Text: Seán Street | Sir Alexander Coutanche
Oxford University Press
Commissioned by IFAC for the 9th International Competition for Young Conductors
organised in collaboration with ECA-EC,
First performance 20 October 2019 in Paris | Le Choeur de l’Orchestre de Paris.
Le Conservatoire à Rayonnement Régional de Paris, France
2019 marks the centenary of the remarkable humanitarian aid institution, the Internationl Red Cross. To commemorate the extraordinary achievements of this charity I asked the British poet, Seán Street, to create a poem around a particular set of circumstances in 1944. From June 1940 until liberation in May 1945 the Channel Islands were occupied by German Armed Forces. In August 1944 the Bailiff of Jersey, Sir Alexander Coutanche, asked permission of the German authorities to contact the IRC to beg for help as the islanders were on the brink of starvation. The IRC ship, the Vega (brightest star), came to the Channel Islands after Christmas in 1944, bringing food parcels, medical supplies and so much more. The Vega made six more visits to the Islands before VE Day.
The opening of Brightest Star underlines the bleak conditions on the Islands that year; dissonant harmony, downward sliding phrases. The pace is steady but underscored by a certain urgency, always driving onwards. Extracts from the Bailiff’s letter, sung by the men of the choir, draw attention to the gravity of the situation. In contrast the upper voices bring an ethereal quality to the texture, one of hope perhaps. Towards the close of this setting the sopranos and altos sing phrases suggestive of the lovely traditional French Christmas carol, Les anges dans nos campagnes, better known in English as Angels from the realms of glory.
Brightest Star has been commissioned by IFAC for the 9th International Competition for Young Conductors organised in collaboration with the European Choral Association – Europa Cantat and first performed on 20th October 2019 by le Choeur de l’Orchestre de Paris.
Advent in nineteen forty four came cold,
when Coutanche the Bailiff wrote a letter from the dark:
Message to the Protecting Power
Essential drugs now exhausted.
Butter exhausted, soap exhausted.
No gas since September.
Electricity will fail mid-January
Wood inadequate. No matches.
They waited for answers, for the seawash static
broken by song in the deep lake of war.
Then Vega, brightest star in the blackest night
came through tides like a red-winged bird in flight
and with humanity towards peace shone light,
Vega, season’s star, angel in flight,
for what is Christmas without angels in the night?
For what is Epiphany but new hope’s light?
Quotes from Sir Alexander Coutanche, Bailiff of Jersey, and the motto of the International Red Cross