The World Remembers: For composer Abigail Richardson, the poets’ perspective matters

Canadian soldiers ready for the front. Photo: The World Remembers.

The World Remembers project is much more that an impressive database of three million names of the dead from the First World World. There is music too. This Sunday, a concert featuring the National Youth Orchestra of Germany and three choirs full of young people from Ottawa will sing and play in memory of that bloody war. The World Remembers co-commissioned an number of pieces of music for this concert with the NAC Orchestra. One is called the Song of the Poets. It was composed by Abigail Richardson. Before the performance, she answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about your career as a composer?

A. I work mainly in the orchestra world but I love occasional chamber and opera projects.  I’ve been Affiliate Composer for the Toronto Symphony Orchestra (2006-9) and I am now in my seventh year as Composer-in-Residence with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra. I also teach composition (part time) at the University of Toronto and am Co-Artistic Director of a string quartet series: Chamber Music Hamilton. As is the case with most of us composers, we wear many hats.  My job at the HPO has me functioning very much as a community ambassador and host, sharing appreciation and understanding of the great music we present. I also work in both serious concert music and family shows. My claim to “fame” is writing the music for The Hockey Sweater, which was co-commissioned by the NAC.  It has now been performed more than 110 times since its premiere in 2012, including 10 times in France.  

Q. What influences you? 

A. I try to be very influenced by the project itself and find ways to bring it to life. Part of the joy of being a composer is that every piece is different. Depending on the subject matter, I could be influenced by 13th century Indian classical music to Cape Breton fiddling technique or have no specific musical influences at all. It depends on the project and the guidelines or theme of the commission. It’s all wrapped up in my Canadian sound because at the core, I am a Canadian composer and have been very influenced by the Canadian composers that have come before me. My music is always narrative and I try to bring context to the theme or concept of the work through my writing.  

Abigail Richardson

Q. Have you worked with The World Remembers before?

A. Song of the Poets was the first piece for this collaborative project in 2014. I didn’t know about The World Remembers before that time. I was impressed that R.H. Thomson wanted to honour and remember those that had fallen.  

Q. When you were asked to compose this piece, what were you told? What did you think?

A. I was told it would be a collaboration between The World Remembers and the National Arts Centre. Later, the Thunder Bay Symphony Orchestra and Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra joined as co-commissioners. I was told the project would fuse together poems from soldiers on both sides of the war and would be included as part of the NAC’s U.K. Tour in 2014.  Portraying both sides of the war particularly spoke to me. My family comes from England (I was six when we moved to Canada) and I grew up with a rather one-sided view of the world wars. Then, I married a German. Getting to know his German family, visiting Germany and going to German lessons for 3.5 hours every Saturday was already giving me a much wider view. When I was told about the project, I thought it was meant for me. 

What I didn’t expect was the number of different versions required. In the end, there were a total of 14 different versions with variations of choir (SATB, children’s, with piano, a cappella, with orchestra) and languages (multilingual, bilingual, English, French).

Q. Walk me through the piece. 

A. The following are excerpts from my composer’s statement:

The program features poems by: John McCrae, Canada; Wilfred Owen, England; Louis Aragon, France; Gerrit Engelke, Germany and Luc Durtain, France. … These five poets came from four different countries on both sides of the war. Their words are sung in English, French, and German. They all write of loss and regret, but each poetically portrays this with their own imagery using the sun, sea, poppies, fields, stones, etc.  

The piece is introduced like a ringing church bell with an excerpt from In Flanders Fields by McCrae. The women sing much like a tolling bell: “In Flanders fields, the poppies blow, between the crosses, row on row,” while the men chant “we are the dead, short days ago we lived” We move to an excerpt from Futility by English poet Wilfred Owen who suggests how to wake a fallen comrade: “Move him into the sun.  Gently it’s touch awoke him once.”  

The soldiers that did survive the war often wished they hadn’t. French writer Louis Aragon shows freedom only by escaping to the sea with it’s welcoming beautiful, glittering diamonds: “They dance, they sing, they open up their arms to him who weeps.”  For many, surviving the war was a sentence in itself and the Aragon poem shows freedom through suicide. In fact, it is the only positive “major” music in the piece because it is the only text that shows a way out.

German poet Gerrit Engelke puts a German soldier in conversation with a soldier on the other side. “And while you love your wife, I have and love one too”  and “At leveled Ypern, did you die?  So did you and so did I.”  This text made sides of the war seem irrelevant.  Every person suffered just as every country suffered.  

French poet Luc Durtain wrote about being remembered as no more than “your” death. This poem is sung to the same music as the earlier French poem by Aragon.  The piece ends by recalling Owen and McCrae.

These are not graphic poems of fighting or propaganda. Each poem looks at the outcome of war with the perspective of poets able to see beyond their own circumstances.  The music is simple and narrative in order to best impart the text. 

Q. Do you have a personal connection to the First World War?

A. My mom grew up in a 13th century farmhouse (Moor House Farm, Denham) that had been in the family the whole time. During the First World War, the 33rd division of the Kings Royal Rifles (KRR) were billeted there. The officers lived in the house while the soldiers stayed in the field. It was a pretty substantial commitment, so much so that even my mom (born in 1944) remembers an annual tribute walk through the village with the family honoured. The 33rd went to France and Flanders. My grandfather’s older brother, James William Lipscomb, was Captain of Transport, mules and horses, for the KRR. My grandfather’s two older sisters were engaged to officers billeted in the house but neither came back alive … and neither sister ever married.  

Q. This is a big anniversary. How do you feel about your role in it?

A. I certainly felt the responsibility when I wrote the work back in 2014. I felt a special responsibility because the piece was being used for the NACO tour and sung by many choirs throughout England. For me, this was special both as a Canadian and an English citizen but I also felt the weight of representing Canada on such an important subject. Indeed, some of my English family did hear the work. This project also led to an interest in Sir Ernest MacMillan and his remarkable story in the First World War. In fact, I just wrote a string quartet about that for Toronto Summer Music (and their commemoration) for Jonathan Crow. So, yes, I did feel the weight of it.  I started in 2014 with Song of the Poets for choir and orchestra and ended in 2018 with The Corner House for string quartet.  My parents are certainly glad I have remembered, and my mother in particular.   

Q. What’s next for you?

A. The string quartet I just mentioned is on pre-concert at the TSO on their Remembrance Day concert, Nov. 10, played by Jonathan. The Hockey Sweater is always on-going — it’s sort of unstoppable at this point. We’re recording it with the Hamilton Philharmonic Orchestra and Roch Carrier this December and it will be with the VSO in January. I’ll be heading to Calgary for the premiere of Making Light for two narrators and orchestra with the Calgary Philharmonic Orchestra on Dec. 2. It’s a multicultural holiday story written with librettist Alexis Diamond from Montreal. After that, I’m writing a piece for opening night of the HPO’s next season for trumpet and soprano with orchestra, followed by a song cycle for Jeunesses Musicales soprano winners and their cross-Canada tour, commissioned by the Canadian Art Song Project. 

The World Remembers
Featuring the National Youth Orchestra of Germany with members of the NYO Canada, Orkidstra and choirs from De La Salle and Canterbury High Schools, and the Calixa-Lavallée Chamber Choir from the University of Ottawa.
When: Nov. 11 at 12:30 p.m.
Where: Southam Hall
This is a free concert. For information:

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.