It has been another Remembrance Day for another year. In the course of this year’s services, I was able to hear three different choral settings of John McCrae’s famous WWI poem “In Flanders Fields”, and I found myself musing on how all the settings I’ve heard over the years are maybe too “pretty.”
Now, don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to say these are poorly written choral works. Far from it. They are very haunting works, which is a highly appropriate trait for a musical setting of Flanders Fields, and can be very evocative (or as the kids like to say these days, they give you “the feels”). It just occurred to me that setting this poem is really an opportunity to dig into some intense dissonance, push the listeners well outside their comfort zone, and make people genuinely feel uncomfortable. Because, this is a poem about war.
Contrary to what Hollywood might make it look like, war is beyond horrible. War is severed limbs. War is watching your friend die mere steps away from you, but knowing that you can’t help them because if you move that sniper is going to kill you too. War is so traumatic that many who manage to come back alive are forever negatively changed by it. So it occurred to me, instead of having moments of being “hauntingly beautiful”, maybe a musical setting of a poem written in the midst of the horrors of war should have moments of such intense dissonance that the listeners feel like they’re in the trenches.
Under more normal circumstances, I can totally understand why someone would want to be somewhat more careful about taking an audience too far out of their comfort zone. If it is not well received, you can pretty much guarantee that’s the only performance of the work you’ll ever get. But a setting of In Flanders Fields is not exactly typical concert hall repertoire, it is really only something that is performed at either a formal Remembrance Day service, or a specific Remembrance Day themed concert. In either of these situations, I believe the people in attendance would be much more willing to have their comfort zones shattered – or at least more forgiving of it anyway. So why not really push those bounds?
In other news, I think I just committed myself to composing a choral setting of In Flanders Fields…