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“…we vanish into the books with our names in. We do not know how we fit into the pattern.”
Whilst inspired by centenary commemorations of World War 1, The Returning extends this zeitgeist into a deliberately universal message which considers the continuing emotional fall-out from human conflict wherever it may occur.
After the first of numerous roll calls, where names of WW1 fatalities are given a brief recall, the work opens with lively reminders of the 1914-18 conflict. There is a jocular atmosphere initially from newly-demobilized troops, with hints of WW1 songs; but George Szirtes’ libretto soon proceeds to examine what life may hold for those who survive such a conflict. We may have moved on today from whizzbangs and trenches to cruise missiles and satellite technology; from shell shock to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder – but does society satisfactorily rehabilitate and support “the returning” after an initial heroes’ welcome?
Bureaucratic state interference is parodied for its vacuous control over men who have risked their lives for their country. The Church and society are also gently parodied – we may pay annual lip-service with poppies, two minutes’ silence and wreath-laying at decaying war memorials but this may omit remembering recent survivors. A chorale-like, sardonic treatment of the iconic hymn, St Anne (Oh God, our help in ages past) helps to portray a typical UK Remembrance Day Service with its shortcomings for survivors.
The Returning does not set out to extol pacifism per se (“there are the just wars, there are true causes. There exist tyrants, there are moments for sacrifice”.) However, it invites us, whilst remembering the atrocities such as WW1, to reconsider our attitude towards rehabilitating those who have returned from war, at any time.
The recurring roll calls of international names are all of WW1 fallen – and serve as a minute sample of the millions lost to us. The UK names in the score are all from one microcosmic area – Abbots Langley in Hertfordshire (but local names, pertinent to a performance, are permissible and encouraged).
Work on The Returning commenced at the time of another important centenary – the birth of Benjamin Britten (1913 – 1976). There are numerous hidden musical motifs intended as a tribute to this seminally influential composer.
A characteristic fusion of musical styles is employed – traditional English modal lyricism, simple ‘oompah’ village band parody, hints of modern jazz, complex serialism and tonal clusters – with much reworking of the musical material, producing an organic and approachable composition.