Remembering the lost voices of the First World War

23 November 2017 by Claire Hunter

Christopher Latham

Christopher Latham: "I think every so often in life you just get given a task where you think this is the defining work of my life and I suspect this might be it."

Christopher Latham was just a small child when a near-death experience changed his life.

“When I was a little boy I died on an operating table,” Latham said. “Waking up afterwards, I was very surprised to be back and I remember thinking for a long time, ‘I wonder why God threw me back like a little fish that was too small to keep,’ so I’ve always had this idea that I should do something worthwhile.”

He’d been struck down by a hereditary stomach condition that had killed a boy in every generation of his family.

“I just remember looking down on all these people doing the surgery,” he said. “I didn’t realise that’s what they were doing, but clearly they were trying to save me.”

It was an experience that had a profound impact on the young Latham, as did hearing the stories of how his family had been devastated by war. His great uncle, who was a pianist and composer, was shot in the shoulder in Mesopotamia during the First World War and was never able to play again. And his grandmother was just 22 years old when she volunteered for the Red Cross in 1914, serving as a nurse at the Abbaye de Royaumont, south of the Somme. Changing the bandages of wounded soldiers when their sheets were moist with blood, she would kneel beside the worst cases, grasping their hands and praying with all her might that they would somehow survive the night. She was plagued by nightmares for the rest of her life, but her love and support was instrumental in encouraging Latham to become a successful composer, conductor and musician.

“They were all damaged in some way … and I always wanted to be helpful and useful,” Latham said. “My father came from an English aristocratic background and I was always told that with privilege comes responsibility … I was told what you will do is that you will serve and you will find a place where you will do good in the world, but it’s very hard as a musician to find a place where you can do real and tangible good … I always tried to understand where I would fit, and I think in a strange way, everything has been a long preamble to this.”

Latham is now the Australian War Memorial’s first musical artist-in-residence and has been working on The Flowers of War project to remember the lost voices of the musicians and artists of the First World War. He was recently awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by the French Government in recognition of the project and his significant contribution to the arts and the enrichment of the French cultural inheritance.

“Initially I was a little embarrassed because I don’t think I’ve delivered enough,” Latham said.

“I’m someone who just really loves music and I’ve found a way now to be able to research, perform and record music I’m very interested in for the War Memorial and I’m very grateful to be able to have the opportunity.

“[The Order] is a really significant honour and I’m very gratified that I could accept it in my stepfather’s name.

“My stepfather Marc Honegger was a very famous musicologist who wrote the standard French music dictionary and started me on this journey 30 years ago.

“I’ve always felt I was completing his work, and I really missed him once this project started. He knew more about the French music of World War I than anyone I have ever met since.”

When Latham was studying violin in the United States, he spent six summers in France with his mother and stepfather. Together they would listen to composers such as Alberic Magnard, Georges Migot, Andre Caplet, and Lili and Nadia Boulanger, and study the works of Ravel and Debussy.

“After we’d spent all day playing violin and piano together, he’d sit me down and make me listen to recordings,” Latham said.

“I remember often falling asleep because Magnard, in particular, wrote very long pieces, but Marc was full of interest and enthusiasm … and I retain the fondest memories of him and the time we spent together.

“He was a great man, a great musician, and he was always very kind to me and treated me as an equal, even though I was just a very young student … I see my Flowers of War project as finishing something that he started.”

The project aims to uncover, perform, discuss and celebrate the music and art that talented men and women used to cope with the horror of war and to mark their experiences. Its logo features a red poppy, white daisy and blue cornflower to symbolise the bonds between Australia and France and the enormous cultural losses to all the countries involved.

“I think every so often in life you just get given a task where you think this is the defining work of my life and I suspect this might be it,” Latham said.

“I have always felt in the arts that simply entertaining people was never going to be enough for me. I worry we are just in the business of distracting people from what is truly important in life. Trying to alleviate suffering is what I have decided to do with my life – and the greatest source of suffering is war.

“Colonel Scott Clingan, who runs the military commemorations for Defence in Paris once said to me, ‘Everyone who served and died, deserves to be remembered’, and I think that is the ethos of the project – to identify the most talented musicians, artists and poets that were killed and curate a program of their best works.

“For the most part they died young and they weren’t very well known at the time, so I’m trying to show them through their best piece. The reality is … I won’t make them famous … but they will have a chance to be remembered.”

As part of the project to mark the centenary of the First World War, 10 concerts of recently discovered music, diaries, poetry and art were performed in Canberra, Sydney, Melbourne and France, including a tour of villages of the Somme.

“Clearly the subject matter is very moving and recovering lost composers who were killed and playing their last works is a profound activity to undertake, and people who hear the concerts understand that it has been done with the highest levels of scholarship, research and artistic care as well as the deepest levels of human affection and love,” Latham said.

“It is a great privilege, but also a heavy responsibility. I often feel I can’t do enough for them.”

One of the composers Latham has rediscovered is the Australian, Frederick Septimus Kelly, who wrote beautiful music during the First World War. Kelly was also a gold-medal winning Olympic rower who represented the United Kingdom, and his music was overshadowed by his sporting prowess. He died in 1916, and until now much of his music has been rarely played and never recorded.

In 2018, Kelly’s music will feature in a major Canberra concert on 5 October – The Diggers’ Requiem – which will tell the story of significant Western Front battles. It, and The Gallipoli Symphony, which premiered in 2015 in Istanbul and Brisbane, will stand as twin bookends to Latham’s work on the First World War.

“You’re doing historical work from 100 years ago, but there are these long shadows that seem to reach all the way to the present day,” Latham said.

“As a researcher, I like to go into the dusty stacks and try to look through things that haven’t been looked through and see if I can find things and then present them in an interesting way so that people get the sense of, ‘Oh wow, there are all these jewels that we just had never heard of.’ It’s like being the guy with the metal detector and finding your little nugget of whatever and feeling very good about that. Well, whenever I find a beautiful piece it’s like that.

“Very little of this music has ever been done before and I hope that all of these things speak to the very high cost that those young men paid. All of them were casualties … and I don’t think anyone can ever really understand what they experienced during the war…

“There’s no doubt it is deeply moving and I quite commonly find myself crying because I’m moved to tears.”

Christopher Latham with the French Ambassador

French Ambassador Christophe Penot with Christopher Latham. Latham was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

Christopher Latham

Christopher Latham: “[The Order] is a really significant honour and I’m very gratified that I could accept it in my stepfather’s name."