Festival of Remembrance 2014

Well I’ve just finished watching the Festival of Remembrance streamed live from Royal Albert Hall on BBC, and I have to say it brought tears to my eyes more than once throughout the ceremony.  The whole thing was just a stunning tribute to all those lost in the many wars this world has endured.  There were representatives from all branches of the British armed forces, as well as many war widows, mothers, fathers, and siblings.  What hit me the hardest was the music; those were the most emotional moments for me.  The chorus and band were outstanding, and there were some wonderful moments when the audience joined in with the popular hymns “Guide Me, Ever Great Redeemer” and “Abide With Me.”  One of the most touching moments for me was the performance by New Zealand opera trio SOL3 MIO of “Invictus.”  I’ll admit there were tears literally streaming down my face during that song.  The trio, two tenors and a baritone, were absolutely spot-on with every harmony.  I will try to find the video of the performance from tonight, but here’s a clip of the trio in rehearsal:

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For me, their performance was the highlight of the night.  The song was the official anthem of the Invictus Games, held earlier this fall, which brought together disabled soldiers from all over the world to compete in sporting events, altered to accommodate their injuries.  “Invictus” was taken from the poem of William Ernest Henley:

Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate,
I am the captain of my soul.

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There was also a spectacular performance from the musical “War Horse,” which included the iconic life-sized horse puppets used in the play.  It was amazing watching the puppet move alongside the boy, and it’s honestly hard to tell at moments that the puppet isn’t a real horse!  The natural movement given to the puppet by its puppeteers is absolutely mind-blowing.

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Jeff Beck and Joss Stone performed the official anthem of the Poppy Appeal, “No Man’s Land.”  Read the lyrics, and you’ll find it difficult to hold back tears; the imagery is just phenomenal:

Well, how do you do, young Willie McBride?
Do you mind if I sit down here by your graveside?
And rest for awhile in the warm summer sun,
I’ve been walking all day, and I’m nearly done.
And I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916.
Well I hope you died well and I hope you died clean
Or, young Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the Death March as they lowered you down?
Did the band play the Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

Did you leave a wife or a sweetheart behind?
In some loyal heart is your memory enshrined?
And, though you died back in 1916,
In that loyal heart you’re forever 19.

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the Death March as they lowered you down?
Did the band play the Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

I see by your gravestone you were only 19
When you joined the great fallen in 1916,
Well I hope you died well and I hope you died clean
Or, young Willie McBride, was it slow and obscene?

Did they beat the drum slowly, did they play the fife lowly?
Did they sound the Death March as they lowered you to the ground?
Did the band play the Last Post in chorus?
Did the pipes play the Flowers of the Forest?

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The official video is here:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=t5gTOcoD0c0

Apparently, there’s some controversy about the omission of some original verses.  Scottish singer-songwriter Eric Bogle is evidently displeased that they took out the following lyrics:

Or are you a stranger without even a name,
Forever enshrined behind some glass pane,
In an old photograph, torn and tattered and stained,
And fading to yellow in a brown leather frame?

The sun’s shining down on these green fields of France;
The warm wind blows gently, and the red poppies dance.
The trenches have vanished long under the plow;
No gas and no barbed wire, no guns firing now.
But here in this graveyard that’s still no man’s land
The countless white crosses in mute witness stand
To man’s blind indifference to his fellow man.
And a whole generation who were butchered and damned.

And I can’t help but wonder, now Willie McBride,
Do all those who lie here know why they died?
Did you really believe them when they told you “The Cause?”
Did you really believe that this war would end wars?
Well the suffering, the sorrow, the glory, the shame
The killing, the dying, it was all done in vain,
For Willie McBride, it all happened again,
And again, and again, and again, and again.

Of course, the final anthem of “God Save the Queen” was moving, especially when they showed Her Majesty standing in her box waving to her people.  She’s always struck me as a very classy and elegant lady, a wonderful role model for her country and for people around the world.  Her sense of composure is second-to-none; she always acts with the utmost grace and dignity.  I really admire her, and I’m quite envious of the British when it comes to the monarchy.  Not that I don’t appreciate my own government back home in the U.S.  It’s just that the idea of a monarchy is so foreign and exciting to me, coming from a country who has never had anything even remotely resembling a queen.

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The music, as I’ve said, was the best part of this incredible ceremony, and without it I don’t think I would’ve experienced the emotions that I did.  Maybe this is because I’m a musician, but I think that it’s more than that.  Music touches musicians and non-musicians alike; it stirs something in our hearts and digs deeply into our souls to bring out the genuine feelings we hold there.  That being said, musicians have as deep a regard for silence as they do for sound.  Some go so far as to say that silence is music.  Indeed, there are many times in a piece of music where no sound is being sung or played.  These moments of silence further evoke the emotions intended by the composer.  So naturally, another poignant moment of the evening was the complete silence that filled Royal Albert Hall as the red poppy petals streamed down from above.  It was certainly a moment of reflection and peace, even for those of us not physically present at the ceremony.

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The Festival of Remembrance was certainly a night to remember, especially because this year marks the centennial of the start of the First World War.  The Royal British Legion did a wonderful job with the event; it truly told the story of the horrors and pain of war, as well as the heartbreak it leaves behind.  It was a beautiful way to remember all the brave men and women who died defending the freedom and liberty of the Western World, those who brought relief and hope to people held captive by tyrants.  The words of the priests and speakers touched the crowd and gave them something to remember as they go home tonight.  I’m sure the message they heard this evening will not be forgotten by tomorrow.

All images taken from:   http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2826774/Lest-forget-Royal-British-Legion-s-Festival-Remembrance-takes-place-Royal-Albert-Hall-performances-Jeff-Beck-Joss-Stone.html


One Song, A Thousand Memories

one song

A friend shared this photo on Facebook yesterday, and it really hit me how true it is, how much one song can affect us.  This post is not going to be about London or living in the UK, but it’s a post that nearly every human being on earth can relate to.  We often associate songs with certain people or events in our lives.  Maybe it’s the lyrics of the song, or maybe it’s the situation in which you first heard the song played.  Whatever the case may be, that song will always bring you back to a moment in your life.

But why is this?  From a psychological standpoint, it has been found through scientific study that “listening to music engages broad neural networks in the brain, including brain regions responsible for motor actions, emotions, and creativity.”**  In one study, music was even effective in getting patients with severe brain injuries to recall personal memories.  In another study, Petr Janata, associate professor of psychology at the University of California Davis, found that music triggers responses from certain areas of the brain that are responsible for memories, acting as a “soundtrack for a mental movie that starts playing in our head.”** Specifically, music activates the limbic system, part of the brain involved in processing emotions and controlling memory.  In his paper Music, memory, and emotion, Dr. Lutz Jäncke, professor of psychology at the University of Zurich, discusses another study regarding music and memories:

“Another recent study examined the memories and
emotions that are often evoked when hearing musical
pieces from one’s past. In this experiment, subjects were
presented with a large set of short musical excerpts (not
longer than 30 seconds per excerpt) of past popular songs.
Using a set of newly designed questionnaires, the authors
found that, on average, 30% of the presented songs evoked
autobiographical memories. In addition, most of the songs
also evoked various strong emotions, which were mainly
positive ones such as nostalgia.”***

Dr. Jäncke writes in detail about other studies that have focused on music associated with memories and emotions, and you can find the link to his paper at the end of this post.

So what does all this really mean?

Because music triggers strong emotional responses and because emotions are involved in processing memories, music may actually help form our memories.  These songs that we associate with people and events are woven into the memories themselves, and as a result we often recall a memory along with its “soundtrack.”

Music is a very powerful thing.  Scientifically, it has been shown to stimulate people’s minds, even those of people who have suffered brain damage.  But it goes beyond that; music penetrates our souls, working itself into our lives in a deep and personal way.  Taylor Swift’s lyrics may remind you of your first love.  Beyonce’s “Halo” might bring back memories of you high school prom.  And I’m sure for many people, the music of Jimi Hendrix mentally transports them back to Woodstock 1969.  We often find that these memories are very specific; one can visualize with great clarity the look in your then-boyfriend’s eyes or the solemn funeral procession of a loved one.  Whatever song it is and whatever feelings and memories it evokes, we can all agree that our world would be rather colorless without music.  There’s a great quote that I often see posted by musicians and other artists:

earth without art

Because of the significance of art and music in our lives, we must never forget to encourage creativity and imagination in our society.  We need to support the people who create this art and allow them to share their creative process with the world.  Recently, there was outrage over a subway musician in New York City being arrested for busking.  There has been no evidence suggesting that he was in any way breaking the law by publicly performing his music in the subway, and yet NYPD smothered his creativity by taking his guitar out of his hands and leading him away in handcuffs.  It’s a well-known fact that as school districts suffer budget cuts, arts programs are the first to go.  If music isn’t taught to children in school, where is our future generation of musicians going to come from?  We as a society need to pull together to show support for creativity.  Not everyone can be a doctor, a lawyer, or an engineer.  That’s not to say we don’t need these people in our society; on the contrary, we have a great need for them.  But for some people, these professions won’t be enough to satisfy their creative hunger.  We need to support performers and artists, rather than discourage them from going after their artistic pursuits.  The world needs music; it seems our future memories are depending on the music created today.