The interview was well underway when I tuned into the car radio. A man spoke about weeping every day, how he’d got used to the weeping in the time he’d been researching the First World War. He also said he seemed to be bleeding a lot; he kept cutting or scraping himself. Tears and blood.
I pulled the car over and listened. The ABC’s Myf Warhurst was interviewing Christopher Latham, artist-in-residence for the Australian War Memorial. He is a classical musician, she was slightly out of her comfort zone. Latham was introducing ‘The Diggers’ Requiem’, which brings together the work of composers past and present. Latham had been researching music from the era of the War and had also commissioned new pieces. While I sat parked at the side of the road, a piece by Elena Kats-Chernin poured through the car speakers. It was so beautiful, I decided I would go to the performance at St Pauls Cathedral in Melbourne a couple of nights later.
It was the end of September. I went alone to St Pauls, entering the expectant quiet of the gathered crowd in the Cathedral. I wanted my experience to be unmediated. I wanted to hear for myself what the weeping bleeding man had brought together. I took my seat and waited.
The first movement was Handel’s ‘Dead March’– now arranged with four voices and a piano accordion. Such an intriguing arrival, as the four singers and the accordion player stepped up the central aisle in a dirge-like procession. The sound came like a slow-rolling wave of deep sorrow. I wept as they approached, holding before them the familiar round metal helmets of First World War soldiers, they stepped gravely forward.
The evening did not disappoint. Latham had taken a variety of compositions and woven something seamless and whole. It was a work made with love. At the end, he turned to the gathered audience and invited us to join in a chant of the words ‘Pie Jesu’, all sung on one note.
Latham made one beautiful, telling stumble. When he was conveying the words, printed in the program as ‘Grant us eternal peace’, he said ‘Grant us the strength for peace.’ Indeed.
Later, when searching for more information about ‘The Diggers’ Requiem’ and Christopher Latham, I found his own words which echo this prayer that we might find the strength for peace. Latham writes:
After 15 years of living with this music of war, I see that the musical works created in the battlefields are an attempt to leave some trace of consciousness and memory in the face of erasure, and that these pieces have something important to teach us…
I wish to harvest these beautiful flowers from the past, to give voice to these buried experiences, so that we understand more clearly the cost of war and become more resolved to achieving a lasting peace.
There have since been performances in Canberra and Sydney. And as the 100-year anniversary is now being marked, there will be full resonance for Latham’s words and music, made with tears and blood.
Julie Perrin is a Melbourne writer, oral storyteller, and Associate Teacher at Pilgrim Theological College, University of Divinity. She lives and works on Wurundjeri land.