Ahead of the first ever performances of Songs of Love and Battle at Huddersfield Town Hall on 22 November and Leeds Town Hall on 1 December, librettist Maggie Gottlieb tells us about the historical sources that inspired her collaboration with composer Will Todd.
“It feels rather terrifying being asked to write about huge, daunting subjects like war and peace. My first reaction was a kind of small-scale panic: what could we write about that hadn’t been done a million times before? How to avoid the traps of cliché, naivety, jingoism, juvenile axe-grinding? But once Will had calmed me down, things began to fall into place, and I began (still rather nervously) to write the words of what would become Songs of Love and Battle.
Given the centenary, it seemed obviously right to try to confront the First World War, recent enough to still exist in the memories of most families: my mother’s grandfather and my father’s father fought, and at least two of his cousins died; everyone I know has similar stories. At the same time it is distant enough for us to see it in the context of hundreds of years of European wars – a kind of explosion of the cumulative stresses caused by the power-struggles of a handful of jockeying imperial powers.
I find it staggering to think just how much energy Europe, the economic and cultural powerhouse of the world since at least the Renaissance, has wasted in what amounts to centuries of civil war. Although it came after a hundred years of (relative) European peace, they felt this keenly at the time of the First World War, I think, and its apocalyptic, all-enveloping nature led them to call it “the war to end war” with fervent longing. Now we know of course that it was just the precursor to the even more unimaginably destructive Second World War, which increasingly seems a continuation of the First.
You can’t palliate the horror of war, but even amid the greatest horror, hope and love need not die. With the freedom to introduce the “other side” to our piece, Will and I decided to include music for the Germans in the trenches, and the character of the German airman, sole survivor of a downed Zeppelin in Yorkshire.
The war was dreadful for everyone: the soldiers of all countries, and all their loved ones at home. On the front line, or in a village where all the menfolk are away and may very well never return, it doesn’t matter whose fault the war is or why it started. There is just love, hope, longing, grief, loss and aching hearts.
Great events have a musical signature, and we included some well-known tunes from the War, weaving them into the show as part of a tapestry that aims to evoke many sides and feelings, some essence of a catastrophe that shapes the way we are even today.
The mixture of choral singing and solo voices reflects the lives of soldiers, families, communities and individual men and women, trying to find a way of dealing with the unimaginable. And I was very happy to find a way to include one of Lord Byron’s saddest and loveliest love lyrics, in a way that brings the strands of story together, emphasises the personal tragedies we describe, and even perhaps brings an original nuance to a beautiful, true poem.”
Songs of Love and Battle is performed by the Orchestra, Youth Chorus, Young Voices and Children’s Chorus of Opera North and baritone Johnny Herford, together with Górecki’s ‘Symphony of Sorrowful Songs‘ at Huddersfield Town Hall on 22 November and Leeds Town Hall on 1 December.