War Letters

War Letters commemorates through music, the service and sacrifice of Australian servicemen and women in the First World War during the ANZAC centenary. Four Australian composers, representing four generations, have taken excerpts from original letters written during times of conflict, and set the words to music for singers and ensemble. The letters are filled with both hope and despair, offering a deep insight into life in the war zone, but especially for family and friends receiving and sending them. War Letters explores this interface between letter writing and music, bringing into focus the day to day experiences of the men and women taken up by war.

On November 7th 2015, Halcyon presented this fascinating program, featuring four entirely new commissions written for the project by Larry Sitsky, Elliott Gyger, Nicole Murphy and Diana Blom. The performance explored the personal experience and effects of war, told through the setting the intimate writings of servicemen and women to their loved ones at home.  On November 10th an interactive schools presentation and performance was given to secondary school music students. 

The War Letters project was formulated back in 2013 when Sydney composer Diana Blom approached Halcyon with the idea. She had found a series of letters written by her great-uncle while he was travelling on a troop ship to Europe, then waiting to be sent to fight at Gallipoli.  She was inspired to devise a program of new works setting personal correspondence written back home in time of war, but featuring musical perspectives of composers from different generations of the present age. She approached Halcyon to work alongside her to create and present the War Letters project, commemorating the centenary of WWI. The result was these performances and the resulting album release.

As it turned out, the composers were not only from different generations, but also reside in four different states of Australia. Sydney-based Diana Blom’s piece features letters from three different wars - WWI, Vietnam and Afghanistan - including correspondence written by her great-uncle. Larry Sitsky (Canberra) found that selecting one letter to set was too limiting to his imagination and dramatic intent, so he compiled his own text, drawing sentences from hundreds of the war letters he had read to create a kind of letter from the 'everyman' of the time. Elliott Gyger (Melbourne) has set extracts of letters from his wife's relative, Jacques Playoust, written in both French and English, to create a chronological story of his experience. Nicole Murphy (Brisbane) has found inspiration in the letters of a hospital nurse and matron from Gympie, QLD written to her mother back home.

Halcyon has been pleased to work alongside Diana to create and present War Letters.  It was the first time Halcyon has presented a work of hers, but we have worked together with her in numerous projects over the years. The other composers have all been featured in Halcyon programs of the past. We were delighted to present another premiere by Larry Sitsky (his work A Feast of Lanterns II most recently featured in our Winter Moon Secrets concert) in 2015, the year he has been awarded the Distinguished Services to Australian Music Award. Having never yet featured in Halcyon's programs, it has been lovely to get to know both the composer and his works better through the year, and to bring to life two great new works for mezzo and ensemble.  Long time colleagues and friends of Elliott Gyger (Jenny and Alison having met him while still at University) we have presented numerous works written for Halcyon over the years, most recently the Lowin Award winning giving voice. It was also great to reaquaint ourselves with Nicole, who we met in 2011 when she took part of our first Young Composers project, First Stones.

The pieces written for this performance were subsequently released through Wirripang on the CD War Letters (Wirr 074), with full texts and additional liner notes included.

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Pieces
Diana Blom - Triptych (war letters)
Elliott Gyger - Un poilu australien
Nicole Murphy - 'Dearest Mother...'
Larry Sitsky - Letter from the trenches

Artists
Alison Morgan soprano
Jenny Duck-Chong mezzo soprano
Clive Birch bass
James Wannan viola
Kaylie Dunstan percussion
Jo Allan piano

The project was made possible through funding received from the Australian Government's ANZAC Centenary Local Grants Program with support from the University of Western Sydney.

War Letters has been released as a CD on Wirripang, and is available here.