Canada’s National Arts Centre Orchestra performed in the magnificent Salisbury Cathedral, just a few kilometres away from the muddy terrain where 30,000 Canadians came to train 100 years ago to fight in the First World War.
The musicians were following in the footsteps of the young Canadian soldiers who came to the United Kingdom 100 years ago believing they would be home for Christmas, that the War would only last a few months.
“It’s a moment that that we grew up with as Canadians,” said Margaret MacMillan, a historian and author of the best-selling book The War That Ended Peace. She explained that Canada did not declare war itself, as a member of the British Empire it followed Great Britain’s lead.
“The Empire made a huge contribution to the War in manpower, money and raw materials. Canadians understood that for the first time, and wanted to be recognized as an independent country making a tremendous sacrifice,” she said.
MacMillan’s talk at St. Thomas Beckett Church was part of the NAC Orchestra’s five-city, 50 educational event tour of the United Kingdom to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War.
But the tour of the National Arts Centre’s musicians took on added poignancy with the killing of two Canadian soldiers Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent. As the musicians were flying to the Edinburgh for their first concert, the news from Ottawa flashed onto their smartphones and television screens at Heathrow Airport.
Cpl. Nathan Cirillo was shot standing guard at the National War Memorial, just steps away from the Elgin Street entrance of the National Arts Centre. The NAC, like many other buildings in downtown Ottawa was under lock-down for most of that day, as police teams scoured the core of the City for evidence and potential suspects.
From that moment on, concerts and outreach events across the United Kingdom were dedicated to the two soldiers who lost their lives.
“Music has the amazing ability to heal,” said NAC President and CEO Peter Herrndorf.
At her talk about Canada’s role in the First World War, Margaret MacMillan remarked that we can learn from history. “War is part of the Canadian story, but for most of our history we have been peaceful, and I think that is something to be proud of,” she said.
More than 600,000 Canadians enlisted during the War, which represented nearly 10 per cent of the Canadian population at that time. More than 60,000 young soldiers were killed, which meant that nearly every Canadian family was affected.
“It took only five weeks for Europe to go to War in 1914,” said Margaret MacMillan. “We cannot be complacent, we have to think of ways of strengthening peace.”
In a spirit of remembrance and healing, concerts at the historic Usher Hall in Edinburgh, at Royal Festival Hall in London and at the magnificent 750 year old Salisbury Cathedral were dedicated to the soldiers who fought during the First World War, but also to present day victims Cpl. Nathan Cirillo and Warrant Officer Patrice Vincent.
It was a message that resonated with audiences across the United Kingdom. In London, at a glittering concert that Prince Charles attended, the ovation from the audience was sustained after the National Arts Centre Orchestra performed Beethoven’s 9th Symphony and Ode to Joy. The National Arts Centre Orchestra was joined by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra on stage, with the combined sound of 140 musicians and more than 200 singers from the London Symphony Orchestra Choir.
“Ode to Joy is a hymn for humanity,” said Maestro Pinchas Zukerman. “When faced with suffering or human tragedy I respond through music, and that is what we have done throughout the United Kingdom over the past two weeks.”