-German feeling when I grew up. I visited German war graves in Flanders as well as those for the Allies, and I saw their tomb stones were laid flat rather than standing up, as they were the invading forces. But those Germans didn’t want to die any more than the English soldiers. The young musicians that will play the piece in Birmingham and LA are very distant from the First World War, but they should know what happened and make their own minds up for their generation.

Interviewed by David Allenby

Mark-Anthony Turnage
for orchestra
Duration: 12 minutes

14 October 2014 (world premiere)
Concertgebouw, Bruges
Philharmonia Orchestra/Nicholas Collon

2 November 2014 (UK premiere)
Symphony Hall, Birmingham
CBSO Youth Orchestra/Ben Gernon

2015 date tbc (US premiere)
Memorial Hall, Chapman University, Orange County
Orange County Youth Symphony Orchestra/Daniel Alfred Wachs

>  Further information on Work: Passchendaele

Photo: First World War Poetry Digital Archive/Imperial War Museum

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