Canadian War Museum: Ottawa composer Andrew Ager honours The Eleventh Hour with music

The battle against the German troops on the Hindenburg Line, the enemy trench system, saw waves of Canadian infantry attacking behind a barrage of artillery shells.

 Battle of Amiens, August 1918
George Metcalf Archival Collection
. Canadian War Museum

Music performance has become a feature at the Canadian War Museum around major anniversaries.

Last year it was a presentation of a piece called The Unknown Soldier. The concert was part of a celebration of the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge.

This Saturday a piece called The Eleventh Hour will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the Great War itself. The common denominator for both pieces of music is the composer Andrew Ager.

This Saturday, Ager will not only be hearing the music he composed and arranged; he’ll be playing a massive grand piano supplied by Steinway and conducting 50 members of the Cantata Singers along with Ottawa percussionist Zac Pulak and trumpeter Malcolm Horava.

The Eleventh Hour, Ager said, is a musical depiction of the armistice and after the armistice. That second part is important.

“It is partly inspired by my own grandfather’s experience after the war. A lot of guys came back and things had changed immensely. They had a hard time getting back into society and life and then the Depression hit.

“My own grandfather, Charles Aharan, plied a whole number of trades. He was in the trenches and was gassed and shot

Ottawa composer Andrew Ager.

and left the battlefield before the war ended.”

“After the war he did everything from running his own security agency on the Halifax waterfront. He was definitely a rum runner in P.E.I. And he was a professional musician as well.”

Ager knew his grandfather who died when Ager was age 14.

“He talked about some stuff in the war and after and he encouraged me to continue in music. He was the epitome of that generation. He was a very charming, very talented man who when he came back had to do whatever he had to do to feed his family.

The performance is running as the War Museum hosts a major exhibition called Victory 2018 — The last 100 Days.

Ager said his piece intends to try and “get at” what happened after the war. For many vets, Remembrance Day was not for them. It was for those who did not fight.

“A lot of the vets didn’t want anything to do with it. They just wanted to come back and have a good time.”

After the war ended, the world soon entered what we know as the Jazz Age. The music was up tempo and happy. Ager has arranged some songs from the time including a peppy fox trot called Happy Feet written by another relative, Milton Ager, who lived in Chicago and wrote in the 1920s and ’30s. When this music is played on Saturday, dancer Clare Bassett will illustrate some of the moves of the times. Ager has also arranged a French cabaret song called Boom written by Charles Trenet and  a version of the Depression era hit  Brother Can You Spare A Dime, which has lyrics like:

Once in khaki suits, ah gee we looked swell
Full of that yankee doodly dum
Half a million boots went sloggin’ through hell
And I was the kid with the drum
Oh, say, don’t you remember, they called me Al
It was Al all the time
Say, don’t you remember, I’m your pal
Buddy, can you spare a dime?

All the music will be supported by visuals of the time including footage of Armistice Day in Ottawa, the dedication of the Vimy Monument in 1936 and of the dedication of the National War Memorial  just before the Second World War.

There will also be readings.

The words matter in this show. Ager chose mostly texts from after the war to underline his message that life went on after Nov. 11, 1918.

“There is a quotation from the Manchester Guardian of Nov. 11, 1919 first actual remembrance day. one year after. It’s very evocative. It talks about how the trams stopped in the streets and the bells rang out.”

Of particular importance is the idea of the Lost Generation, a phrase mentioned by Ernest Hemingway in his novel The Sun Also Rises. In another story called A Moveable Feast, published after Ernest Hemingway’s and Gertrude Stein’s deaths, Hemingway said Stein had heard the phrase from a Parisian garage owner who serviced her car. When a young mechanic failed to repair the car quickly enough, the garage owner is said to have shouted at the boy, “You are all a “génération perdue.

Ager said that Stein told Hemingway the story and added that all the men who fought in the war and came back were a lost generation. Hemingway, typically, thought she was full of it.

A text has to have real meaning for Ager. They help him set the music. That’s why he is using poetry by Walt Whitman but not works from poets of the war years.

“A lot of it was Victorian and flowery, basically it was too treacly.I wanted stuff that was a little more raw.

The Vimy performance sold out, Ager said, and he hopes the same will happen for The Eleventh Hour. The performance will be in the Museum’s LeBreton Gallery surrounded by tanks and other hardware.

The Eleventh Hour presented by the Friends of the Canadian War Museum
With the Cantata Singers of Ottawa, Zac Pulak, percussion, Martin Horava, trumpet  
Music composed and conducted by Andrew Ager
Where: Canadian War Museum LeBreton Gallery
When: Nov. 3 at 7:30 p.m.
Tickets and 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.