Anthony Ritchie’s new oratorio, Gallipoli to the Somme, explores personal experiences of World War I in the medium of text and music.

In 1964 Alexander Aitken’s book Gallipoli to the Somme was published, recounting his experiences in World War I nearly fifty years after the event. Aitken was a remarkable man: a soldier, from the Otago Battalion, later a professor of mathematics at Edinburgh University, and also a fine violinist. Fast-forward another fifty years to 2016, and a composition bearing the same title was premiered in Dunedin, and scheduled for performance in London, 2018. Gallipoli to the Somme commemorates the war by personalising experiences. The scale of the conflict is too large to grasp easily; therefore, it is easier to relate to events in a single person’s life. The violence involved is so horrific it cannot be adequately represented in musical terms.

In this work Ritchie ask various questions: how does a composer combine music and words as a witness to such violence without becoming voyeuristic? Are music and words able to represent the truth about war experiences? He has endeavoured to answer these questions through the use of contemporaneous war texts, plus the use of existing music from the period. Ritchie explores quotation and re-composition as a technique for adding meaning to a work and re-interpreting history.

Gallipoli to the Somme aims to make a humanist statement about ordinary peoples’ experience of the war – soldiers, nurses, lovers, children from different nationalities. They are represented in some small way in this work, through diary entries, poems, traditional texts and songs, and even a military plan of battle. Alexander Aitken’s own story binds the structure together, from his arrival in Gallipoli, his experience of Christmas 1915, his preparation for battle at the Somme, the loss of his comrades, and encounters with the German army. The sound of his violin, which he took with him through the war, pervades the piece – performed in the film by Tessa Petersen, executant lecturer at Otago. Somehow Aitken’s violin survived and found its way back to Otago Boys High, Aitken’s old school.

As well as Aitken’s book, there are musical settings of poems by soldiers who died during the war, plus traditional song texts with re-composed music. There are re-compositions of Schubert and Handel, resulting from Aitken experiences and thoughts. One example: at the Somme, Aitken sees a sign-post with a finger pointing the direction to the town of Ypres. Even by September 1916 the name ‘Ypres’ was infamous, and reminded Aitken of Schubert’s famous song Der Wegweiser (The Signpost) that contains the ominous line “There’s a road that I must wander / Where no traveller returns.”

The work ends with words by the great Turkish leader Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, taken from the Anzac war memorial in Canberra. This healing text is set to the same music that begins the work, providing a frame for the whole oratorio. Another unifying element in the work is the recurring ‘battle music’ – harsh, relentless, astringent and repetitive. There is no escaping the ugliness of war.