An Australian War Requiem honours the nation's fallen in First World War

By Nick Galvin

6 August 2014 — 11:45pm

It was after writing his requiem for the freedom fighters of East Timor in 2000 that composer Christopher Bowen began considering what major works existed marking the sacrifice made by Australians in the First World War.

"To my utter amazement, I found there had been no major work written to honour those people who sacrificed so much for our generation," he says. Once he became aware there was no Australian equivalent to, say, Benjamin Britten’s monumental War Requiem, Bowen began considering how to rectify the omission.

"I thought I didn't want to write a standard requiem, I wanted something to actually speak of loss and I wanted to bring something that would tell the stories of the soldiers and their parents and everyone else affected," he says. It was then that he hit on the idea of incorporating words from the letters that passed between the young soldiers fighting and dying on foreign soil and their mothers back home.

Bowen, librettist Pamela Traynor and helpers sifted through "thousands" of these intimate pieces of correspondence that are preserved at the Australian War Memorial, looking for words that were at once personal and universal and which would fit into the context of the music.

Woven through many of the heart-breaking stories they uncovered is the constant thread of the young men's yearning to return home to their mothers.

"The words in the letters from the sons written to their mothers would in some cases shock us now," Bowen says. "It’s almost like they are lovers. But if you think of the time, a lot of those boys had probably never had a significant relationship with a woman.

Among the correspondence were letters between Sergeant Clive Crowley and his mother, Alice, who lived in Cobbadah in north-eastern NSW.

"My very dear Clive," Alice wrote. "I am feeling awfully low spirited dearest since hearing such very terrible news relating to this fearful war. It just feels too heavy to bear. Whenever will it end and I am always wondering how you are, my poor dear Clive away over in that wretched place..."

Alice was never to see her son again – Clive died after a gas attack in France in June 1918.

Bowen felt driven to take a 12-day “pilgrimage” to see for himself the battlefields of Gallipoli, Villers Bretonneux and Ypres. From that experience and the poignant words selected from the soldiers' correspondence, Bowen and Traynor fashioned An Australian War Requiem, which also incorporates elements of the Stabat Mater, the famous prayer to Mary that has long fascinated composers.

Bowen believes the work, featuring 250 voices, five soloists and a full orchestra, is substantial enough to help memorialise the suffering of Australians in the Great War.

And while he says he was not daunted by the undertaking, he was still acutely conscious of its significance.

"If you weigh yourselves down with responsibility it starts to become a little bit self conscious," he says. "I prefer to let it wash over me. Like any journey you go in a direction and see what happens and what opens up to you. I did feel a responsibility but it didn't weigh me down.”

Bowen is clear that the requiem is not a glorification of conflict.

"It's dedicated to the futility and it's really apt that we are performing it at this time, a time when we are faced with a world in which the old fault lines are opening up again.

"It's also a hopeful work but there is a question, of course, because we don’t seem to be learning. Eventually, at some stage, when we see and feel the enormity [of war], surely we must turn away from it. That's my hope."

An Australian War Requiem premieres at Sydney Town Hall on August 10.

Nick Galvin

Nick Galvin is a journalist with The Sydney Morning Herald



"My own 33rd complete Messiah came from the 84 singers and orchestra of the Sydney University Graduate Choir conducted by Christopher Bowen. It was a deeply probing reading which had the inestimable asset of a fine soloist team in soprano, Leslie Martin, mezzo-sopranos, Catherine Hassard and Nicole Smeulders, tenor Robert Boyd, baritone Tim Collins and treble David Thomson. The audience was large and the continually riveting performance diverted attention from the stuffiness of the Great Hall."

"The performances of Gustav Holst's "The Planets" and Leonard Bernstein's "West Side Story Symphonic dances" confirmed the vivid, exciting work of young Melbourne-born and partly Vienna-trained conductor Christopher Bowen. His direction of Bernstein's exuberantly rhythmic, sustained attacks was definitely edge-of-the-seat stuff, greeted with whoops of delight and bravos from audience members not normally given to wearing their hearts on their sleeves".

"Chorea - a ring of dances" by Christopher Bowen, an eventful 15 minute piece suggesting some ancient ritual which begins as if Leviathans were learning to dance, changes gear to passages of terpsichorean vitality and some languidly sugary string writing, and alternates all these ideas in a work which is imaginatively orchestrated and captures attention. Naturally, the performance conducted by the composer, sounded convincing".

"Rossini must have has a few tunes left over from his latest comic opera when he completed his religious work, the Stabat Mater, and the performance by the Willoughby Symphony Orchestra and Choir, effectively and energetically conducted by Christopher Bowen, took delight in making the most of the contrasting sections of devotional profundity and high jinks".