Vimy at 100: The words and music of The Unknown Soldier resonate still

Composer Andrew Ager has reworked his piece The Unknown Soldier for a performance at the Canadian War Museum. Photo: Peter Robb

Battle’s grim dormitory this
And filled is every bed
And none may leave his place, or miss
The role call of the dead.

— From a poem found in the backpack of an unknown Canadian soldier of the First World War

As the Canadian War Museum celebrates the 100th anniversary of the battle of Vimy Ridge, one of the events will see a performance of Ottawa composer Andrew Ager’s composition The Unknown Soldier.

Three years ago, Ager was asked to provide a work to mark the centenary of the First World War for St. James Anglican Cathdedral in Toronto. He just happened to have such a work. It’s called The Unknown Soldier and unusually for a modern Canadian composition, it’s had more than a few performances. But each time, Ager has adapted it to suit the event and the hall it is being played in.

In an interview in advance of the April 9 performance inside the War Museum, Ager talked with ARTSFILE about the piece.

“I wrote the first version of The Unknown Soldier for Kevin Reeves’s choir 17 Voyces (It premiered in 2004). Back then I knew it was a prototype of a piece. I was just starting to sketch it out.

“I put it away for awhile. Then after I went to work at St. James Cathedral (in Toronto) where I had support and access to a professional 20-voice choir with an excellent director,” the piece evolved.

“I decided to … do it differently. In that I would include texts written by soldiers, not written by poets (save Walt Whitman). The words were mostly poems that they wrote or from letters and diaries too.

“These were things they sent home to their families or to their sweethearts or that they just wrote for themselves.”

The writings were from all sides, so lines from German and French soldiers joined the words from Allied soldiers.

There is one text that is a bit of a mystery, he says. It’s by a Canadian soldier called Battle’s Grim Dormitory.

“There is no source for it, but was found in somebody’s pack. I’ve set that to music.

“I added a couple of pure orchestral movements, using the music of the time but arranged for orchestra, to connect the movements with the texts.”

The piece was performed three times in 2014, a rare moment of glory “that was quite a compliment,” Ager said.

It has also been featured in a 2007 performance involving the Ottawa Choral Society. And then, about a year ago, he was approached by a friend of the Canadian War Museum and asked if he had music that would be appropriate for Vimy’s 100th.

“Of course,” was the reply.

It should be no surprise that the score has been adjusted again. Ager has shortened some of the instrumental movements to accommodate the evening. The piece is now about 35 minutes long. He has recruited a hand-picked choir and instrumentalists from the OttawaSymphony and from the Conservatoire in Gatineau.

Some of the orchestration has been re-arranged to reflect jazz/military band style, one he feels is more fitting to the museum hall packed full of the tanks, where the piece will be played.

A piece of music by a living composer is also living evolving thing.

Ager likes reworking his music. “It is an interesting project because it is rethinking it. I know it has to fit a particular situation so I re-mould it slightly so it will work.”

After all, he says, Handel wrote many versions of Messiah.

“It makes me laugh, all these musicologists pulling their hair out trying to figure out what is THE authentic version of the Messiah. They are all authentic.”

The Unknown Soldier is not done yet. It will be performed again in 2018 in Albuquerque, New Mexico and he hopes there will be a bigger performance of it in Ottawa to mark the 100th of the end of the First World War.

Ager does draw upon history for his works. In fact he has written and had performed an opera set in Hitler’s Fuhrerbunker at the end of the Second World War.

“For composers, history is a big treasure chest. We reach in and pull something out because it’s great.”

And like many Canadians he has ancestors who served.

“Both my grandfathers served in World War One. My maternal grandfather was at Vimy. He was gassed several months later and was taken out of the war.

“He was a professional musician much of his life in vaudeville playing show tunes and in military bands. He died when I was 14 and he encouraged me to continue and work hard at the music.

“My father’s father had an easier time of it. He was in his late 40s when he joined up. He was stationed on the Caribbean island of St. Lucia enjoying the sun and watching out for Germans. He mostly got a tan, polished the guns and drank a lot of rum.”

The piece is dedicated to his grandfathers. His mother’s father was named Charles Tupper Aharan. Ernest Richard Nash Ager came from Boston. He married a Canadian after the war and came to Canada.

Ager’s father fought in the Second World War in Burma where he caught malaria and polio which affected one of his legs.

“I am a baby boomer who has no experience of battle but I grew up in a household where the memory of the war was very strong.”

Why does this piece get played? Ager believes it’s because of the words that are from people who were actually there. It bears witness to those dramatic and terrible events.

Sunday is 100 years to the day when the assault on Vimy Ridge began. The War Museum will be free to the public on that day. The evening event begins at 7 p.m. and will also include  Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan who will talk about the battle.

Ager’s piece will be performed by a combined choir with Ottawa baritone, Gary Dahl as soloist, and orchestra, under the direction of Ager.

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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.