In the gilded elegance of the Concert Room in St Georges Hall last week, Ensemble 10/10 led a small but enthusiastic audience on a journey through the aesthetic and political fault lines that shattered 20th century Europe.
As always, Ensemble 10/10 – a splinter group from the Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra – was led by Clark Rundell, who always communicates energy and enthusiasm for the pieces on the programme. I like these occasions for Rundell’s concise, informed introductions to each work, and because I get to hear music that is challenging and which I met never otherwise get to hear.
For example, the main event at last week’s concert was to be the world première of Bosnian Voices by Nigel Osborne, unknown to me at that point, whose new work sets to music verses composed by people of all faiths and backgrounds from the town of Srebrenica in Bosnia. We heard songs by members of a rock band who recalled listening to the Doors just as the militia arrived to force them to war, by Muslim women gang raped by Serbian soldiers, by Roma recalling their ancient legends, by people nostalgic for the solidarity of the former Yugoslavia, and by children looking for beauty and hope.
But first we heard the Ensemble play Benjamin Britten’s first published work, written in just under three weeks in the summer of 1932, whilst he was still a student at the Royal College of Music. In the Sinfonietta, Opus I Britten paid homage to Schoenberg’s First Chamber Symphony from 1906, a work that had heralded the great rupture in European classical music – the arrival of atonality and the breakdown of traditional tonality. When the piece was performed in Vienna as part of the infamous Skandalkonzert in 1913, the audience, shocked by its experimentalism, began rioting, and the concert was ended prematurely.
Britten had heard the piece during his school days, and composed his homage whilst a student at the Royal College of Music. Clark Rundell recalled one of his tutors remarking that if the Sinfonietta had been submitted by one of his own students he would have told him, ‘There’s nothing more I can teach you.’
With the next piece on the programme, attention shifted from aesthetic to political conflict. Hans Werner Henze’s In Memoriam: Die Weisse Rose reflects the German composer’s leaning towards the political New Left in the 1960s. In 1953, Henze had left Germany for Italy, resenting his country’s intolerance towards his left-wing politics and homosexuality. In Italy he developed a musical style influenced by atonality, Stravinsky, Italian music, Arabic music and jazz, as well as traditional schools of German composition.
Henze wrote about In Memoriam: Die Weisse Rose:
In the winter of 1964-65 … I wrote this work as a contribution to the Congress of the European Antifascist Resistance, held in Bologna in March 1965. I chose the occasion to remind audiences of one of the groups who attempted open resistance to the Nazi regime inside Germany. This movement was called ‘The White Rose’ and the same name appeared on the numerous antifascist leaflets composed by their founders, the students Hans and Sophie Scholl, Christoph Probst, Alexander Schmorell, Willy Graf, and the Munich University Professor, Kurt Huber.
The movement began its activities in 1942 in Munich, but quickly spread to other important cities and gained a membership number of more than a hundred. A year later the founders were arrested, tried,condemned, executed. They defended themselves with great courage and died proudly for their ideas.My work in their honour is a double fugue, and obviously inspired by and composed in the sense of Bach’s ‘Musikalisches Opfer’ (‘Musical Offering’) structures.
In Munich today, at the heart of the Ludwig Maximilian University, where the Scholls and other members of the White Rose were students, is a square named Professor-Huber-Platz, in memory of the philosophy and musicology professor, Kurt Huber, who was a member of the resistance group. Another nearby square on the campus is called Geschwister Scholl Platz (Scholl Siblings Square). Embedded in the cobblestones is a pavement memorial to the White Rose. Looking as if they have been dropped onto the cobblestones is a group of ceramic tablets depicting the White Rose leaflets and brief biographies of Hans and Sophie Scholl and Christoph Probst.
Concerts by Ensemble 10/10 nearly always feature compositions by local composers, and none could be more local than Mihkel Kerem, assistant leader of Liverpool Philharmonic Orchestra, who appeared as first violinist at this event. Clark Rundell drew him forward to introduce his Sinfonietta for Small Orchestra, a piece in four short movements – three of them, as Rundell said, lively and bright but the fourth a more sombre slow movement with a quiet intensity.
Mihkel Kerem explained that the Sinfonietta for Small Orchestra was written in Tallinn in 2000:
I wanted to write something very classically instrumental and also create music using only simple elements. The entire four movement work is structured very strictly on classical forms: sonata, A-B-A, minuet and trio, and rondo. These forms were important for me not only for the structure of this work but I also wanted the structure itself to become the main point of the piece. The elements are all very short and striking and none of the stitches holding together the different fabrics on this work are hidden. The movements go by like individual breaths.
If Kerem’s work represented a return to more traditional forms, the next piece by Arvo Part, while emphasising tonality and steering well clear of dissonance, combined tradition with Part’s very own embrace of modern minimalism. We heard the version of his Fratres for violin, strings and percussion.
The Fratres is so immediately recognisable with its two opening notes on percussion joined and repeated by the strings: it is almost the textbook example of how Part’s works emphasize tonality and employ repetitive patterns in a technique that has been labelled as ‘mystic minimalist’, and which the composer called ‘tintinnabulation’.
Tintinnabulation is an area I sometimes wander into when I am searching for answers – in my life, my music, my work. I have discovered that it is enough when a single note is beautifully played. This one note, or a silent beat, or a moment of silence, comforts me. I work with very few elements – with one voice, with two voices. I build with the most primitive materials – with the triad, with one specific tonality. The three notes of a triad are like bells. And that is why I call it
Pärt grew up in an Estonia fought over by the Soviets and the Nazis during World War II to emerge after as a Soviet Socialist Republic until 1991. He studied at Tallinn Conservatory and won first prize in a Soviet young composer competition in 1962, but many of his works were banned because of the spiritual component that underlies much of his music. He left for the West in 1980, and has been based in Berlin since in 1982.
The first version of Fratres was written in 1977, and was followed by a wide variety of arrangements for other instruments. This version for violin, strings and percussion was composed in 1992. It is a mesmerising set of variations on a six-bar theme combining movement and stillness that encapsulates Pärt’s observation that ‘the instant and eternity are struggling within us’.
One of the outstanding releases on the ECM New Series label this year has been Musica Selecta, a double CD on which ECM producer Manfred Eicher has sequenced extracts from the many recordings of Part’s music his record label has released in the past thirty years. There’s a version of the Fratres on it played by Gidon Kremer on violin and Keith Jarrett on piano. In the CD booklet there’s a quote from Arvo Part:
I could compare my music to white light which contains all colours. Only a prism can divide the colours and make them appear; this prism could be the spirit of the listener.
So, finally, we came to the main piece of the evening – Nigel Osborne’s Bosnian Voices. The composer turned out to be the heavy-set, jovial man with sparkling eyes and wild hair sitting next to me on the front row. Clark Rundell invited him to the front of the stage to say a few words about his composition. It was clear immediately that this was a remarkable and inspiring man.
While a professor at the University of Edinburgh (he’s now retired) and recognised as one of Britain’s most promising young composers, during the war in Bosnia in the 1990s Osborne became involved with the humanitarian aid work of the charity War Child in Bosnia-Herzegovina. he had been a frequent visitor to Yugoslavia since his late teens and was angered with the way the conflict was being portrayed in the western media. Today, Osborne continues to participate in the country’s cultural regeneration, overseeing the Mostar Sinfonietta and conducting music therapy workshops with War Child. He is now regarded as one of the world’s experts on the use of music therapy for people of all ages suffering from war trauma.
Now Osborne is using the same approach in Syria, and had rushed back to Britain after an overnight car journey out of that war-torn country to be present at the première of Bosnian Voices. He explained how the work had evolved. He had been asked to write a piece marking 20 years since the end of the war in Bosnia, but had declined, claiming he could not do it justice. Instead, he has produced arrangements for a suite of songs written by inhabitants of Srebrenica. He explained:
The war in Bosnia ended 20 years ago, with the tragedy of Srebrenica and the worst bloodshed in Europe since the Second World War. Bosnian Voices is a cycle of songs written by ordinary Bosnian people, children, adults and young professionals, mostly from Srebrenica and its region, about their lives then and now.
Osborne has drawn on a cross section of the population, including Romany children, rape victims and rock musicians, and weaving into his arrangements echoes of the chimes of Orthodox church bells and the Muslim call to prayer.
Nearly 8,000 Muslim men and boys were killed by Bosnian Serb forces at Srebrenica during the Bosnian war in the worst massacre in Europe since World War Two. It came amid the bloody break-up of Yugoslavia into independent states. Serbia backed Bosnian Serb forces fighting the Muslim-led Bosnian government during the conflict. In July 1995, in what was supposed to have been a UN safe haven, Bosnian Serb forces took control of Srebrenica. They rounded up and killed the men and boys and buried them in mass graves.
Although rooted in the terrible experience and continuing trauma of the 1995 massacre and associated acts of violence, the prevailing mood of Nigel Osborne’s seven-song sequence was uplifting, rather than harrowing, and Bosnian Songs concludes with a song of love for Srebrenica, written by some of the children who enjoy a holiday in a summer camp by the sea each year in Istria, courtesy of Osborne’s ongoing project which works with children who have experienced trauma. In their verse they sing that of no longer caring ‘what you wear / If or where you say your prayers’.
‘Srebrenica’ was created by a group of children from the Srebrenica region who
attend a children’s centre in Potocari. Before the war and the catastrophe that followed, Srebrenica was, said Osborne, a happy-go-lucky town, with an Orthodox church and a Mosque a few metres apart, and a population who saw themselves first and foremost as fellow citizens and Bosnians, and thought of religion
– if they were religious at all – as a private thing.
I’m in love with a boy,
He’s skinny, tall or very small.
I don’t care about his size,
Or the colour of his eyes.
He’s in love with a girl,
She’s dark, mousey or fair.
He doesn’t care what she wears,
If or where she says her prayers.
The song cycle brought together by Osborne was varied in mood and tone, with the overall impact being moving and powerful. The plain words of the Bosnian children and adults and the simplicity of the melodies contrasted with the sophistication of the trained classical voice of mezzo soprano Hanna-Liisa Kirchin who sang the lyrics. For myself, I think that to have heard the words sung by children and men and women from the region would have lent the work greater authenticity – which is not to deny that Hanna-Liisa Kirchin’s singing was sensitive, especially as she gave powerful expression to the women who endured rape and are still confronted with their sexual abusers on Facebook.
The cycle began with ‘Angels’, composed by a group of children from Srebrenica as part of a music theatre show created during the summer camp in Istria in July 2014. Some children, explained Osborne, were seeing the sea for the first time. The piece begins with an evocation of Srebrenica, the sounds of folksongs, the call to prayer and the church bells, and then moves on to a song about the hope and joy of a new day by the sea.
A new day is dawning, a beautiful morning.
A new dawn is breaking, a new world is waking,
All life is in motion, the ships on the ocean,
The blue of the sea goes as far as you can see.
A new day is breaking…
Is breaking, is waking…
A new day is dawning…
Ships on the ocean…
The blue of the sea…
The morning is dawning…
And angels, and angels…
‘I don’t know’ was composed by the Srebrenica band Zadnji Popis and is the story of how, at the beginning of the war, a group of pacifist young rockers are listening to an LP of The Doors. They see men in uniform approaching their house. They have come to take them to war. Refusal to join the paramilitary forces meant a
bullet in the head. The piece began with a faint echo of the opening riff from ‘Riders on the Storm’.
Someone’s knocking at my door,
I don’t know what they’re knocking for,
Dark thoughts cross my mind,
I don’t know what they’re here to find.
The gramophone has ceased to play
The Doors LP it played today,
And raw meat has come to say
They’re taking me away.
The rain pours down, the weather’s wild,
A mother’s breast, an orphaned child.
I hate all this but I’m scared to choose
To put my own neck in a noose.
But if they come,
And I’m looking down the barrel of a gun,
What would I do if they come?
What would you do?
Time, Life and I was written by a group of women from the Srebrenica region who were raped, and in many cases gang raped by paramilitaries during the war. None of them, said Osborne, have received justice, acknowledgement, compensation or support. Some of them see that those who raped them are living as if nothing happened. The song is an affirmation of the women’s dignity and resilience and their continuing search, after 20 years, for justice.
Time, life and I, I live in my days,
Time, life and I, in different ways…
With the hurt and the pain,
The strength we gain…
Hear our voice, and the words we want to speak,
Give us our voice and the justice we seek.
Hear our voice…
Hear our voice.
The fourth piece, ‘The Golden Ship’ was written by a group of Bosnian and Bosnian Roma children as part of a Roma musical composed at a summer camp. It is the story of a Roma prince who falls in love with a girl he sees in a picture brought from a distant shore. He builds a golden ship with thirty Roma musicians on board and sets sail to the Black Sea to find her and charm her into being his wife.
‘I feel free when I ride my bicycle’ was written by a group of children from Srebrenica and its surrounding villages at a summer camp in Istria in August 2015. It is a song about a girl who likes to ride her bicycle through the mysterious countryside around her village, past the lake and the river Drina that flows to the Danube, that flows to the Black Sea.
I feel free when I ride my bicycle
Through the village of Risice to the lake of Perusac,
The lake by the Drina that flows into the Sava,
The Sava to the Danube,
The Danube to the Black Sea.
I feel free when I make my way
On my bicycle far away, far away, far away.
I feel free when I ride my bicycle
Through the woods and fields and the places I find.
The lakes and rivers that flow through my dreams,
My thoughts and my feelings
And the landscapes of my mind, my mind.
‘Springtime’ was written by the Srebrenica band Afera (The Affair). Nigel Osborne spoke of it as ‘a kind of love song to the old Yugoslavia’. The musicians recall the years of Tito’s Yugoslavia as a time of harmony among people, children playing in the street, the scent of lime trees in June, the old songs and a life well lived.
I wake in the mornings of our new years.
I miss the beauty that used to reach my ears:
Children playing the games that we’ve forgotten,
In the shade of trees that no longer blossom.
I always dream o four love so sweet,
When I catch the scent of lime trees from the street,
All the happy songs we sang in days of yore,
In our old Yugoslavia…
In our dear old Yugoslavia.
The song cycle ends with ‘Srebrenica’, written by children from the town, members of a new generation:
We all love our town.
The hills rise up and the stream runs down.
Nature paints a beautiful picture.
This is our Srebrenica.
A Gift of Culture is a 26 minute documentary film by Robert Golden about how music in the community and music therapy help children suffering from war trauma in Bosnia. It shows the work of Nigel Osborne, now regarded as one of the world’s experts on the use of music therapy for people of all ages suffering from war trauma. This is a trailer for the film – an 11 minute extract can be viewed on Vimeo here.
- An Interview with Nigel Osborne (Voices: World Forum for Music Therapy)
- Pärt’s Fratres for Strings and Percussion: excellent discussion on San Francisco Symphony website