Centennial in song: Canterbury Voices to mark 100th anniversary of WWI armistice with ‘War Requiem’
Connie Sallee still remembers her grandmother’s stories about Great-Uncle Roy, her father’s namesake, even though she was too young to really know the war hero behind the family history.
“A very loyal and kind and jovial person, he had a very strong countenance even though he put up with this breathing problem. My Grandmother Gustafson just thought the world of him,” she recalled. “He passed away in his early 40s from being exposed to mustard gas in World War I.”
The great-uncle she only knows through others’ memories has frequently come to mind since spring, when Canterbury Voices began working on Benjamin Britten’s “War Requiem,” a choral masterwork that combines text from the traditional Latin requiem with the poetry of World War I solider Wilfred Owen, who died in combat a week before the armistice was signed to end the Great War.
“I was very glad that they had chosen to do something to commemorate World War I,” said Sallee, a member of the Canterbury Voices adult choir. “Getting to study the ‘War Requiem’ … has made me think about the sacrifices that a lot of my family have made as service members.”
Canterbury Voices will join with students from its Canterbury Youth Voices program, choirs from Oklahoma City University, three soloists and the Oklahoma City Philharmonic to perform “War Requiem” Sunday, which is the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.
“It’s considered by many the greatest choral orchestral piece of the 20th century,” said Canterbury Voices Artistic Director Randi Von Ellefson, who will conduct Sunday’s concert at the Civic Center. “I think it’s an important anniversary for all of us who have been touched by wars in different ways and had relatives who have served — both men and women. I think this is an important way to commemorate their service and their sacrifice.”
He said many people don’t know that Veterans Day, observed annually on Nov. 11, was originally Armistice Day. It commemorated the signing of the armistice between the Allies of World War I and Germany, which took effect on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.
A pacifist, Britten incorporated in his “War Requiem” several posthumously published poems by Owen, renowned for his powerful verse about the horrors of trench and gas warfare.
“The poetry is like a commentary on violence and war, death and the sadness of losing young people in their prime,” Ellefson said. “The tenor and the bass soloists represent a German and a British soldier and they only sing the poetry. … Then you have the children’s choir, which recalls liturgical chant and the church offering prayers.”
He said the masterwork is such a massive undertaking — bringing together multiple choirs, an orchestra and a chamber orchestra — that performances are relatively rare, although many have been planned worldwide for Sunday’s centennial.
For Canterbury Voices singer Jacquelyne Butts, rehearsing “War Requiem” has called to mind memories of her 12 years working as a registered nurse in the Oklahoma City VA Health Care System, where she has spent the past seven years in the hospice unit.
“I work nights, and a lot of times, when I have that time alone with them (veterans), I just talk to them, I pray for them, I sing to them just very quietly,” she said.
As she readies to retire Nov. 30, she said preparing for “War Requiem” has made her last days working with veterans in the hospice unit even more poignant.
“It’s very intense, that’s for sure,” she said. “We’re almost grieving and praying in some areas. But in the very last, we’re rejoicing. It becomes almost like a celebration. It’s almost like a circle of life.”
For Sallee, her great-uncle Roy Gustafson won’t be the only veteran she has on her mind during Sunday’s performance. Her father, Roy Worley, served as an Army medic in World War II. Her husband, Richard Sallee, is an Army veteran who served during Vietnam in the Adjutant General Corps, and his father, Lawrence David Sallee, was a Marine who made the landings on Iwo Jima and Guam during World War II and served in Korea, too. Her son, Erik Sallee, was with the Marines in Iraq and is still in the reserves.
While attending OCU in the 1970s, the singer entertained on multiple United Service Organization tours in Cuba, Panama and even the Demilitarized Zone in Korea. Sallee said nothing she performed on her USO trips was as impassioned as “War Requiem.”
“Britten himself was a conscientious objector, and so his statement with the music is certainly impactful about why humanity feels that this is the necessity that they undertake,” Sallee said.
“In talking to my dad and talking to Richard and talking to my son, they don’t go to war to be warriors, they go to war to have peace … and they fight for the ability of people to have freedom.”
Canterbury Voices’ “War Requiem”
When: 3 p.m. Sunday.
Where: Civic Center Music Hall, 201 N Walker.
Tickets and information: canterburyokc.com.
Brandy McDonnell, also known by her initials BAM, writes stories and reviews on movies, music, the arts and other aspects of entertainment. She is NewsOK’s top blogger: Her 4-year-old…