WWI-Inspired Oratorio Speaks to All Who Have Lost Loved Ones in War

Spire Chamber Ensemble will perform John Muehleisen’s “But Who Will Return Us to Our Children? – A Kipling Passion.”

In war, not all suffering happens on the battlefield. The families of those who serve suffer the stress of distance and unknowing, even if their loved ones return intact. During World War I, with an entire generation nearly extinguished, there was no life untouched. The whole world suffered.

[block pos=”right”] “Ultimately, the piece is about how we deal with this loss. . . I didn’t want to just leave people with the darkness of war, I wanted to leave people with an answer to the questions.”
—   John Muehleisen [/block]

John Muehleisen’s oratorio “But Who Will Return Us Our Children? — A Kipling Passion” tells the story of Rudyard Kipling and his family during WWI and the loss of his son Lieutenant John “Jack” Kipling.

“One of the themes that has become very important to me over the last decade or so,” explained Muehleisen, “is the theme of compassion, in general, and in particular for those who have lost their loved ones in war. By telling the story of the Kiplings and what they had to endure, they then become the symbol of the Every Family — instead of the Everyman — the Every Family that loses someone in war.”

Spire Chamber Ensemble, co-commissioning partner with Choral Arts Northwest and the University of Missouri-Kansas City’s Conservatory of Music and Dance, presents the regional premiere of the oratorio on April 29, in collaboration with the National World War I Museum and Memorial, in the museum’s J.C. Nichols Auditorium. Spire will also perform the work April 30 at Village Presbyterian Church.

“This closes our season, and we really wanted to do a big statement at the end of the year,” said Ben Spalding, founder and artistic director of Spire. “We’re in year seven and throughout our whole time we’ve really tried to focus on being a catalyst for the creation of new music, particularly American composers.”

A pre-performance conversation with Muehleisen and Matthew Naylor, president and CEO of the Museum and board president of Spire, will be held on the Paul Sunderland Glass Bridge, the entry point to the museum, which spans a symbolic field of 9,000 poppy flowers, representing the war’s 9 million deaths, along with a post-performance reception.

Muehleisen visited the museum a few years ago with UMKC professor Robert Bode (who also directs Choral Arts Northwest). Muehleisen said the trip “just ratcheted up my enthusiasm for the project all the more. It gave me a lot of ideas about what I wanted to include in the piece in terms of historical context and how I wanted to tell the story.”

He remembered standing in front of a re-creation of a cratered battlefield scene. “One thing that was implanted in me was the role that nationalism played in the war and the cost of that nationalism,” he said.

In 2012, Choral Arts commissioned and performed Muehleisen’s “Pietà,” which includes a section based on Rudyard’s and Jack’s letters. It was with Bode’s encouragement that he expanded this concept to the full-length oratorio.

First inspired by the movie “My Boy Jack” (based on a play by the same name, taken from Rudyard’s poem), Muehleisen was dismayed by its historical liberties and inaccuracies, so he created his own libretto. This took over two years and used over 40 sources, with Kipling’s poems and letters, the diary entries of his wife, Carrie, and Jack’s letters from the front, as well as speeches, historical accounts, newspaper articles and other poems from the time period, including verse by Wilfred Owen (who was killed in action one week before the Armistice was signed), Siegfried Sassoon, and Robert Service.

“I didn’t want to create dialogue between the characters as part of the libretto because I didn’t want to put that kind of interpretative stamp on the narrative. I just wanted it to be their own words,” Muehleisen said.

Instead, there is a kind of implied dialogue with text reacting to text by juxtaposing diary entries, or from letters back and forth. “You have all these different voices from disparate sources that were never intended to be part of the same narrative that come together to tell this story,” he said. “It’s definitely the most involved, most sophisticated piece I’ve done in terms of the narrative and how it all fits together.”

“You’ve got the whole arc from the beginning of their family, with the births of Rudyard’s and Carrie’s three children, the lead-up to the war, the war itself, then the end of the war, the armistice, and the remembrance aspect of gathering around the Cenotaph . . . What’s interesting to me and what I want to share with people through this piece was how the subject and the tone of (Rudyard’s) poetry changed throughout (the War).”

Just as the text is pulled from various sources, so is the musical material. Structured in a traditional Passion Oratorio framework (a Passion, traditionally, is the story of Jesus’ crucifixion, a story of suffering, though Muehleisen also references the other connotations of the word, of excitement, caring, and zeal), Muehleisen sets new text on chorales from Johann Sebastian Bach’s St. John and St. Matthew Passions. He also deliberately incorporates the music of the time period, the late Victorian/early Edwardian era.

“In some of the original music I composed for the beginning and the end of the work, there’s an evocation of (Edward) Elgar, (Gustav) Holst or (George) Butterworth. That’s tough to do — to not steal, not quote, but to evoke. I also use a lot of quotations . . . folk music or popular music of the day that I use in its natural form,” including musical hall tunes, marches, hymns, and songs the soldiers would have sung in the trenches. “In the middle of the work, the musical style becomes more contemporary, with perhaps some echoes of Britten and of my own contemporary style as well.”

The work is scored for chorus, chamber orchestra and three soloists: bass-baritone (Rudyard), soprano (Carrie), and tenor (Jack), performed by Paul Max Tipton, Clara Rottsolk and Brian Giebler, respectively, for the Spire concerts.

“This is by far the most aggressive project Spire has ever undertaken,” said Spalding, citing not only the length and scale of the piece, but the somewhat controversial and sensitive subject matter: the cost of nationalism and the loss of life, security and future.

The piece works to honor not only those who died and the families and loved ones left behind, but also those who returned severely injured, both physically and psychologically, suffering from brain damage, shell shock and amputations. The piece also tackles ongoing societal issues of PTSD and military suicide. “I especially wanted to address the notion of military suicide in the work as well, not only because it was such a rampant fact in World War I, but because even today the rate of US military suicide is an average of 22 per day,” said Muehleisen.

The role of Spire is more than just interpretive. Spalding said, “We feel very strongly that the arts, especially choral music, are a way for us to express these things that society needs to talk about . . . in a way that is loving and supportive. The arts can teach us how to dialogue about these issues and are a healthy avenue for expression and something we feel very passionate about.”

“We’re excited to bring (the oratorio) to Kansas City, and the connection with the WWI museum is just wonderful,” said Spalding, adding that the ensemble received its first National Endowment for the Arts grant, a substantial and highly competitive award, in support of the project.

Spire also plans to invite veterans and members of the armed forces to the concert. “I think it will be something very special for our community . . . in terms of civic pride for Kansas City and national pride, what the Great War can teach us and how we can respond to it.”

For Muehleisen, the story of the Kipling family is a story for us all. “Ultimately, the piece is about how we deal with this loss. It was a real journey to figure this out because I didn’t want to just leave people with the darkness of war, I wanted to leave people with an answer to the questions. That’s why the title of the piece is a question. It’s from a poem by Kipling. The question being: ‘But who shall return us our children?’ The answer being: ‘No one. They will not — cannot — return to us. They are lost.’ ”

“But that question, then, begs an even more important question, which is, ‘Then how do we deal with the loss?’ And I found the answer in another Kipling poem: ‘London Stone.’” This poem, published in 1923, references the Cenotaph, a monument to fallen soldiers in London, which was the focal point of the ceremonies of Armistice Day (Nov. 11, 1919). On that day, all across the United Kingdom, for two minutes on the 11th hour, every sound, human and mechanical, was silenced in sorrow and reflection.

“Kipling’s poem is about how we deal with loss and grief. And how we deal with grief is we gather together and support one another. We share stories about our loved ones and most importantly we remember them. I think his message is that we don’t grieve in isolation,” Muehleisen continued. “We do it together in community and it is in that community that we are able to heal.”

It is as Kipling wrote: “What is the tie betwixt us two / That must last our whole lives through? / ‘As I suffer, so do you.’ / That may ease the grieving.”

In collaboration with the National World War I Museum and Memorial, Spire Chamber Ensemble will perform “But Who Shall Return Us Our Children? – A Kipling Passion” by John Muehleisen at 7:30 p.m. April 29 at museum, 100 W. 26th St., and at 3 p.m. April 30 at Village Presbyterian Church, 6641 Mission Rd., Prairie Village. Tickets cost $25 and can be purchased at www.spirechamberensemble.org; $10 student tickets will be available at the door.

Above: The Spire Chamber Ensemble’s 2016 holiday performances included a Dec. 21 appearance at Redemptorist Church (left). On April 29, Spire will perform “A Kipling Passion” at the World War I Museum and Memorial. (photo by Jim Barcus)

Libby Hanssen

Libby Hanssen covers the performing arts in Kansas City. She maintains the culture blog, “Proust Eats a Sandwich,” and writes poetry and children’s books. She holds a master’s degree in trombone performance from UMKC Conservatory and currently works at UMKC’s Music/Media Library.

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