In November 2014, Timeline Choir visited Victory Hall, in Balcombe, Sussex, where they performed a selection of first world war era songs and poetry, surrounded by Neville Lytton’s amazing wartime frescoes. Along with soloists Lisa J Coates (mezzo) and Simon Grange (bass), the choir showcased the wonderful but long-overlooked works of English composers William Denis Browne, George Butterworth and Cecil Coles whose lives were cut tragically short by the war, as well as pieces by Herbert Howells and Ivor Gurney whose works were coloured by wartime experiences. The latter, a celebrated poet as well as composer, suffered a mustard gas attack at Ypres in 1917 and later died of tuberculosis. While institutionalised and suffering from shell shock, he wrote :
“The songs I had are withered
Or vanished clean
Yet there are bright tracks
Where I have been…”
Songs were interspersed with poems, read by members of the choir, as well as the group’s personal reminiscences, handed down from family members who lived through the war. The evening also paid tribute to the way in which popular music of the period helped to keep spirits up on the home front, giving people the chance to come together and sing catchy melodies and words designed to remind them that they were not alone in their suffering. Audience members joined the choir in singing classic songs like It’s a long way to Tipperary, Keep the home fires burning and Pack up your troubles in an old kit bag.
We chose Balcombe’s remarkable Victory Hall as a venue for the evening, not only because Neville Lytton’s murals depicting wartime scenes provided a fitting and affecting setting, but also because we wanted to celebrate and honour the endurance of the human spirit in art and creativity. In a way, Lytton’s frescoes are like Gurney’s “bright tracks” – ways in which people who are no longer with us can be kept alive through artworks, writings, music and the memories of the people who knew them.