‘In Flanders Fields’ is dedicated to my Great-Uncle Ralph Hancock of the Worcestershires, killed going over the top on 27 August 1917, as part of the Third Battle of Ypres. The military historian Jeremy Banning has done a fantastic job tracing every part of Ralph’s military story and on the right there is Ralph’s obituary as well as a Google map below showing the exact place he died. (Click here to listen to the work performed by Dodecantus in November 2017.)
The chords which open and close the piece seem relentless, angular, tolling like bells. The opening phrase of both verses rises and falls with unexpected harmonies – is it major, is it minor? The following words, ‘row on row’ and ‘hands we throw’ cascade over each in waves, driving forward to the majestic chords, so assured and steady. All this disappears with the stark bugle-like ‘guns below’ motif thrown around the voices.
‘We are the dead’ needed no complicated treatment – I had all voices just whispering, gasping, an echo of Wilfred Owen ‘Dulce.’ I envisaged the middle section, ‘Short days ago’ as if the soldier was in a shell-hole, drifting in and out of consciousness. The dream fades as he as he wakes – ‘and now we lie..’
The work ends with a recap of the opening material and the final tolling of ‘the guns below.’ The last note should last as long as possible, as if we are peeping over the top of the trench, watching the piano and voices march off into the mist of No-Man’s Land. Click on the video below to watch it sung by the Nailsworth Ecumenical Choir.