Great War Composers and Poets Day 2: Vaughan Williams and Thomas

Today’s leg of the tour saw us stay much closer to Arras, our base for the week. After enjoying a local café breakfast, we headed North West to the village Écoivres, where there was a substantial military cemetery, containing the graves of many French and English soldiers amongst others, including a few Germans.

Our reason for visiting Écoivres was that the great English composer Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) served here during the first world war. He began to write his pastoral symphony while here, and although we couldn’t play that between the three of us, we did play a version of his setting of George Herbert’s poem, “The Call” – you can see this in the video above/right.

On the way to Écoivres we had spotted the ruin of a significant abbey up on the hill, so after leaving the cemetery we went to find this. It was every bit as spectacular as we had hoped, and the view in all directions was fantastic on a hot, clear day: it was easy to see why this was a position of strategic importance during both world wars.

After this, we headed back towards Arras, and first of all to the cemetery at Anzin. This had particular significance for us, as Clare’s grandfather had served in Anzin during the Great War, before being posted to Greece. Here we gave our first rendition of the tour of Parry’s “My Soul, There Is A Country” – a piece written during the war, and although Parry did not serve on the front line himself, the words are deeply appropriate.

After a spot of lunch we went on to the military ceremony at Agny. The particular interest here was the grave of famous poet (including war poet) Edward Thomas (1878-1917). He was killed in a major battle in Arras in 1917 at the age of 39. Not being aware of any appropriate musical settings of his poems, we played instead, next to his grave, Douglas Guest’s setting of “For the Fallen” by Lawrence Binyon, which you can see in the video above/right.

Our final stop of the day was the memorial and cemetery in Arras itself. The battle here in 1917 led to tens of thousands of casualties, and nearly 35,000 unrecovered soldiers are commemorated at this impressive memorial; the individual graves of 2,678 soldiers are in the adjoining plot of land. The experience was somewhat overwhelming in scale, and serves to demonstrate what a massive, tragic event the Great War was.

Tomorrow we will be heading slightly south from here, and will be commemorating in particular the composer George Butterworth and the poet Siegfried Sassoon.

Highlight of the day: Playing in the cemetery at Anzin, where Clare's grandfather had fought

Quote of the day: "Do you think we should turn back?" - Jeremy gets a bit uncertain driving down a small track while trying to find the cemetery at Anzin. We're relieved to say that the car survived a very bumpy, puddle-infested mile or so!