Looking back on our hopes and ambitions at the beginning of Tenso Network Europe’s 14 – 18 project, we can safely say that we have fulfilled our goals. Not only did Tenso commission some very special works concerning the Great War, but the vast majority of the texts used in the master classes for young composers were also related to that period which was so tragic for almost the whole of Europe.

The project has resulted in eight official commissions for recognized composers (all of which have been completed), six commissions for the winners of the young composers’ master classes (of which three have been performed and three have still to be completed), besides thirty-six submitted works for those same master classes (works which were on the music stands of some of our most prominent chamber choirs).

In short, the Great War is in many ways back on the musical map, in particular that part of the war that did not play out in northern France and Flanders, to which then and now many compositions refer, although seldom – as I already noted in 2014 – in the form of choral music. Most of the works to emerge from the Tenso project tell about the war in central and eastern Europe, in the Balkans, the Baltic States and Finland; a war that was no less dramatic and saw countless victims.

When we look at these works more closely, a number of things immediately stand out. Firstly, the extraordinary texts that were used and which can be consulted on the website specially designed for this purpose (www.frompoetrytomusic.eu). After 2018 this website will remain as a digital memorial to the victims of the Great War and to their hardships. Here in particular it’s the poignant poems, diary entries, reports and numerous other mementos emanating from central and eastern Europe that catch the eye.

Entirely in keeping with the aims of Tenso – as European network for professional chamber choirs – the selected master class participants and commissioned composers are extremely diverse. They come from all over Europe, and include composers who work come from further afield but are working in Europe.

So we see commissions for the Argentinian-British Alejandro Viñao *(1951), Tapio Tuomela (*1958) from Finland, the Slovenian Uros Rojko (*1954), the Italian-German composer Fabio Nieder (*1957) and the Croatian Frano Parać (*1948). The master class prize-winners, who received a commission as a result of their prize, were the American composer Eugene Birman (*1987), who was born in Latvia and completed part of his studies in England; Bulgarian-Hungarian composer Georgi Sztojanov (*1985); the Iranian composer Aftab Darvishi (*1987), who studied in the Netherlands; the Rumanian composer Sebastian Androne (*1989), the British composer Lillie Harris (*1994) and Jug Markovic (*1987) from Serbia.

Even though the origins of the composers and their chosen texts were exceptionally diverse, almost all the composers were acutely aware of the horrors of the Great War. How to capture that in sound? And then for a chamber choir? What were the particular characteristics of this world war and how could they be reflected in sound? It wasn’t the first war with cannons, but it was the first with large-scale machinery, with chemical weapons and especially with planes.

As in every war, the lamentations were heart-breaking and barely anyone was left untouched. Afterwards the world seemed to be populated by the seriously wounded, traumatised survivors and widows. What was most striking this time however, was the difference between the optimism with which so many went to war (forced or not) and the desolate reality, devoid of all human dignity, that within a half year had become so evident.

Almost every composer considered it essential to translate that into sound when writing a new work. The human voice is in this regard ideally suited to conveying the many shades of sound, expression and emotion. During the master classes – with the support of two or three teachers and one of Tenso’s professional choirs – composers exhibited great resourcefulness in experimenting with every conceivable sound and timbre and a multitude of nuances, and in investigating how these could be so accurately captured in symbols that singers could have no doubt as to their intention.

At the same time many composers wondered if words would not be inadequate and if the sounds themselves were sufficient. A single line of text was sometimes enough for an entire choral work, such as the text on a postcard that Georgi Sztojanov used, Auf einer Postkarten from the Kriegsetüden: “Est is frühling und ich lebe noch, doppelte Herrlichkeit und zweifaches Wunder”, schrieb der Expressionist Erich Baron. Or the compelling poems of August Stramm (1874-1915), speaking so powerfully to the imagination with only one word per line, used by Sofia Borges (*1979), Lillie Harris and Georgi Sztojanov.

It’s clear that there are endless possibilities between speaking and singing, between hissing, clicking and growling, between the beauty of nirvana and the hell of the battlefield. Composers young and old exploited all these possibilities with great imagination in the various impressive choral works and in the master class sketches. It also became apparent that the employed techniques are always a means to an end, namely to tell the story that even after one hundred years is still a living part of European history.

While Georgi Sztojanov used a myriad of old and new techniques in his multi-part cycles Angelic Books (2016) and War Cycle (2018), Aftab Darvishi limited herself to a directly appealing, simple and impressive tonal language in Lament Rose (2016). This in contrast to Eugene Birman’s Field of the Dead (2014), which is distinctly advanced in its use of notes and sounds, from whispering to screaming, sighing and groaning. We find a similar sound exploration by the Finn Antti Auvinen (*1974) in Obviously Foreign Infantry (2017), but then mixed with what seem to be raw, distorted soldiers’ songs. The whole work thus assumes a theatrical character, though it emphatically may not be ‘enacted.’ Fabio Nieder shows us the war through the eyes of a sixteen-year-old soldier in Kriegslied (2017), “based on a Slovenian folk song, for yodelling tenors in a mixed choir with a Japanese singing bowl.”

Let’s be very clear: it’s not easy to capture war in music, or in words, not even in images. But if some aspects of war can be conveyed, then music is perhaps the most appropriate for giving voice to the abandonment, the loneliness, the desolation, the pain and the anger. And because the voice is the most personal instrument of all, is singing, in our case choral singing, an almost unparalleled medium for the poignant emotions that still resonate in our time, a century after the Great War.

Every performance of the works written for the Tenso choirs has touched the audience anew. Tenso Europe’s 14 – 18 project has thus helped to ensure that the many voices of the past can still be heard today and are set down for future generations.

Leo Samama, 2018 (c)
translation Carolyn Muntz (c)