At 41 years old, composer David Goode is too young to remember World War II, though he does have connections to it – his uncle was killed in the conflict and his late father was a POW in the Far East. But while his dad never spoke about his war experiences, ten years ago Goode struck up a friendship and composer-librettist relationship with Francis Warner, an academic, poet and playwright keen to deal with memories of the Blitz during his childhood in Epsom.
Born in 1937, Warner moved to Epsom with his family when he was very young, where his father was the local vicar. They weren’t to know that three years later, thousands of German bombers would pass directly overhead and regularly drop their deadly cargo on it. Warner saw many disturbing things, such as the bodies of schoolchildren laid out in their playground and his mother giving birth under the dining-room table during an air raid.
‘On the playground; pencils scattered,
Homework, little things that mattered
Like these bodies, shrapnel–shattered
In school uniforms of cotton.
Trust in mass graves dead and rotten.
Shall these children be forgotten?
Lest our true compassion deaden
Let not hate make mercy leaden.
Spare us, Lord, in Armageddon.'
Excerpt from ‘Blitz Requiem’ by Francis Warner The result is ‘Blitz Requiem’, Goode’s 50-minute setting of Warner’s words, which will be performed by The Bach Choir and Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under David Hill, plus four solo singers. Goode is particularly pleased that the premiere will take place at that iconic bastion of Blitz survival, St Paul’s Cathedral, which stood intact amid the burning City. ‘The building is almost a character in the piece,’ he enthuses, ‘and we will all be inside it.’
Goode, a music teacher at Eton College (where he received his own formative education) and a concert organist, first met Warner after playing the organ for one of his dramas. Part of their connection is shared religious beliefs. ‘He is a Christian and so am I,’ explains Goode, ‘so we have that kind of sympathy. And I think there is a shared sense of looking beyond this world, and the horror and the tragedy of war. And I have tried to capture that in the music, particularly at the end, where a sort of radiance comes through that I hope will touch the audience.’
Usually teaching gets in the way of composing, but not for Goode. ‘It has been really nice with the Requiem,’ he reveals. ‘I was teaching composition to the lower sixth last year while I was writing it and played them some bits when it was nearly finished. I then asked them for suggestions, and they came up with a few things, some of which I have incorporated.’ So what does it sound like? ‘In the ’60s, people who wrote nice tunes weren’t taken seriously,’ says Goode. ‘Now you can write complex music or nice tunes and everything in between. And, I suppose, mine is in between.’ His sound world is inevitably informed by his musical upbringing: ‘I was a chorister as a boy, then studied as an organist at Cambridge, so the whole history of English church music, such as that of Howells and Vaughan Williams is very natural to me,’ he says. ‘I love Mahler deeply, too, so probably a bit of Mahler has crept in… and some bits of impressionism. So there might even be a bit of Duruflé.’
With such a powerful subject, what reaction does he anticipate from the audience? ‘I would like people to be inspired, to see that light can come out of darkness,’ says Goode. ‘If someone comes away feeling more hopeful about the world or themselves, that would be fantastic.’