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Chamber Chorus asks, 'What Do You Think I Fought For?'

Sarah Bryan Miller of St. Louis Post-Dispatch

Is warfare inevitable? The course of history suggests that the answer is yes. In its second concert of the season, the St. Louis Chamber Chorus will examine the reasons in musical terms.

World War I was billed as “the war to end war,” but in fact it was a tragedy of epic proportions, and the harsh terms of its resolution led directly to World War II. There was no “right” side, but there were plenty of villains, from propagandists who knowingly published lies to those who launched the genocides of minority groups.

The Armistice was signed at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month; the Armistice Day holiday was observed until World War II made it expedient to turn it into Veterans Day. Appropriately, the SLCC will look at the “why” of warfare in its second concert of the season, “What Do You Think I Fought For?,” performed on 11/11.

“Our concert does not simply commemorate warfare and its ‘actors,’” says artistic director Philip Barnes, “but rather explores the various reasons why we fight. Since conflict is, alas, such a constant in human history, we are able to sample music across a wide span of time, geography and styles.”

The framework for that sampling is, appropriately, a Mass setting based on the exceedingly popular, intensely secular 15th-century fight song “L’Homme armé,” “The Armed Man.” The original text reads “The armed man should be feared. Everywhere it has been proclaimed/That each man shall arm himself/With a habergeon of iron.”

It’s a catchy tune, and more than 40 composers — including Ockeghem, Gombert, des Prez and Palestrina — turned it to purposes of peace, as the basis for settings of the Mass.

The Chamber Chorus will sing what Barnes terms “perhaps the most extended — and one of the latest — of these, written in Rome around 1650 for three choirs by Giacomo Carissimi.” The SLCC’s performance will almost certainly be the Midwest, if not the American, première of this work, since it was only recently transcribed from a French manuscript. From that, tenor Jon Garrett and Barnes made their own performing edition.

Barnes was looking online at various versions of “L’Homme armé,” “and they all seemed to be written for choirs a lot smaller than ours. I happened on this late Renaissance setting for three choirs by Carissimi, and found that a transcription had just been made.” It was a great setting, and a good size for the chorus, “but for practical purposes, it had to be reset.”

The clefs were all wrong, by present-day standards, and it was written in double whole notes. “It had to be turned from a scholarly edition to a performing edition. We had to redo the clefs; all the note values had to be halved.” Some of the bass lines had to be rejiggered.

In between movements of the Mass, Barnes has programmed assorted viewpoints, from those of the victors (Sir Granville Bantock’s “War Song of the Saracens”) to the vanquished (the Anglo-Saxons in Alun Hoddinott’s “Danegeld”). The coming of World War II inspired Darius Milhaud to set a text by the distinguished French writer Paul Claudel, “Cantate pour le temps de la Guerre.” It was written in 1939; Milhaud set it the next year, a few weeks before he and his wife fled the initial roundup of Jews in Vichy France.

When the Allies invaded Normandy four years later, their ranks included Philip Spooner, a young chaplain from Maine. Sixty years later, Spooner was asked his thoughts on equality for gays and lesbians. He said: “What do you think I fought for at Omaha Beach?” His response gave the title for the SLCC concert and a new work by Melissa Dunphy.

A young Australian composer, Dunphy won the inaugural Simon Carrington Chamber Singers’ Composition Competition in 2010 in Kansas City for the text of “What Do You Think I Fought For?”

“This piece demonstrates to me how a true artist is able to take even a most unlikely source of inspiration and yet create a new work of art from it,” says Barnes. “It is for others to argue the case behind Philip Spooner’s words, but Melissa Dunphy’s music certainly poses the question in a new and telling light.”

Before the concert, Barnes and Jeffrey Carter, chairman of the music department at Webster University, will have a discussion of Dunphy’s composition. Carter is a former member of the Simon Carrington Chamber Singers.

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