In Pace

For mezzo-soprano, choir, and historic wind quintet (2 cornets, 2 sackbuts, dulcian) on a poem by Robert Service. First performance: 2 November 2014 with Meagan Zantingh, mezzo-soprano, La Rose des Vents, and the Cantata Singers of Ottawa, Christopher Hossfeld conducting.

Press

Hossfeld’s own work, In Pace, was the program’s keystone. Set to a gut-wrenching poem by Canadian Robert Service, it’s a first-person account of a soldier dying on a WWI battlefield. Hossfeld paints in a harrowing palette of minor seconds and sinuous, uneasy motifs, eschewing the obvious military references. Boldly, he gives the soldier’s lines to a mezzo soprano.… Hossfeld’s conducting is clear and calm.

Natasha Gauthier. “Lost lives and lost manuscripts featured at two weekend concerts.” Ottawa Citizen, 2 November 2014.

Score

Download a pdf of the score (for study purposes only).

For performance rights and materials, please contact the composer by e-mail at ch@christopherhossfeld.com.

Programme Notes

Written in commemoration of the First World War centenary.

In creating this piece, I contemplated the loss and tragedy of the First World War, and how to relate them to a modern Canadian audience. In searching for a Canadian poet with first-hand experience of the war, I came across the work of Robert Service (1874–1958), who was an ambulance driver and stretcher-bearer for the Red Cross. His poem “On the Wire” is from a collection of poetry, Rhymes of a Red Cross Man, published in 1916. It describes the horror of a soldier, trapped on the barbed wire that marked the front lines of the trenches, who eventually takes his own life to relieve his agony. The role of the soldier is sung by the mezzo-soprano soloist. The challenge of setting a poem full of such horrific descriptions is finding a context for it: dwell too much on the terror, and it can be an awful experience for the audience, but avoiding it might end up trivializing it. I found the answer in an antiphon and a hymn taken from the Compline service for the first Sunday of Lent. Compline is a service sung at the end of the day. Its prayers for protection through the night often evoke images of the end of life as well. There are haunting parallels between the latin text and Service’s poem, especially the imagery of light and petitions for protection. The antiphon text, In pace, is set by English composer John Sheppard (1515–1558), alternating polyphony with the chant. The motet is quoted in its entirety at the end of my piece, the choir singing the chant and the winds playing the polyphony. Its accompanying hymn, Christe qui lux es et dies, is sung by the choir through the rest of the piece, acting as a Greek chorus praying for the soldier.

Text
O God, take the sun from the sky!
It’s burning me, scorching me up.
God, can’t You hear my cry?
‘Water! A poor, little cup!’
It’s laughing, the cursed sun!
See how it swells and swells
Fierce as a hundred hells!
God, will it never have done?
It’s searing the flesh on my bones;
It’s beating with hammers red
My eyeballs into my head;
It’s parching my very moans.
See! It’s the size of the sky,
And the sky is a torrent of fire,
Foaming on me as I lie
Here on the wire… the wire.…

Christe qui lux es et dies,
Noctis tenebras detegis,
Lucisque lumen crederis,
Lumen beatum praedicans.

Christ, who art the light and day,
You drive away the darkness of night,
You are called the light of light,
For you proclaim the blessed light.

Of the thousands that wheeze and hum
Heedlessly over my head,
Why can’t a bullet come,
Pierce to my brain instead,
Blacken forever my brain,
Finish forever my pain?
Here in the hellish glare
Why must I suffer so?
Is it God doesn’t care?
Is it God doesn’t know?
Oh, to be killed outright,
Clean in the clash of the fight!
That is a golden death,
That is a boon; but this…
Drawing an anguished breath
Under a hot abyss,
Under a stooping sky
Of seething, sulphurous fire,
Scorching me up as I lie
Here on the wire… the wire.…

Precamur Sancte Domine,
Defende nos in hac nocte,
Sit nobis in te requies,
Quietam noctem tribue.

We beseech you, Holy Lord,
Protect us this night.
Let us take our rest in you;
Grant us a tranquil night.

Hasten, O God, Thy night!
Hide from my eyes the sight
Of the body I stare and see
Shattered so hideously.
I can’t believe that it’s mine.
My body was white and sweet,
Flawless and fair and fine,
Shapely from head to feet;
Oh no, I can never be
The thing of horror I see
Under the rifle fire,
Trussed on the wire… the wire.…

Ne gravis somnus irruat,
Nec hostis nos surripiat,
Nec caro illi consentiens,
Nos tibi reos statuat.

Let our sleep be free from care;
Let not the enemy snatch us away,
Nor flesh conspire within him,
And make us guilty in your sight.

Of night and of death I dream;
Night that will bring me peace,
Coolness and starry gleam,
Stillness and death’s release:
Ages and ages have passed,—
Lo! it is night at last.

Oculi somnum capiant,
Cor ad te semper vigilet,
Dextera tua protegat
Famulos qui te diligunt.

Though our eyes be filled with sleep,
Keep our hearts forever awake to you.
May your right hand protect
Your willing servants.

Night! but the guns roar out.
Night! but the hosts attack.
Red and yellow and black
Geysers of doom upspout.

Defensor noster aspice,
Insidiantes reprime,
Guberna tuos famulos,
Quos sanguine mercatus es.

You who are our shield, behold;
Restrain those that lie in wait.
And guide your servants whom
You have ransomed with your blood.

Silver and green and red
Star-shells hover and spread.
Yonder off to the right
Fiercely kindles the fight;
Roaring near and more near,
Thundering now in my ear;
Close to me, close … Oh, hark!
Someone moans in the dark.
I hear, but I cannot see,
I hear as the rest retire,
Someone is caught like me,
Caught on the wire… the wire.…

Again the shuddering dawn,
Weird and wicked and wan;
Again, and I’ve not yet gone.
The man whom I heard is dead.
Now I can understand:
A bullet hole in his head,
A pistol gripped in his hand.
Well, he knew what to do,—
Yes, and now I know too.…

Memento nostri Domine
In gravi isto corpore,
Qui es defensor animae,
Adesto nobis Domine.

O Lord, remember us, who
Bear the burden of this mortal form;
You who are the defender of the soul,
Be near us, O Lord.

Hark the resentful guns!
Oh, how thankful am I
To think my beloved ones
Will never know how I die!
I’ve suffered more than my share;
I’m shattered beyond repair;
I’ve fought like a man the fight,
And now I demand the right
(God! how his fingers cling!)
To do without shame this thing.
Good! there’s a bullet still;
Now I’m ready to fire;
Blame me, God, if You will,
Here on the wire… the wire.…

In pace, in idipsum
dormiam et requiescam.
In peace and into the same
I shall sleep and rest.

English text by Robert W. Service, “On the Wire” from Rhymes of a Red Cross Man (1916).
Latin text from the Sarum Compline service for the First Sunday of Lent (Hymn and Antiphon).