SAATTB a cappella
Lament is recorded on the Naxos CD, In the Heart of Things, recorded by Commotio and Matthew Berry
Fragments of this little piece rattled around in its composer’s head (as a setting of this poem) for many years before coming into sharper focus with the death of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid in the Sangin District of Helmand Province, Afghanistan, on 31 October 2009, while attempting to defuse an improvised explosive device (IED). He had been about to return home from his tour of duty and had spoken to his 5-year-old stepson only hours before his death. After this he had appeared uncharacteristically agitated for a time, and it is hard not to imagine a degree of premonition, though that will remain forever undiscovered.
I did not know Olaf Schmid, but became aware that he had lived a few minutes’ walk from my own home on the edge of Winchester. To many the quiet heroism of all he did and stood for is largely beyond the scope of comprehension, and my wife and I were moved like most other people by the dignity of his family following his death. Later I learned that for part of his childhood he had been Head Chorister at Truro Cathedral. A New College chorister myself, I had served as an adult lay clerk in Winchester Cathedral Choir for ten years until 2001.
The idea for this modest setting originated from a feeling that the words of Laurence Binyon heard every Remembrance Day may begin to wash over us out of sheer over-familiarity. Moreover, although Binyon himself was a surprising and intriguing liberal thinker (from 1913 he presided over the British Museum’s new Department of Oriental Prints and Drawings and he was instrumental in promoting the work of Ezra Pound in the UK), the poetic conventions of his time can mislead us into sensing a blinkered, imperialist romanticism behind those words, but this is far from the truth.
I had known Wilfrid Wilson Gibson’s poem for some time through an ancient anthology of verse written during (not always about) the Great War, and had responded to a tone in it which seems gentle, personal and largely timeless by comparison with the more public, oratorical words of Binyon, whom Gibson knew (his granddaughter, Judy Greenway, has informed me how in later life Gibson wrote to Binyon that he was the only like-minded friend to whom Gibson felt he could confide his anguish about the waste and bloodshed of war). The low-key simplicity of Gibson’s little poem, sorrowful but also consolatory in its exhortation to keep the departed alive in the hearts and memories of those who miss them, seems to me to make it a fitting vehicle to commemorate the fallen in any time or place; accordingly, dedication of this setting to the memory of Olaf Schmid is both specific and more widely emblematic. My hope is that the music and, hence, this forgotten poem may gradually find a regular place as a suitable, in some ways more private and personal foil to Binyon and various settings of his famous lines (earlier I made one myself). At the time of writing, Olaf Schmid’s widow, Christina Schmid, has been contacted via Help for Heroes (to whom any royalties arising in future from this piece will go), but has yet to respond; the dedication on the score ‘To the memory of Staff Sergeant Olaf Schmid, G.C.’ is therefore inscribed at present without permission.
Thanks are due to Harriet Sanders of MacMillan for negotiating rights to Gibson’s poem (he lived until 1962), and especially to his granddaughter Judy Greenway, herself an academic at the University of Greenwich, for her kind, interested and supportive response to my enquiries prior to this.
© Francis Pott, 2011
We who are left, how shall we look again
Happily on the sun or feel the rain
Without remembering how they who went
Ungrudgingly and spent
Their lives for us loved, too, the sun and rain?
A bird among the rain-wet lilac sings –
But we, how shall we turn to little things
And listen to the birds and winds and streams
Made holy by their dreams,
Nor feel the heart-break in the heart of things? Wilfrid Wilson Gibson [1878-1962]
‘Lament’ from ‘Whin’ by Wilfrid Gibson, Pan Macmillan, London 1918.
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