Commissioned for their Centenary by the Bournemouth Symphony Chorus.
Not in Our Time is about the universal theme of how religion is used as a pretext or justification for war. The piece opens with an orchestral cataclysm - the reverberation of the collapse of the Twin Towers and the shock waves it sent around the world. From it emerge the soft, measured tones of George W. Bush, whose references to "crusade" and "God is not neutral" also sent, in their turn, shockwaves around the Arab world.
Not in Our Time takes extracts from speeches of the last two American presidents as bookends. Obama's Cairo University speech about reconciliation is the antithesis of Bush's evangelical call to arms and to demonise the "evildoers".
The primary texts deliberately juxtapose speeches and poems on holy war and divinely sanctioned violence a thousand years apart, from the first Crusade, to 9/11. I reprise four times, however, Hilda Doolittle’s poem "Not in our time, O Lord, the ploughshare for the sword": first in sorrowful response to the militant Arab reaction to President Bush, by the
Childrens' Chorus in response to Pope Urban II's call for the first Crusade, in commentary on Abul-Muzzafar Al-
Abyurdi's poignant vision of the aftermath of war and, finally, in passionate response to the terrifying call for Holy War in the sermon given in Jerusalem after Saladin's victory in 1187AD. The universality of H.D.'s poem is reminiscent of the Passion Chorale in which the text is repeated but its context and musical setting is different.
The result of Pope Urban II's launch of the first Crusade at Clermont in 1095AD was the unification of the warring knights of Europe in a common purpose; namely to slaughter Muslims, sanctioned in the name of God. The cry of the two thousand present, "God wills it", is well documented, and mirrors the cry for Holy War in the Sermon at Jerusalem by Mohammed Ben Zeky ninety-two years later. In my work, Urban's cry launches a musical/military setting of the Crusader hymn O Crux ave spes unica, with percussion and blazing trumpets setting the scene for the immense throng that journeyed to the Holy Land under the banner of the Cross. By contrast, the poet Abul-Muzzafar's fragile song of the ravaging effects of war is overwhelmed by the Crusader juggernaut hymn.
Parts III and IV are also mirrors - Part III describes the Fall of Jerusalem by Fulcher of Chartres at which, almost incredibly, the blood-spattered Crusaders, fresh from slaughter, pile into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre to worship Jesus. In choosing the resplendent Latin hymn Lucis largitor splendide, I try to evoke the magnificence and power of
Christian devotion in a sustained choral sequence. At the centre of the work is the contemporary reporter Tom Junod's description of the nameless man falling from the World Trade Centre, a man who seemed to embody humanity's fall that day.
Aftermath explores the experience of the individual affected by warfare. The Chorus, as if tormented by the unbreakable cycle of violence asks, in a passage from the Old Testament Book of Habakkuk, “How long, O Lord? I cry for help - but you do not listen!” In a contrasting section, the Children’s Chorus sings a fragment of the poet from the town of Ma'arra, completely destroyed by the Crusaders. The question of God's will, so confidently attested by the warmongers, is unanswered by the Chorus.
In Part VI the call for holy war that begun with Pope Urban II in Part II, is now taken up by Mohammed Ben Zeky following Saladin's capture of Jerusalem in 1187AD. His cry to "Purify the rest of the earth of those nations with whom God and his messenger are angry" prompts the Chorus' final, desperate plea of "Not in our time, O Lord". Both the
tenor and baritone protagonists unite for the first time to sing words from Barack Obama's Cairo address in 2009, in which he challenges young people of all faiths to "re-imagine the world". In citing the peaceful messages of the Quran, the Torah and the Bible he is effectively pleading for an end of the crusader mentality in the hope that "The Holy land
of the three great faiths is the land of peace God intended it to be".
Richard Blackford 21/12/10
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