Premiere of new choral work by Bob Chilcott performed as part of a ‘Pity of War’ concert in Shropshire

A world premiere of a new choral work by internationally renowned composer Bob Chilcott formed part of a ‘Pity of War’ concert in Shropshire at the weekend – marking the 100th anniversary of the death of First World War Poet Wilfred Owen.

Internationally renowned composer Bob Chilcott Photo: Annabel Moeller
Internationally renowned composer Bob Chilcott Photo: Annabel Moeller

Owen was killed in action at Sambre-Oise Canal, Ors, Northern France, on November 4, just one week before the armistice was declared, ending the First World War. His mother learned of his death as the bells were ringing out in Shrewsbury to signal the end of the conflict.

Founder of Shrewsbury Bookfest Caroline Thewles commissioned Bob to set Owen’s poem ‘Futility’ to music – the resulting work ‘Move Him into the Sun’ enjoyed its world premiere at Theatre Severn in Shrewsbury last night (Sunday 4), featuring tenor soloist Dafydd Wyn Jones and massed choirs from across Shropshire.

Funding was obtained from The Arts Council, local charitable trusts, several local businesses, the Provincial Grand Lodge of Shropshire and the Wilfred Owen Association.

Bob said setting Owen’s poignant words to music was a ‘huge responsibility’.

“There are lots of super precedents, including Britten’s,” he said. “Owen’s poetry is so complete that sometimes – you feel you aren’t adding more. Its’ so loaded and so emotive – I had to think very carefully about that.”

Bob’s new work, for tenor soloist, and adult and youth choirs, is named after the first line of Owen’s World War One poem Futility – a short poem of only two stanzas, which begins with an instruction ‘Move him into the sun’.

“Owen is writing about the dying soldier,” Bob explains. ‘It’s an instruction to his fellow men to move him into the sun, so that it might bring him back to life. It’s a powerful image.”

The 25-minute work is written in five movements, Song of Songs, Spring Offensive, Apologia pro Poemate Meo, Futility, and Winter Song, and balances reverence and solemnity with hopefulness and optimism.

“I needed to feel for the piece that it needed an image beyond just the futility of the war,” he explained. “Britten’s setting in the War Requiem was so wonderful, but at the same time, he really does find those depths of the despair – that was something I tried to lighten. There’s so much in Owen’s poetry that alludes to friendship and also to the surrounding countryside where he lived. I have used those kinds of references quite strongly. The overriding one is the sun – the image of the sun as a positive view of something that lives.”

Bob says he was struck by how young Wilfred was when he was writing (just 25): “This is the work of someone with huge energy, at the point of discovering his place in the world – clearly that was completely destroyed by him going to war. To have to go away and fight is beyond belief. The fact that he could be so eloquent about it is incredible.”

Bob’s own father fought in World War Two with the Royal Engineers and, like Owen, may well have suffered from PTSD, or ‘shell shock’ as it used to be known: “My father was living in the desert aged 19 in a hole in the sand,” Bob said. “He absolutely hated it. He died young (aged 49) probably of Post Traumatic Stress.

“There is a general sense that his generation was destroyed by the war. They came out of the army and had to get on with it – he didn’t go to university. He was a building inspector. Nowadays we have no concept of that reality. I think my father was a very unhappy man.”

“I want people to be reminded what a great poet Owen is. And also that we should be reminded of his youth and his joy. You have to feel his youth and his energy and relate that to how we feel about life today and about the way we relate to others.”

On November 11 the BBC Singers, conducted by Sofi Jeannin, give the London première at Milton Court Concert Hall. In May 2019 the NFM Choir (Wroclaw), conducted by Agnieszka Frankow-Żelazny, will record it with Bob for release on Signum.

Move Him into the Sun is based on poems by Wilfred Owen (1893 – 1918), with music by Bob Chilcott (b.1955). It is published on November 8, 2018 by Oxford University Press.

Article by Katy Rink, My Shrewsbury