“We hear more from doctors than from patients. However hard he tries, the historian cannot even the account, cannot give the patients an equal voice, because most of them chose not to recount their experiences”

These words from Ben Shephard’s A War of Nerves provide the inspiration behind Sally Beamish’s new choral work Equal Voices which receives its première on Sunday 2 November; his words feature heavily in Sir Andrew Motion’s “found poem”, recounting the horrors of the Great War, which Beamish has juxtaposed with passages from the Old Testament’s Song of Songs in a 45-minute commemorative piece for chorus, orchestra and soprano and baritone soloist.

Sally Beamish and Sir Andrew Motion © Paul Joyce
Sally Beamish and Sir Andrew Motion
© Paul Joyce

The première is a fitting end to the London Symphony Orchestra’s weekend-long remembrance of World War I. Equal Voices is a vivid musical depiction of the horrors of war, using the words of those who lived through it. The piece is set in five movements:

  • Prelude

  • Pastorale with Seascape

  • Idyll

  • Scherzo

  • Paean

Over the course of these five movements the listener is taken on a journey through love, loss, terror, despair and finally, eventually, hope. These emotions are all heightened by the incredibly sensitive choices of texts from the Song of Songs. The work opens with a setting of one of these; “Whither is my beloved gone”, with a perfect ambiguity between whether the singer is speaking of a lost love or indeed their own selves before the horrors they saw at war. There is a sense of searching throughout the first movement, both in the texts and the music, which, while showing glimpses of resolution, is never quite able to settle, in a perfect evocation of the shattered post-war mind.

Marcus Farnsworth, baritone soloist in <i>Equal Voices</i> © Benjamin Ealovega
Marcus Farnsworth, baritone soloist in Equal Voices
© Benjamin Ealovega

The second movement’s title is deceptive. This “Pastorale” is in no way gentle; instead, it is the fullest musical exploration of the battlefield, with the combined forces mimicking juddering gunfire, explosions, whining shells and the shrieks of those killed in action. Beamish spares the listener nothing, but even so there is hope here as the movement rounds with a gorgeous short chorale setting from the Song of Songs: Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.

The “Idyll” is a a beautiful love duet between the soprano and baritone solo, entirely from the Song of Songs. It is in startling contrast to the movements around it, and becomes a respite from the horror, trying to reconnect with others those who have withdrawn into their own minds to escape those horrors. The fourth movement is a reflection of the second movement (musically as well as thematically), while the final movement moves towards if not quite the joy the title “Paean” suggests, then a quiet calm; the soldier is back home, the lovers are reunited. Winter has passed, the rain is over and gone.

Before the concert, Beamish joins Sir Andrew Motion, Stephen Johnson, Hugh McManners, Lord John Alderdice and Lt Col Bob Meldrum for a day exploring the themes of war, music and the brain. She will talk about her experience of composing Equal Voices, and join the rest of the guests for a Q&A session to round off the day, chaired by Ian Ritchie.

Lighter fare is on offer on Saturday 1st November, when families are invited to LSO St Lukes to create an opera in a day! Inspired by Equal Voices, the project will take World War I as its theme and explore what the world was like for LSO musicians during the war. Rachel Leach and Tim Yealland lead the day; their community opera One Day, Two Dawns won the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Education award in 2009.

Battle of St. Quentin Canal. Band of the 127th Brigade playing in the ruins of Bellenglise © Imperial War Museum
Battle of St. Quentin Canal. Band of the 127th Brigade playing in the ruins of Bellenglise
© Imperial War Museum

The London Symphony Orchestra is the only current London orchestra that was performing during the war. It was celebrating its tenth birthday when war broke out, and was beset by cancellations from conductors and musicians who could no longer travel. There were also two early enlistments, as trumpeters Ernest Hall and Sydney Moxon joined up. Moxon would be the only LSO member lost to the war; he died in 1916 while trying to help a wounded compatriot to safety. Hall and Moxon’s early enlistment was praised by the orchestra’s board, which passed a resolution: “Members who have joined the army for the duration of the War shall be exempt from paying deputies’ fees and their positions kept open.” They would later regret this when violinist Robert Carrodus spent much of early 1917 playing at the Savoy Theatre while claiming exemption as he was in his uniform!

The orchestra managed to continue giving concerts, although the war affected not only their choice of players but their repertoire. They were heavily criticised for performing music by German composers in 1916, which led to more patriotic (if not higher quality) programming!

Substantial backing from Sir Thomas Beecham had enabled the orchestra to carry on. Unfortunately the death of his father in late 1916 left him with complicated financial affairs, and he could no longer support the orchestra. In September 1917, at an Extraordinary General Meeting, the orchestra resolved not to give any concerts until the end of the war; it wasn’t until 1920 that they were able to resume regular concerts.

The London Symphony Orchestra have been paying tribute to these extraordinary times, creating a number of resources. Their blog, http://blog.lso.co.uk/tag/ww1/ explores the orchestra and its players during the time of war, and they have set up a digital memorial on the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War at https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/community/561. Anyone can add information to this memorial, so if you recognise anyone, help tell their story! These resources will last long after their weekend commemoration is over; a weekend that offers everybody an opportunity to understand what life was like for the orchestra during the war. It promises to be an extraordinary tribute to extraordinary times.


The full catalogue for the London Symphony Orchestra’s events remember World War I can be found at http://lso.co.uk/firstworldwar.

This article is sponsored by the London Symphony Orchestra