Back in November 2018 I was getting into reading some of Wilfred Owen’s war poetry as it was the centenary of the end of WW1. At this time I was also about to start writing a piece for Patchwork Jazz Orchestra’s gig at the Vortex in the London Jazz Festival that month. It was 100 years since Wilfred Owen was killed in action just before the end of the war, so I decided to write a piece as a homage to him and his poetry. It’s based around Owen’s sonnet Anthem For Doomed Youth so I called it Anthem For W.O..
I was struck by the contrasting imagery of the the two halves of Anthem for Doomed Youth; the octet (first 8 lines) vividly conjures up the cacophony of the battlefield whereas the sextet (last 6 lines) focuses on the stillness and silence of the funerals. I thought this form could be really interesting to explore musically, and I liked that it’s the opposite of the common shape of large ensemble jazz pieces, where the intensity is often built up towards a point later on in the piece.
In part one of Anthem For W.O. I use a mixture of written material and improvisation to try to create a sense of the destruction and carnage of the battlefield expressed in the octet. See if you can spot any hints of a famous war-time song amongst the chaos. Part two is a very quiet chorale that attempts to capture the stillness of the sextet. Inspired by how Owen unifies the two halves with the image of the bugle, the two parts of my composition are thematically connected: the bassline which underpins part one becomes the melody of part two’s chorale.
In September 2019 I recorded this composition with my own big band, and it features a beautiful solo by Tom Barford on tenor sax. You can hear this on soundcloud and the full lineup is listed there. Recording and mixing was done by Jonny Ford.
Anthem for Doomed Youth - Wilfred Owen
What passing-bells for these who die as cattle?
— Only the monstrous anger of the guns.
Only the stuttering rifles' rapid rattle
Can patter out their hasty orisons.
No mockeries now for them; no prayers nor bells;
Nor any voice of mourning save the choirs,—
The shrill, demented choirs of wailing shells;
And bugles calling for them from sad shires.
What candles may be held to speed them all?
Not in the hands of boys, but in their eyes
Shall shine the holy glimmers of goodbyes.
The pallor of girls' brows shall be their pall;
Their flowers the tenderness of patient minds,
And each slow dusk a drawing-down of blinds.