Piping up for those lost at sea


With much of Belfast’s ‘Titanic’ celebrations focusing on the ship, Philip Hammond has composed a moving musical tribute to the 1,500-plus people who perished in the tragedy, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH

SITTING AT THE piano in the attic of his East Belfast home, composer Philip Hammond can see over the terraced rooftops all the way to the shipyards where Titanic was built.

Over the last few months, he has watched the construction of the city’s new tribute to the great, doomed ship, the Titanic Signature Building, which now stands glittering like a geometric iceberg on the skyline.

Now Hammond has composed his own response to the tragedy, A Requiem for the Lost Souls of the ‘Titanic’, which will be performed in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast on April 14th, exactly 100 years after the night Titanic sank. Afterwards, there will be a torchlight procession to the Titanic memorial in the grounds of City Hall, and the piece will be performed again the following morning, as part of requiem Mass at St Peter’s Cathedral.

While Belfast has struggled to get the right balance between celebrating local pride in the grandeur and magnificence of the ship (which, after all, was seen as a miracle of modern technology at the time) and solemnly marking the shame and horror of its demise, Hammond’s requiem seeks simply to commemorate the human victims, more than 1,500 of whom lost their lives in the freezing waters of the north Atlantic. “This is not about the ship itself,” he says. “This is about the people who died because of the Titanic tragedy, and the survivors whose lives were overshadowed by it.”

It will be an ambitious performance. Hammond has woven a complex structure around the pillars of the original Latin requiem mass, involving six choral movements, with brass accompaniment, and five musical meditations for piano trio.

Intended as a tribute to the musicians who went down with the ship, these short pieces draw on a variety of literary and musical sources, including the hymn Nearer My God to Thee and folk songs from the 1792 Belfast Harp Festival. One song, The Parting of Friends, seems particularly apposite: it’s said that the young musician Edward Bunting played this piece to Wolfe Tone and his wife in 1795, at an emotional leave-taking on the night before Tone left Ireland for America.

The writer Glenn Patterson will also read his own meditations on the final moments of the victims of the tragedy, including the wireless operator who sent out the same distress call over and over again until the very last moment, when he and his friend jumped into the sea. He survived, although his friend did not.

“This is a piece of music theatre, and it has to be staged,” says Hammond. The cathedral will be dimly lit for the performance, and all the seats will be facing inwards, to reflect the shape of the ship’s hull. Hammond has adopted the Italian technique of cori spezzati, or spaced choirs, originally used in 16th-century Venice, in which voices and instruments called and answered to each other across the vast spaces of St Mark’s Cathedral.

In Hammond’s Titanic requiem, the Belfast Philharmonic Choir will be positioned at the back of St Anne’s, while the boys of the Schola Cantorum from St Peter’s cathedral, and Cappella Caeciliana, a Belfast-based chamber choir, will be at the front. A fourth group, Anúna, Ireland’s national choir, led by Michael McGlynn, will wander through the audience as they sing.

Soloist Jacqueline Horner, a Belfast-born mezzo-soprano who is part of US choir Anonymous Four, will also be on the move during the performance. At the end, trumpets will sound from either end of the cathedral, calling to each other, symbolising the lux eterna, the journey from the darkness of the grave to eternal rest.

“It’s a way of using space so that everyone will feel part of something much bigger,” says Hammond. But the logistical challenge of the requiem is considerable, requiring three different conductors keeping in touch with each other via CCTV.

“Coordinating the whole thing is driving me insane,” Hammond admits. “With all the choirs, the brass and the soloist rehearsing separately, I won’t know what it will sound like until the day before the performance. But if it works, I think it will be a very emotional night for everyone present.”

The requiem is woven through with all kinds of associations and connections that are meaningful to the composer. It is dedicated to Roz Levine, his best friend’s mother, who was 95 when she died in Portland, Oregon (Hammond was at her bedside, and was moved by the Hebrew prayers for the dead, which call on the four archangels to bear the soul to heaven), and to Miriam Agee, the daughter of a friend, who died when she was just four.

Listening to Hammond play the plangent opening chords of his Requiem for the Lost Souls . . . on his piano at home, high above the Belfast shipyards, the emotional power of the piece is unmistakeable. It is extraordinarily moving and evocative, an intensely personal work, rooted in the life of his native city, that nonetheless touches on universal themes of loss, death and hope of eternal life.

It seems certain that the performance at St Anne’s on April 14th will be a night to remember.