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World premiere commemorates war dead of Upper Coquetdale

Composer John Casken and his choir are to honour the First World War fallen of north Northumberland

John Casken at the desk where he does much of his composing
John Casken at the desk where he does much of his composing

Joseph Edmonson, 21; Henry George Clark, 38; Robert Gutherson, 33; James Murphy, 28... these are “lost sons of Harbottle, Hepple, Thropton, Alwinton”, the “sons remembered on memorials of stone: Loos, Thiepval”.

They will be remembered again tomorrow when a new choral work gets its premiere in St Michael and All Angels Church, Alwinton.

John Casken’s Memorial, written for the Coquetdale Chamber Choir, commemorates the 12 men of Upper Coquetdale, Northumberland, who fell in the First World War and have no known grave... just their name inscribed on those memorials.

John, a composer who lives in north Northumberland and musical director of the choir, visited the First World War battlefields last April and reports: “It was very moving. There were so many graves but so very many more names of people who were never found.

“I thought if I started picking and choosing names for the piece... well, I couldn’t do that without feeling I’d left someone important out and everyone is important.

“But if I focused on the names of the men who didn’t have graves, that was a manageable list.”

John started work on the piece early in the year. “We started rehearsing in February so we’ve been working on it for about six months.

“Technically it’s quite hard. I set out to write a simple piece but it’s hard to do that without it sounding simplistic, which I didn’t want.

“So the piece is very challenging for the choir but they’ve been coping with it extremely well and I think they’ll give a good account of themselves.”

The choir, about 25-strong, will be joined by soloists Lucy Hall (soprano) and Philip Smith (baritone) and percussionists Alan Fearon and Brendan Howell, with organist Colin Scott also performing at the concert.

Memorial will be sandwiched between Two Motets, by Heinrich Schütz, and Gabriel Fauré’s famous Requiem – British, German and French composers united in a spirit of reconciliation.

John wrote the text of Memorial himself, explaining that it alludes to First World War poetry, Remembrance Day prayers and fragments of an account of the battle of Mametz Wood by Corporal Briton Smallman of the Northumberland Fusiliers.

“There are relatives of these dead men still around,” says John. “I think there will be a fair few lumps in throats when their names are sung very, very slowly, like a roll call.”

Corporal Smallman was the uncle of Frances Smallman, of Thropton, and the great uncle of Clare Friend, of Harbottle.

Among his words the audience will hear are: “Shells started to burst in the trenches... So narrow, two men could not pass... Lie down... your only chance... Not strong enough, no stretcher-bearers.”

Also mentioned in John’s piece are “lost sons of Rothbury”: Thomas Murray, 31; James Robert Richardson, 20; William John Harvey, 21; Thomas Gregory, 34; Thomas Murray Trotter, 22; Robert William Renton, 30; John Thomas Wintrip, 35; and Thomas Tate, 22.

Lost... but very much in the minds of Saturday’s audience. Tickets for the 7.30pm concert (£10; £5 for ages 16-21) will be on sale at the church door.

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