by Karine Hetherington
Denis Moriarty will be giving an illustrated lecture about Wilfred Owen and his contemporaries for the KOFMA Armistice Centenary, 9th November. Karine Hetherington went to find out about it.
What led you to become interested in the music, poetry and art of the Great War?
It all started with Britten’s War Requiem. I sang in the choir of an early performance of Britten’s work at the Royal Albert Hall. Britten conducted and there was the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskay there; the German baritone Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau; and tenor Peter Pears. For the requiem, Britten used Wilfred Owen’s poetry and it was perhaps the first time most people, including I, had been exposed to his poetry. It was Britten who brought Wilfred Owen to the public eye. I was bowled over by it and it led me on of course to Siegfried Sassoon’s work.
And then I started exploring other musical avenues. Elgar for example, who is regarded as a bombastic composer (at least that is the public image of Pomp and Circumstance), but in fact he wrote some deeply reflective music like The Cello Concerto, written at the end of the Great War, and the tremendously elegiac Piano Quintet and String Quartet.
And the art – what drew you to the war artists?
They were exciting. They were already on the turn in the way the poets weren’t. Whereas the poets employed classical language and were influenced by Keats and Milton (as in Owen’s case), the British artists of the time had already experienced Braque and Picasso. So that meant the art was more fragmented. There was a more modernist thing about it. Even though some of the poems are quite modern, I think the art was breaking more new technical ground.
So back to the poets – why do you think we should be interested in Owen and Sassoon? Do they resonate for us today?
I hope so. For young people the language may seem ‘antique’ or even difficult, but some of Wilfred Owen’s poems are a revelation – very much alive. If you get the hang of the alliteration and different sound techniques, it chimes well with our more bombarded ear of today.
And everyone understands suffering. And some poets and artists died young. Those who survived were traumatised by their experiences. Their works are all the more moving and beautiful as a result…
Yes. However one mustn’t forget that there is a tendency to perhaps over-exaggerate the impact of trauma. We judge their work with modern eyes. The soldiers of the Great War, though they had undeniably suffered and talked about the ghastliness of war in their poetry, they nonetheless felt that it was their duty to fight for their country. And that is perhaps harder for younger people of today to understand.
To hear more of Denis’s illustrated lecture, come to St Luke’s Church, Uxbridge Road on Friday 9th November, 8pm. Book your tickets here.