From July to November of 1917, some five hundred thousand troops slaughtered each other over a scrappy Belgian ridge in the Battle of Passchendaele in World War One. The stated goal of the Allied attack was to break through the German lines and clear a path to the coast to disrupt Axis naval operations. But mistaken assumptions about German morale and heavy rains that reduced the already decimated battlefield to a wasteland of clinging mud dashed these plans, and by the campaign’s bitter end five months after it started, the battle lines remained almost unchanged — the deepest incursion into German-held territory was less than five miles from the starting point. While other battles of the War had higher death rates, few compare to Passchendaele for sheer futility and misery of conditions.
This is the landscape that Mark-Anthony Turnage turns to in his new work, Passchendaele, which was given its US première at Walt Disney Hall this past Sunday, January 10, by the Orange County Youth Symphony and Young Musicians Foundation Debut Orchestras under the baton of Daniel Alfred Wachs. And it truly is the landscape specifically he has in mind: In his program note, Turnage describes his work as “an orchestral essay exploring the memory of the landscape” rather than a programmatic depiction of the conflict itself. As such, the work begins not with an analogy to the actual battle’s opening artillery barrage but instead with a solo trombone singing out sad fragments of an almost familiar melody. Nudge a few notes here and there and it could be the Dies Irae or an old American bugle call, but it remains stubbornly warped beyond any one singular reference point. Between each of these fragments, the full orchestra interjects with shriekingly amplified echoes, suggesting the sounds of metal being rent asunder.
The last of these echoes is more subdued, and decays into a tumultuous, seething field of activity. Despite Passchendaele’s bitter nickname “The Battle of Mud”, the music is never heavy or sodden, but remains taut and wiry as it obsessively develops and passes around a two-note descending half-step motive shorn from one of the opening trombone fragments. At times, the result could be mistaken for a cut passage from Leonard Bernstein’s score to On the Waterfront, but for all the frenetic activity, the music retains a sense of stasis, of being trapped endlessly retreading the same ground over and over again in search of an escape that does not come.
Eventually, this undirected striving ebbs in exhaustion, and the brass instrument pick out gleaming chords with stacks of bell tones (calling to mind, perhaps, Jennifer Higdon’s Concerto for Orchestra), but this quickly boils away to leave the trombone alone once more to pick out another sequence of scattered fragments. The woodwinds sneak back in with a few plaintive chords to bring the piece to a close, but the progressions are crumpled and painful, casting a pall over the otherwise conciliatory sonorities. The overall effect is a glimpse into the memory of an old soldier, desperate to salvage some scrap of meaning or purpose from the endless futile miles of shell craters and corpses, shying away from reckoning with the bleak and utter pointlessness of the entire endeavor. (Both of Turnage’s grandfathers fought in the War.)
The young musicians of the OCYSO and YMFDO handled this grim music easily. The program opened with Charles Ives’s Unanswered Question, which set the bar high — the first entry of the strings was ethereally subtle and perfectly together, as if there really were some eternal, ineffable background music to the cosmos and we were just hearing someone turn the volume knob up slightly in the middle of a phrase. Next to Carl Nielsen’s fourth symphony (which closed the program), Passchendaele was a cakewalk, seemingly presenting few challenges of solo dexterity or ensemble cohesion. Still, when the music offered opportunities to shine, the musicians rose to the occasion admirably, especially in the case of the solo trombonist, whose name is not clear from the program listing. On the whole, the evening was an impressive showing; these young musicians clearly have bright futures in front of them.