Treasured letters: an interview with Pamela Traynor, librettist—part 1

The libretto for An Australian War Requiem features quotes from letters between soldiers at the front and mothers at home in Australia. It also includes excerpts from poems, and from the sacred hymn of Mary, the Stabat Mater. The libretto was created by Pamela Traynor, who kindly answered questions about research, writing, and the emotional bond between sons and mothers.

What was the spark for you to become involved in this project?

I have to say that when Christopher Bowen said to me a few years ago that he’d like to do something to commemorate the 100th anniversary of World War 1, I didn’t know that I was all that interested—I didn’t have much knowledge of World War 1 or any wars, to be honest. But when he said he’d like to base it on letters between young soldiers on the battle front and their mothers at home in Australia it hit me, it became something emotional I could connect with, as a mother and as someone who’s worked in social documentaries.

How did you source the letters for the text?

I did wonder ‘Are there letters? Where are they?’ I finally found myself at the research centre at the Australian War Memorial where they do indeed have letters, where I could actually look at them, the original letters. Then I was on fire. The incredible journey began.

Christopher and I made four trips there and I spent hours, days, weeks reading all these letters that had been exchanged between mothers and sons. Though they were mainly from sons to mothers. Letters from mothers to sons, understandably, were lost, whereas mothers kept those letters from their sons, treasured them.

And I wondered, how did they cope? Because, many of the kids I read about who went off to War had never been outside their own home town, let alone on the battlefront of France, on the Western Front. And some of them were under age—they had lied about their age in order to go.

Reading the original letters was a very emotional experience. I can’t tell you how many tears I shed. There they were, those words on the page that were written by boys of 18, 19, 20 years of age who’d left Australia, left their Mums, left their families, and there they were in this strange and foreign place seeing their comrades die, fearful that they would be the next to die. It had a profound effect upon me. It made the war real to me.

What guided you in your selections of text for the libretto?

The War Requiem is essentially about love. And it’s about loss, it’s about destruction and courage. The music demonstrates that in all its passion and power.

But apart from the poems which are directly quoted, all the hundreds of letters that we’ve read inspired the libretto. Christopher originally came up with the idea of including/juxtaposing the Stabat Mater which describes Mary the mother of Christ standing at the foot of the cross witnessing the death of her son. That was a most appropriate allegory. And that again added to the emotion of the whole experience. Because that’s what these letters were about: love between mothers and sons.

Tell us about the detective work you had to use to find the identity and then the descendants of the writers?

That was a huge part of the whole project—you can’t just use something without asking permission! And so, while it occupied a lot of time, it was very, very worthwhile. It can be very frustrating when your research path leads to a dead end and you’re back at the beginning and have to start all over again. But then you strike gold and you find the descendants of the letter writer or the poet, and that’s very thrilling.

What is the most poignant (and enduring) image evoked for you by the words?

I still get very upset when I think about it. It’s a small part of the libretto, towards the end—a pastor has written about this young soldier who’d been out in the battle and is attacked by gas. The last words of this young man that were witnessed as he walked off the front line were ‘I’m done. Get your gas helmets on, boys’. And that will forever stay in my memory because I knew him, it was so real to me. That soldier was young Clive Crowley. I had come to know him through the heartfelt letters his mother Alice had written to him. Clive didn’t ever recover, he died. It upset me greatly. But of course there was so much that was moving, there were thousands who died.

What have you found most rewarding about working on the text for An Australian War Requiem? From the beginning to the end. What have you personally gained from it?

Well, learning about the subject first of all, learning about World War 1. But the most rewarding has to be reading the original letters. It was a hugely emotional experience for me. And working with Christopher Bowen has been a wonderful and memorable experience: his ability to translate words and feelings in to the powerful music he has created is unique.

What are you looking forward to most about the premiere on August 10?

I’m looking forward to it all finally coming together for the performance: the big orchestra, the brilliant soloists, a terrific guest choir, the children’s choir and above all the Sydney University Graduate Choir who are amazing and one of the finest in the country. It has been a long journey, so it will be such a joy for me seeing it finally come alive with everything that we ever wanted it to be, with the people we wanted to do it with.

Special thanks go to Marilyn Gosling, Evelyne DeClercq and John Bowan for helping this dream become a reality. Also, to the Australian War Memorial, David Moser, the Sydney University Graduate Choir, President David Herrero and Committee and Rosalie O’Neale.

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