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Beach Burial for choir and orchestra (2009)

There are three striking images in Ken Slessor’s great World War Two poem, “Beach Burial” that I have tried to capture and develop in music.  The first is the image, both tranquil and deeply disturbing, of the dead bodies of sailors washed ashore at first light after a sea battle. The second image is the ominous, almost bitter, impression of the heavy tread of feet and driven stakes of driftwood as the bodies are buried in the sand. And then the final, forlorn image of makeshift epitaphs to the unknown washed away as the natural world overwhelms the signs of the asinine conflicts of humans at war. The calm stillness of Slessor’s observation seems to be at odds with the implicit horror of the scene. Perhaps this is because the atmosphere in his seascape is heavy with salt and humidity as if this were a familiar and comfortable Australian beach rather than the distant and brutal strand at El Alamein in “The Gulf of Arabs.”

The piece was written over summer 2008-09 and commissioned by the Sydney Philharmonia Choir and Orchestra and is about ten minutes in duration.

Beach Burial – Kenneth Slessor

Softly and humbly to the Gulf of Arabs
The convoys of dead sailors come;
At night they sway and wander in the waters far under,
But morning rolls them in the foam.

Between the sob and clubbing of the gunfire
Someone, it seems, has time for this,
To pluck them from the shallows and bury them in burrows
And tread the sand upon their nakedness;

And each cross, the driven stake of tidewood,
Bears the last signature of men,
Written with such perplexity, with such bewildered pity,
The words choke as they begin –

"Unknown seaman" –the ghostly pencil
Wavers and fades, the purple drips,
The breath of the wet season has washed their inscriptions
As blue as drowned men's lips,

Dead seamen, gone in search of the same landfall,
Whether as enemies they fought,
Or fought with us, or neither; the sand joins them together,
Enlisted on the other front.

El Alamein

 


"Beach Burial" is used by kind permission of the publisher, HarperCollins Australia

 

 

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