A unique commemoration of the WW1 centenary from the Royal Hospital Chelsea
November is an important month of the year for anyone connected to the military; November 2018, falling 100 years after the Armistice that ended the First World War, will see a host of particularly meaningful commemorative events. At the Royal Hospital Chelsea, where I am Director of Music, the feeling will be particularly strong.
There are few places that are so central to the nation’s perception of what the armed forces represent as the Royal Hospital. Founded in 1682 by King Charles II for 'the relief and succour' of veterans, it admitted its first Chelsea Pensioners in 1692, among whom were some of those injured at the Battle of Sedgemoor. The Royal Hospital is today home to 300 veterans: any former soldier of the British Army over the age of 65 who is facing spending their advanced years alone, can apply for residence as a Chelsea-Pensioner.
When I joined the Royal Hospital Chelsea in 2012 I knew only a little about the Chelsea Pensioners and their historic home, so it has been fascinating over the past six years to get to know them individually. I have a military connection in my family: my Great-Great-Uncle, Bernard Vann, was awarded the Victoria Cross, the only combatant Chaplain to ever receive that honour, but of course no soldier of the Great War is alive today. Yet we still have strong connections at the Royal Hospital to more recent conflicts: there are Chelsea Pensioners who fought on the beaches at the D-Day landings and in a whole host of campaigns since, up to the Falklands War.
At the Royal Hospital, we are lucky to have one of the finest professional church choirs in the UK, but when I was putting together our 2018 disc on SOMM Recordings, In Remembrance, I didn’t want to produce yet another 'choral favourites' CD. Our 2016 Christmas CD, 'Carols from Chelsea', also on SOMM, featured Chelsea Pensioner George Hatton giving us a beautiful bass rendition of White Christmas. I knew that a group of Chelsea Pensioners meets every Monday afternoon to sing, coached by one of our brilliant volunteers, Elaine Hillier, so we had the opportunity to join our two choirs together and create something really special. Mary Guidera, who served with the Royal Corps of Signals, joined the Royal Hospital as a Chelsea Pensioner in 2017. She was lucky that at the age of 14 in her home town of Armagh 'a lady from the next street set up a choir for local girls. We used to sing all our favourite tunes, like The Beautiful Blue Danube and "Belle nuit" [from Offenbach’s Tales of Hoffman].' Mary always enjoyed singing 'in groups … never on my own' and so the Chelsea Pensioners’ Choir has proved to be the perfect fit.
And so at the Temple Church in January this year the Chelsea Pensioners’ Choir and the Chapel Choir came together to record three great hymns: O Valiant Hearts with a tune by the otherwise unknown Rev. Dr. Charles Harris, Jerusalem as set by Hubert Parry and I vow to thee my country, to Holst’s ever-famous tune Thaxted, a melody he self-plagiarised from Jupiter. As Chelsea Pensioner Steve Allen says 'this is the first proper singing I’ve done in my life – if you don’t count singing in the bath! Singing your favourite songs in good company is much better than sitting in your room.' Steve served with the British Army in Cyprus and Libya, among other locations, and was part of the Chieftain Tank trial team. 'I ran the poppy appeal in Preston for 10 years and started the Armed Forces help group up there, so Remembrance is a very important time of the year for me.'
Being under the Heathrow flight path, the Royal Hospital’s stunning Christopher Wren chapel is not the ideal recording venue, so we were grateful to the Temple Church for hosting us for this recording. The Temple’s magnificent Harrison & Harrison organ was the perfect accompaniment to a disc that included world premiere recordings of arrangements by Iain Farrington of the Requiem by Gabriel Fauré and Holst’s Ode to Death, his searingly beautiful 1918 setting of a text by Walt Whitman. For Chelsea Pensioner John Denton, recording at the Temple Church was a hugely enjoyable experience: 'the atmosphere was inspiring and the acoustics were perfect. Before joining the Royal Hospital I hadn’t sung since I was a boy, so I’ve been thrilled to take part in this important recording.'
'In Remembrance' is out now. Buy from Amazon