Trench Symphony

Trench Symphony by Charlie Wells with Ed

On Wednesday 14th November 2018 at Wakefield Cathedral, composer Charlie Wells premiered her new song cycle created using text, and testimony from and relating to WW1. The piece was written in 3 parts, Rally - Reality - Reflection, and featured professional musicians playing alongside a community choir. Charlie conducted the performance, including leading the improvising community choir as part of the graphic score. 

Rally was written using text from WW1 recruitment posters, layered in a polyphonic setting. This is then contrasted with a simple folk song setting conjuring the hopes of a family as their son/brother/lover goes to war. Underneath the optimism of the piece lies a an unease, brought about by the use of two cross rhythm ostinato textures. One, Cede Nullis - is the motto of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and translates as 'Yield to No-one'. The second is 'We're here because we're here' and is a phrase famously sung by soldiers in the trenches, to the tune of 'Auld Lang Syne'.

Up with the Lark (1, 2 & 3) are a setting of Larksong for solo voice and string player. It was inspired by the memories of soldiers on the front recalling the larks soaring over No Man's Land between battles. 

Letters is a piece for choir and strings, which uses text taken directly from letters to and from the Front. The letters contain everything from direct testimony of events on the front line to platitudes sent home as reassurance, and the questions of a concerned lover. All framed by the phrase 'What do you want to know?' which is something still asked by servicemen and women when communicating with their families on deployment today.


The choral piece leads into an audio soundscape of a full letter reading. The letter was sent by the composer's Great Uncle Cephas, to his family (her Great, Great Grandparents) prior to being shipped to France and subsequently killed in action during the battle of the Somme, July 20th 1916 at High Wood. The letter is read by Rupert Maynard - Cephas' nephew and himself a veteran of WW2, where he served in the Navy. This reading is accompanied by sounds of shelling, marching and birdsong, evoking memories of the Western Front as recorded by personal testimonies of the time.


The drone which leads into and out of this piece is a sample of a WW1 trench organ, which has been restored and is still played by Beverley Palin . Research Volunteer Jacqui Wicks, visited Beverley at her home in Northumberland to hear the organ and record a sample for the project. 

Nothing to Report is a setting of the anti-war poem by May Herschel-Clarke (1850-1950), a female war poet, she is most remembered today for The Mother, her poem published in 1917 as a response to Rupert Brooke's  poem The Soldier. Nothing to Report is a three line poem which Charlie has set as a round for 4 voices. The phrasing is offset and builds from one voice to four in the final repeat. This song is the first musical element of the section 'Reality' and leads into the graphic score section of the piece. 

Reality is written as a 'graphic' score, that is non-traditional notation, which is interpreted by soloists and string quartet. The conductor (Charlie) interprets the choir line through her movements for the choir to improvise.  The use of graphic score here is to allow for greater textural expression. Alongside the use of aleatory text gathered during the research process. 


As silence falls on the battlefield, the lark once more soars over No Man's land. This time interpreted by cello and voice and we move into the Reflection section of the piece. 

There Will Come Soft Rains is a setting of the poem of the same name by Sara Teasdale, an American poet writing in the first half of the 20th Century. She was not critically acclaimed, although her work was popular with the public, in 1917 a New York Times Book Review contributor said of her “Miss Teasdale is first, last, and always a singer.” It is the lyrical language in this poem that drew Charlie to set it within the narrative of Trench Symphony. The concept of 'after' of 'what was it for'. This piece, for 3 female voices and string quartet, draws the listener in and sets the scene for remembrance and reflection.


The following two pieces in the song cycle are not based on text from WW1 but are themselves acts of remembrance. The Kyrie is a traditional sacred musical form used in ceremonies of remembrance around the world. Blood Flows is the composer's own choice of musical form for remembrance. The words of the piece are simply "I'm sorry" and the use of language here is designed to remind us of the universal nature of war, the wide reach of WW1 and that there are other stories here to be told, in a language we may not recognise, but should endeavour to understand.

The piece ends with  A New Day, a setting of the words of Rifleman Fred White, a young soldier killed in the Somme (you can find more of his story here). The setting is designed as a pastiche on Amazing Grace and the sing-along songs that were popular during this time period. It is designed to encompass the spirit of how many used music at the time. In the words of Lena Ashwell (you can find more about her here) "...they shall have the comfort, and inspiration, and happiness that beautiful music can bring them."