‘Battle of the Somme’ in Bristol

item_20017As we continue to mark the centenary of the First World War (1914-1918), key events from the timeline of that dreadful conflict come to the fore. Earlier this year it was the one-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, a four and a half month campaign that saw the loss of so many men on both sides. A fitting tribute and marker of that horrendous few months in 1916 has been screenings of the film of the battle, immortalised on celluloid as it happened. Re-released in 2006 upon its 90th anniversary, the Imperial War Museum then commissioned a brand new score from composer Laura Rossi, and it is Laura’s music which accompanies the live screenings that have taken place up and down the country these last few months.  Yesterday evening it was Bristol’s turn to experience the film and the music, performed live by Bristol Symphony Orchestra on the centenary of the battle’s final day no less.


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I was fortunate to be able to sit in on the run through at Clifton Cathedral, ahead of the public performance, and while I didn’t experience the whole work I was left in no doubt that it would be a stirring and emotionally powerful evening for the audience.  Under the baton of its conductor William Goodchild, the orchestra worked its way through a selection of sequences and cues.  I always enjoy orchestral rehearsals as it affords an opportunity to really see and hear the music coming together; the changes, subtle as they may be, that occur as the cues are performed and performed again, are always surprising.  Will, who had lived with this score for a number of weeks by this point, was able to offer all manner of ways in to the score for the musicians in order for them to make the most of the moments that matter.  The strings, especially, benefitted greatly from such guidance in terms of attack, bowing and the length of notes. It really made all the difference – particularly for the sequence in question, of an enormous explosion. Without the cacophonous sound the device surely created, the strings provide an electrifying accompaniment ending with a nerve-shaking vibrato.

While I wasn’t able to see the whole piece in its entirety, I was already familiar with Laura’s score.  It remains a rich and evocative work, peppered with memorable flourishes and deeply emotive passages.  One scene I did witness at the cathedral came from the fifth and final part, with the inanimate corpses of the dead – lying, sitting – in the fields and trenches… Sobering in their own right, without sound, but with the addition of music? Utterly moving.


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Bristol Symphony Orchestra is a relatively new ensemble for the city and this was the second time I have heard them perform. For this performance the ‘amateur’ musicians were joined by a selection of pro’s, and together they outdid themselves, doing the score terrific justice in its subtleties and impact – and that was only a run through.  I look forward to its next concert, at St George’s Bristol on 1 December – ‘An Evening of Film Music’.

Thanks to Will Goodchild, Rachel Goodchild and Bristol Symphony Orchestra.  You can read my original 2008 review of Laura Rossi’s ‘Battle of the Somme’ album here.