Of 'War and Peace' and Music

Of 'War and Peace' and Music

Lee asks audience to lend more than an ear for his new symphony

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Contemporary art, says composer Assoc. Prof. Thomas Oboe Lee (Music), too often appears as disaffected or antisocial - and so, unfortunately, do artists.

Assoc. Prof. Thomas Oboe Lee (Music): "For me, being an artist is like contributing to the well-being of a community. Too much of modern art is about challenging people just for the sake of challenge. In my art, I want a person to come away feeling enlightened or moved." (Photo by Lee Pellegrini)
Lee takes a far more harmonious approach to his art, as evidenced by his recent composition "Symphony No. 4: War and Peace," a triptych of the humanity and tragedy of World War I.

"For me, being an artist is like contributing to the well-being of a community," he said. "Too much of modern art is about challenging people just for the sake of challenge. In my art, I want a person to come away feeling enlightened or moved."

The symphony was commissioned by contributions from nearly 70 Greater Boston residents through the Civic Symphony Orchestra of Boston, which premiered the work on March 4 in Boston's Jordan Hall. Those who donated $120 received a free ticket to the premiere and a CD recording of the performance, as well as a limited-edition copy of the score, autographed by Lee and listing all the benefactors.

In addition, contributors were invited to attend the dress rehearsal for the symphony and a series of special events where they could discuss the work with Lee and soloist Peggo Horstmann Hodes.

While the shrinking availability of arts grants was a factor in Lee's search for alternative funding, the idea of a publicly commissioned symphonic work - which Lee had also seen done successfully in New Jersey for another of his compositions - fits in well with his view on the role of art in society.

Lee had something even more edifying in mind for the contributors to "War and Peace," which interpolates the contrasting works of First World War-era poets Rupert Brooke, Wilfred Owen and Ivor Gurney.

"We wanted to let people hear it evolve from a few bars of music," said Lee. "At one of the early workshops, they heard the first song just with voice and piano. In the subsequent workshops, they'd get to hear more of the piece, and in the interim there had been changes to the earlier parts of the score. So those who came got to be part of a work-in-progress, right up through the dress rehearsal and performance."

The symphony begins with Brooke's "The Soldier," reflecting the idealism and romanticism prevalent at the war's outbreak:

"If I should die, think only this of me:
That there's some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England..."

The second movement evokes the horror and disillusionment over the war, Lee explains, using the graphic depiction of trench warfare in Owen's "Dulce Et Decorum Est":

"...My friend, you would tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory
The old lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori." ["It is a sweet and fitting thing to die for your country."]

Closing out the symphony is Gurney's "To His Love," which recalls how survivors struggled with their grief and sense of loss while honoring their fallen friends and loved ones:

"You would not know him now...
But still he died
Nobly, so cover him over
With violets of pride
Purple from Severn side."

Although the poetry is linked to a specific historical period, Lee says "War and Peace" is not meant to be nostalgic. In fact, he said, the work poses some complex, universal questions about mankind's capacity for growth and change.

"World War I was the last war to have such fervent idealism and patriotism," he said. "Since then, we've come to see ourselves as more sophisticated, and attuned to the dangers of glorifying war. Yet at the same time, war has to a large degree become a far more impersonal thing, fought through technology.

"So have we, through this progress, perhaps become more callous? Can we appreciate, or even remember, the many different human qualities and emotions - idealism, revulsion, honor, grief - brought out by war? That's what I tried to speak to in the piece."
The workshops also gave participants a chance to pose questions and comments to Lee about the piece and music in general.
"It was very enjoyable, and we had some terrific conversations," said Lee. "One person, for instance, asked why I didn't have a male tenor as soloist instead of a woman. I explained that, among other things, I thought a woman's vocal range would work better for the piece, and that I didn't want there to be confusion as to whether the male was supposed to be playing the role of each poet."

Lee says using a female vocalist also dovetails with the symphony's thematic objective. "I see her as an angel of death, singing the words of these three poets, who were all touched by World War I," he said. "Brooke died about a year after the war started, Owen barely a week before the armistice was signed. Gurney survived, but he never recovered from the trauma of the war."

Attending performances of his works is a labor of love for Lee, he admits - "I find myself listening too hard for mistakes, so I can't really enjoy it until I hear the recording," he said, smiling - but the audience response at the "War and Peace" premiere made the experience gratifying.

"A lot of people told me how moved they were, by the music, the poetry, the singing," he said. "As far as I'm concerned, that is what I'm here for."


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