In 1917, Halifax was alive with music.
There were opera and oratorio societies. Operettas were regularly performed. Canada was at war and patriotic songs filled the city and its bustling port. Silent movies had live piano accompaniment and music was a vital part of worship for people of many different faiths.
1917 was also the year Halifax changed forever.
On Dec. 6, around 9:06 a.m., the Belgian relief vessel Imo and French ship Mont Blanc, laden with munitions destined for First World War battlefields, collided in Halifax Harbour. The ensuing blast killed 2,000 people, injured another 9,000, and destroyed much of the city’s North End.
The Halifax Camerata Singers commemorate the upcoming 100th anniversary of the tragedy with Halifax, 1917: From Dreams to Despair on March 25 at Halifax Central Library. The theatrical musical presentation will feature the choir singing a capella, accompanied by members of Rhapsody Quintet, which will also perform popular music of the era.
The two-hour event will conclude with the premiere of an original composition by Christopher Palmer, set to a little-known poem by D.M Matheson, principal of Alexander McKay School near the heart of the explosion and an eyewitness to the horror that took the lives of many of his students.
The show chronicles a year in the life of Halifax, explains Jeff Joudrey, who founded Halifax Camerata Singers in 1986 and remains artistic director. “We start with a party on New Years Eve 1916 and go through Dec. 6, 1917.” Narration, written by Peggy Walt and performed by actor Jeremy Webb, sets the scene for each month’s musical highlight.
There’s a concert at the bandshell in the Public Gardens for Dominion Day and a skating scene for February in which Rhapsody Quintet will play Palmer’s beautiful arrangement of the Skater’s Waltz.
“It’s not out of a diary, but we know what sort of events were happening at the time,” says Joudrey. All the songs Rhapsody will play were written or played in 1917 and many of the compositions were already in the repertoire of classically trained musicians Jennifer Jones (violin), David Langstroth (bass), Diana Torbert (piano), Eileen Walsh (clarinet) and Shimon Walt (cello).
There will be music from operettas of the time including the Merry Widow and Naughty Marietta and waltzes like Dream of Autumn, composed by Archibald Joyce and believed by some to be the the last piece of music heard on the Titanic before it sunk, says Shimon Walt.
Among the songs Halifax Camerata Singers will perform is Paul Halley’s “Spirit of Africville,” commissioned by the group in 2008. It chronicles how the thriving community with church, stores, farming, and fishing was terribly affected in the aftermath of the Explosion, says Joudrey.
He discovered that Trotsky was imprisoned in Amherst around that time and the choir will sing some Russian pieces capturing that history. And there will be war songs like “There’s A Long, Long Trail A Winding,” which though very simple are very poignant as the innocent soldiers had no clue what fate awaited them, says Peggy Walt.
She sees Palmer’s composition, December Sixth, 1917 as a legacy. “You make the assumption that everyone knows about the Explosion, but they don’t. We will be creating something new as well as looking back.”
Shimon Walt describes Palmer, a bassoonist with Symphony Nova Scotia since 1985, as “one of our Symphony’s most treasured arrangers.” Palmer also composed Ships and Flags: a 2012 Overture, commissioned by CBC and performed at the 2012 Tall Ships Festival in Halifax.
When the composer went looking for a text on which to set his piece, he did a Google search for poems about the Halifax Explosion and didn’t find much. At Halifax Central Library, he discovered the small privately printed booklet of poems by D.M. Matheson.
He couldn’t find out much about Matheson, except for the fact he was principal till 1918 or 1919 and his first name was Duncan. But Palmer knew Matheson was a skilled poet and that he had found his text.
“The first verse sets the scene on that morning with the sun rising and everyone going to work. The last couplet is ‘what is that awful roar.’ Then the next two verses are about the calamities he has witnessed and the last verse is a mournful dirge. For a while it doesn’t make sense, he wonders who caused it to happen, but then his religious faith sets in and he finds hope and purpose.”
The 10-minute composition goes from dark to light and ends with a hymn of glory, says Palmer, who notes that at least 10 hours work goes into creating each minute of music. “It’s a very laborious process, like having to assemble a great jigsaw. I need to know how it feels at each moment, before I write anything.”
Palmer also drew on folks songs about the Halifax Explosion from the Helen Creighton collection. “At the beginning it’s like an intro to what happened and there are bits that are included later in the piece,” he says.
Palmer grew up in London, England where his father worked for the embassy and had never heard of the Halifax Explosion until he visited the city for the first time. Yet he has a personal connection to the event.
“My mother’s father was from Alberta and was in the Merchant Navy and he helped with the clean-up after the explosion,” he says. “At the time of the explosion, he was offshore on a hospital ship, which may have saved his life.”
Joudrey too has a personal connection. “My uncle had a brother who was a baby when the explosion happened and was blinded,” he says. ” He was totally blind and couldn’t see a thing. And my mother talks about living on the Eastern Shore about 160 kilometres from Halifax and hearing her dishes rattle.”
On March 25, the music Joudrey and Palmer’s ancestors would have listened to in 1917 will once again ring out in Halifax.