A Deeply Moving Personal Commemoration of the Great War
Cheltenham Festival – From your ever-loving son, Jack: Joshua Ellicott (tenor), Simon Lepper (piano), Cheltenham Ladies College, Parabola Arts Centre, 7.7.2016. (JQ)
Songs and piano music by Bridge, Finzi, Ireland, Haydn Wood, Poulenc, Debussy, Hahn and MacMillan
This was no ordinary recital.
The young British tenor, Joshua Ellicott had built a programme around war time letters written by his Great Uncle, Jack Ellicott. Jack was born in Earlestown, Lancashire in 1896, eight years before his younger brother, Harry. In late 1914 or early 1915 young Jack joined a number of his pals in volunteering to serve in the British army. He joined the South Lancashire Regiment Prince of Wales Volunteers and after training he was sent to France in the summer of 1915. His younger brother, Harry never forgot going with Jack to the station from where he entrained for France, helping him carry his kit-bag. Jack was killed in action on 12 August 1916, one of the many young men who perished in the battle of the Somme. His grave is in the Serre Road cemetery, near Beaumont Hamel in Picardy. Although I don’t believe this programme was conceived specifically to mark the centenary of the Somme offensive it was still very apt to experience it just a few days after te centenary of the start of that ill-fated campaign, which began on 1 July 1916.
Mercifully too young to fight in the First World War, young Harry Ellicott grew up to have the family Jack never had and Joshua Ellicott is Harry’s grandson. Joshua Ellicott devised this programme around some of the letters that Jack wrote from the Front in France to his parents back in Lancashire. Almost every piece of music was preceded by a reading from one or more of Jack’s letters home and as the sequence unfolded – mercifully uninterrupted by applause – it become increasingly apparent that considerable care had gone into the selection of music to fit with Jack’s letters home.
The stage was bare save for the piano and a life-size photograph of No. 3604 Rifleman J Ellicott, as he styled himself in his letters, standing in his uniform and looking terribly young yet determined. Joshua Ellicott read from his Great Uncle’s letters in a boyish tone and a Lancashire accent. If that sounds affected it certainly wasn’t. What quickly became apparent and what made the correspondence all the more moving was that Jack’s letters were so ordinary. There were no poetic flights of fancy and very little was said about the war itself. Still less did Jack rail against the futility of war. Here, instead, was a young boy, away from home for the first time, conscious that he was there to do a job that had to be done and passing on pretty mundane descriptions of life in the army.
So we first encountered him training in Blackpool and billeted with 13 other raw recruits. He hastened to reassure his parents that he was getting “the best of food” and perhaps more importantly that there was “no ale-shifting going on” because all his fellow recruits were “respectable”. From this we moved seamlessly to Frank Bridge’s Journey’s End (1925), its plangent and melancholy music most affectingly delivered. After hearing of Jack’s excitement at being kitted out, Gerald Finzi’s Budmouth Dears (1933) was an apt musical illustration. Ellicott and Lepper took this song rather more steadily than some performances that I’ve heard but this was no bad thing as it ensured the words registered properly; the song shouldn’t be delivered as a tongue-twister.
From Blackpool, Jack’s regiment moved overnight by rail for further training at Tonbridge Wells. The train passed through Earlestown at 1.00 am and Jack confided to his parents that he felt a bit upset as the train passed through his home town at dead of night. In Tonbridge Jack had “a rough life but a healthy one” and John Ireland’s The Encounter complemented this stage of his military career very well. Then in a very brief letter dated 5 August 1915 Jack tells his parents that he’s leaving for France that morning, hastening to tell them that he goes “in the best of spirits”. On 14 August he writes again, “within the sound of the guns”, expecting to go to the trenches within days. Amusingly, he signed off his letter home with a cheery “bonsoir!” All this made Joshua Ellicott’s tender performance of Haydn Wood’s Roses of Picardy (1916) all the more touching. This can seem an overly sentimental song but to hear it in this context was very moving. Joshua Ellicott took a much-needed breather at this point while Simon Lepper played Bridge’s piece for piano left hand, A Vigil (1918). This slow, reflective piece was poetically done; it was a shame that the quiet opening was marred by two late-arriving members of the audience.
In a letter of 22 August we get the first mention of the war itself – and one of the few instances in these extracts. Jack refers to the British artillery shelling enemy positions. He goes on to comment on the destruction wreaked by the Germans and expresses fears for what they might do to England were they ever to invade, which he considers highly unlikely. This letter stood out for being just about Jack’s only comment on the conduct of the war. A wonderfully sensitive rendition of Poulenc’s Apollinaire setting Bleuet (1939) brought out the sadness of Poulenc’s expressive mélodie.
Then Jack was back to everyday life, letting off steam in a letter dated 25 November 1915 about the “bare-faced robbers” among the French who charge the troops sky-high prices for everything. There was also a reference to Edith Etherington, a girl back home who writes to him; Jack tells his mother that Edith is “the only girl I think anything about.” An intense performance of Bridge’s lovely song Thy Hand in Mine (1917) was perfectly positioned in the programme at this juncture.
Christmas 1915 was Jack’s first away from home though, happily, he was able to pass it behind the front line and with the comfort of a good number of cards and parcels from friends and family at home, about which he wrote to his parents on 26 December. It’s clear that he very much missed being with his family but, as ever, he did far more than make the best of it; as so often was the case in these letters he went out of his way to stress the positive, such as the Christmas Day rations. Was his chin very firmly up, I wondered, or was he consciously writing in terms that would reassure his family back at home?
Debussy’s Noël des Enfants qui n’ont plus de maison. Nous n’avon plus de maison (1915) was an inspired choice at this point and Ellicott sang it ardently. Just as inspired was the decision to follow it immediately with another Debussy piece, this time the piano solo, Des pas sur la neige (1909-10). Simon Lepper did this marvellously, perfectly weighting each phrase and conveying the snowy stillness most atmospherically.
Next we heard from Jack about a surprise reunion behind the lines with a number of lads from Earlestown; presumably they belonged to another unit. It’s at this point that Jack mentions that Edith has said she’s thinking of moving to Birmingham, a step about which he was philosophical. The musical reflection was provided by Reynaldo Hahn’s Les étoiles (1915), sung in English. Here the shimmering piano part especially caught the ear.
Jack had said he was anticipating moving back to the front line and he sent his parents a field postcard, of necessity terse, on 11 August 1916 to say that his deployment had happened. That was the last his family heard from Jack for the young man was killed the very next day. In an inspired piece of planning Joshua Ellicott here inserted James MacMillan’s The Children (1995). This gaunt song features keening vocal lines, sparsely accompanied. He gave a hypnotic performance. The demands that are made of the singer in terms of control and tuning are significant but they were met. At the end of the piece we hear shattering, terrifying piano clusters in the instrument’s lowest register. I’ve heard this song before but never has that ending seemed so nihilistic thanks to its inevitable association in this evening’s context with the violent death of No. 3604 Rifleman J Ellicott. After MacMillan’s cataclysmic ending had died away Joshua Ellicott sang Ireland’s poignant Rupert Brooke setting, Spring Sorrow (1918). How poignant and fragile it sounded. Thus ended our evening with Jack Ellicott.
Applause seemed almost an impertinence but it was forthcoming nonetheless, and rightly so. Touchingly, Joshua Ellicott directed some of the applause towards Jack’s picture. It seems almost irrelevant to comment on the musical performances because this evening was about much more than mere ‘performance’. However, it should be said that Joshua Ellicott communicated both Jack’s words and the songs he sang with fine sensitivity and eloquence. Simon Lepper was a most adept and musical partner and I admired the way in which he expertly scaled the sound of the piano to match the intimacy of the venue
This was a most perceptively planned programme. I was struck by the contrast between the musical pieces – carefully crafted works of art, intended for public consumption – and Jack’s simply-expressed direct prose contained in private letters. I hope very much indeed that one of our enterprising record companies will invite these artists to preserve this imaginative programme on CD because it’s a very special artistic commemoration of the Great War.
Since we began in 2014 to mark the centenary of the Great War there have been many musical commemorations of those who gave their lives during the conflict and without doubt there will be many more such commemorations between now and November 2018. However, most of those commemorations focus on the generality of sacrifice – and that’s right and proper. This evening was different, however. Here we were confronted with the sacrifice of one very ordinary individual and we shared the hopes and fears of young Jack Ellicott, a man of just nineteen. It was intensely moving to have the sacrifice of war made so very personal. In fact it’s a long time since I’ve been so moved by a musical event of any sort. By honouring his great uncle in this way Joshua Ellicott did his memory proud and ensured that Jack Ellicott’s name ‘liveth for evermore’.