Lest we forget: Centennial Choir offers a musical Prayer for Victory

Elise Letourneau is the composer of a setting of the poem Prayer for Victory. Photo: Claude Brazeau

When we think about Remembrance Day and past and present sacrifices, it’s often comforting and inspiring to listen to music at the same time, especially new compositions. On Nov. 10, the Canadian Centennial Choir will perform a setting of the poem Prayer for Victory by Ottawa composer Elise Letourneau. The poem was written by the Second World War veteran Richard Diespecker. In advance of this concert, Letourneau and choir director Marg Stubington answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. Elise, please tell me a bit about yourself and your career in music?

I grew up in Windsor Ontario and was fortunate to participate in lots of music activities: piano and flute lessons, Royal Conservatory of Music levels, theory lessons with the nuns, group singing, concert band, marching band, youth orchestra, high school jazz band and musicals, accompanying singers at school and church. There was an old guitar in the basement that I dug out and taught myself a few chords so I could play and sing, which led to accompanying myself singing at the piano, and writing a few songs.

When I was 15 or 16, a couple of professional jazz/pop vocalists took me under their wing, and they introduced me to some of the jazz instrumentalists in town, who invited me to jam. This opened my eyes and ears to a whole new world of music making. There were also some music festivals that would take place on Hart Plaza across the river in Detroit, and I would take the tunnel bus and walk a couple of blocks to the festival, and just hang out and soak it all in.

From there I attended the music program at Humber College in Toronto, and then Berklee College of Music in Boston, where I double-majored in Commercial Arranging and Film Scoring. After graduating, for many years I did a lot of the usual things musicians do: cocktail gigs, church work, wedding band, teaching music lessons. I also worked as a staff vocalist for a production company. I wrote once in a while, but typically the work of making a living in music took most of my time and energy.

Upon returning to Canada in 2006, I was determined to keep more time available to compose, and so far I’ve managed to keep this promise to myself. I’ve received some wonderful encouragement along the way, winning a few composition awards, and having some of my works performed by some fabulous choirs. 

In addition to writing, I teach piano, voice, flute, ukulele, and composition at Alcorn Music Studios, play in a Steely Dan tribute band called Glamour Profession, direct the Vox Eclectica Women’s Chamber Choir, do some gigs here and there, direct the Ottawa Singer-Songwriter Camp, and run a market booth called Love That Doggie.

Richard Diespecker. Courtesy Elise Letourneau

Q. Tell me more about composition?

A. The writing bug got me pretty young. I still have some old piano books where I wrote words to the pieces when I was a kid. And all the “noodling” I did… it drove my earlier piano teachers nuts, but I was too young at the time to know that I was improvising. I have written for piano, woodwinds, strings, brass, big band, orchestra, voice, and choir. I read a lot, and I love poetry, so I feel a natural pull towards setting texts for art song and choral works. Often my work will blur the edges of genres, with many influences including classical, jazz, and rock all happily playing together in the sandbox.

Q. When did the idea for this project surface?

A. I came across the poem, Prayer for Victory, several years ago and knew it was something I’d like to work with. I found Richard Diespecker’s son, who gave me permission to set the text to music. I received a grant from the Ontario Arts Council to record the piece, so I figured I should write it. I am thrilled that Marg Stubington and the Canadian Centennial Choir are doing the premiere. Richard Alan Diespecker was a Canadian journalist, novelist, and Second World War  veteran. He died in 1973.

Q. Why this poem?

A. The poem still seems very relevant to me. It was written in 1942 and it interprets victory as being good stewards of peace rather than winners of battle. The visual imagery it contains could speak to many conflicts. It looks to the future and the tone invites everyone, not just veterans. The poem was immensely popular in its day, read to huge crowds by actors Greer Garson and Raymond Massey, and broadcast to millions of listeners on radio networks in Canada, other Commonwealth countries, and the U.S.

Q. What message are you hoping this remembrance will convey?

A. That we are fragile. That we all have to do our bit to keep the peace. It is particularly intended as a massive thank you to our Canadian veterans and service people.

Q. The Fieldown Singers are recording the work. Who are they?

A. The Fieldown Singers are a studio vocal group, of which Normand Glaude and myself are the core. We initially formed to record demos of my choral works, but our work has branched out to include back up vocals and contract work for other composers. We recently sang on composer Ben Globerman’s  newest work, an audio installation that will come out next year sometime. The studio recording of Salute for Service features vocal soloists Marcus Nance and Rebecca Noelle. It is part of the album, The Fieldown Sessions, which will be released in early November on CD and as a download.

Marg Stubington leads the Canadian Centennial Choir.

Q. Marg, please tell me a bit about yourself and your career in music.

A. I grew up in Montreal and started music lessons and then piano at age five. I joined my first choir a few years later and kept singing in, or playing for, choirs — church, community and chamber — right up to university and beyond. I majored in piano at McGill University, learned to play the organ, took a whole range of courses, including choral arranging and conducting but was always happiest playing for choirs or being part of one. Once I found myself up front I was hooked. I love the physical aspect of conducting (gestures, facial expressions) finding unusual repertoire, and am moved not only by the beautiful sounds of a group of singers but also the strong, supportive community that can develop. I have been so lucky to have worked with children and youth choirs, adult mixed community choirs, a gay men’s choir and women’s choir, church choirs and large choruses with orchestra.

At present my work is a mixture of piano teaching and choral conducting. I am the music director at First United Church and the Canadian Centennial Choir and conduct a large choir and orchestra for CAMMAC’s Annual Concerts.

Q. Please tell a bit about the history of the Canadian Centennial Choir.

A. The Canadian Centennial Choir was founded in 1967 to celebrate the centenary of Canadian Confederation. The Choir performs secular and sacred music with a particular focus on new and commissioned works composed or arranged by Canadians. We are a 75-voice community concert choir in our 52nd season. We have an annual three-concert series which attracts a large and varied audience and features guest artists from the local community.

The Canadian Centennial Choir was founded in 1967 to mark the 100th anniversary of Confederation.

Q. Tell me about the concert.

A. It will be about 75 minutes long starting at 3 p.m. Admission is $11 (a ‘nod’ to the 11th day of the 11th month). In addition to Elise’s Salute For Service there will also be some unaccompanied choral works as well as a set of music from the 1940s including White Cliffs of Dover, Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy and other favourites.

I was so pleased that Elise approached us to be part of this project. She is one of the most hard-working musicians I know and it is great to have a chance to work with her. CCC loves the challenge of new works and are having a great time singing in this style, a mixture of jazz and rock. Most of all, everyone is really excited to put it all together

The Canadian Centennial Choir presents Salute for Service
Where: Centretown United Church, 507 Bank St.
When: Nov. 10 at 3 p.m.
Tickets and information: ccc-ccc.ca

Here is the text of Prayer for Victory by Richard Diespecker

I stood upon a hill in the fall of the year, A lovely hill, soft and still green With the breath of summer. And the sun reached long golden fingers Into the valley floor, And lighted the autumn-painted trees With the fires of God. This was peace.

But over the ridge there was no peace, Over the ridge was war …
Ghastly and bloody;
The quick and the dead Whirling in a mad blasting conflict … Ripping the skies And the earth And the churning sea …

And our men were there,
They were fighting and dying; Sweating in the desert and the jungles; Wheeling through the clouds;
Drawing their deadly beads
Under the choppy waves
Of a dozen seas …

This was war …
Bitter and uncompromising;
Gloves off  and no holds barred;
Kill or be killed;
Exterminate, stamp out and smash forever The threat to Freedom.
This was the dark, hard road to Victory.

And I thought,
When Victory comes … what then?  I looked up …
And saw the face of God …

Dear Lord, when Victory comes,
When the guns are silent,
And the bombs stop falling,
And the seas are clean and fresh and safe; When the dying shall scream no more; And the starving are fed; And the soft green moss
Covers the tragic scars of ruined cities …

Then, dear God, make us worthy of Victory. Give us the strength to keep our pledge To make a better world …

Not the world we’ve known,
The world of power against power,
The world of breadlines and bitterness,
A world that would not let a man work,
A world that watched unmoved
While the beasts of aggression
Swallowed the little people one by one;
A world that lived divided,
Where everyone locked his door against his neighbour, Where the mad were strong And the wise were weak …

Give us the strength to take Victory Quietly and with gentle hands,

And mould a great new friendship …

To take it like a garden, Ripping the weeds From the rich, black earth, Burning them in the fires of Truth,

So that never again
Will there be a Hitler or a Mussolini,
A Himmler or a Goebbels;
Never again a blitzkrieg;
Never again the bitter treachery
Of Pearl Harbor,
Or the tragedy of Coventry,
Or blood running in the hills of Bataan.

God give us strength
To set our own house in order …
To open our doors in friendship,
To set all men free;
To live, not alone,
With the door locked
And the windows barred,
Watching through the shutters
The bitter struggles of the little people.

This time, dear God,
Let every nation take its rightful place
In the world of men,
Free and untrammelled …
Bonds of friendship but not chains of bondage; Let the strong be wise
And the weak, protected,
Let the sun light the darkest street,
And the rain of wisdom
Wash the slums of the earth
Into vague memories.
Let the wheat grow
And the fruits ripen,
And, dear Lord, let them be eaten,
Not left to rot or burned or buried
While men starve for want of them.

Give us strength and wisdom,
Truth, honesty and faith;
Maintain our anger against aggression And give us humility before you, Dear Lord.

Give us the power and the purpose
To make children laugh;
To give work to the men who fought for us, And comfort to the women who su ered, And peace to the aged …
Hope to the devastated
And release to the enslaved,
Food to the hungry
And strength to the weak.

Let this hilltop be the world,
Soft green and eternally at peace, With the leaves drinking life
From the Sun;
And the long blue horizon Dusted with smoke
Of a million peaceful hearths, And the breeze vibrant and bright With the laughter and song
Of a million voices.

Dear Lord of heaven and earth, Give us these strengths
When Victory comes …
Guide us to peace, Forever and ever. Amen.

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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.