The Story of "Flanders Fields"
Text by John McCrae
Music by Paul A. Aitken
In the Fall of 1998, I was living in Norman, Oklahoma attending doctoral-level courses at the University of Oklahoma. There had been a slight educational mishap in my life as I had
been accepted to the university (but not the doctoral program in choral studies as I had hoped). I was a student of the university taking music classes...but not studying with the major professor of my choice.
Frustrated, but not deterred, I asked Dr. Shrock if I might audit his courses while taking music theory, history, and a few other music classes. Luckily, he agreed to that arrangement and I began to deepen my choral education with he, the other choral students, and the other professors at OU.
Being a part-time student allowed additional opportunity to dig deeper into an area of interest that I had dabbled in, but not really committed to: the art of choral composition. When I wasn't attending class, I spent time studying poetry and improvising music to various poems that caught my attention. I began to note that certain poems spoke to me more than others; that music rather flowed from my fingers as I improvised on some texts -- and other poems were dead ends for me. Interestingly, this is something that I still experience today.
As a newly-minted student member of the American Choral Directors Association, I became aware of a new competition that had been made available through the generosity of a memorial gift made to ACDA by Raymond W. Brock. I read through the rules and regulations, noted the application deadline, and decided to apply.
Looking through my short list of already-written compositions, I realized that nothing that I had yet written was something that I wanted to share with the choral world. With that in mind, I decided to write a piece specifically for the competition and, since Remembrance Day/Veterans Day was right around the corner, I opted to select the text that I had studied nearly every year in school: "In Flanders Fields" by Canadian poet, John McCrae.
The poem spoke deeply to me. I knew it well. As a Canadian, I had grown up in a small Ontario town only about forty miles from where McCrae himself had been born and raised in Guelph, Ontario. I felt a kinship to the poet whose work I had studied so many times over and, as a Canadian living in the U.S., I was a little homesick as well. Composing music to McCrae's timeless poetry was one way that I could reconnect with who I was, who he was, and the small rural Canadian towns to which we are tethered.
As often as I could over the next many weeks, I parked myself in a practice room with a small, upright piano and began to write. It's funny how time blurs the edges of your memory; I don't recall if it was an arduous process, or a quick one. I do recall being quite excited by the collaboration of poet and composer: if John McCrae, who was killed in combat in 1918, could speak through a musician 98 years his junior, it was happening in Oklahoma during those weeks of inspiration. I distinctly heard the voices from the grave wishing to have voice; in 1998 (the 80th anniversary of the end of WWI), it was important story to tell.
Lest we forget.
I previewed the composition for several of my new colleagues and friends at the University of Oklahoma and shared it with Dennis Shrock who graciously support my application to enter the competition and, shortly after Christmas, I sent "Flanders Fields" in for judging.
Time went by and I had all but forgotten about my application. In my mind, there was no way that I could win -- it was a far-fetched venture.
Or so I thought...
I was sitting at home when the phone rang. A gentleman with a soft, but authoritative voice (with a heavy drawl) introduced himself as Dr. Gene Brooks -- the Executive Director of the American Choral Directors Association. I was dumbfounded. Dr. Brooks informed me that "Flanders Fields" had been selected as the winning composition, that I had won the small cash award, and that they were going to fly me to the 1999 ACDA national convention in Chicago.
I'll never forget the premiere; that day changed my life. The University of Mississippi Concert Choir, under the direction of Dr. Jerry Jordan, took the stage and sang their entire concert set. Once they had sung, Gene Brooks took to the stage and invited me to join him. He introduced the piece in a manner than only Dr. Brooks could have done -- he was a master public speaker. He handed me the award, congratulated me, and there was polite applause as I took my seat.
The choir began to sing.
It was my piece. I could hardly believe that I was hearing my work; my soul, the marriage of text and music coming to life in a way that I had never truly experienced before. The tenors were entrancing and floated the opening ostinato exactly like I had heard it in my head. Then the sopranos and altos took over and began singing the text beautifully with the help of the arching melody. Dr. Jordan nailed the interpretation.
I was stunned. I sat by my parents, weeping. I experienced my soul exposed.
There were several moments of complete silence after the concert choir sang the final chord. 2500 people just sat there in silence and I thought to myself: "well crap; they hated it. Was it really that bad? Someone has to clap. Should I start it?"
It was then that I heard it: a single "Bravo!" from either the second or the third balcony. The applause began. "Flanders Fields" had been born.
It's hard to believe that it's been nearly twenty years since I wrote that piece. Since then, I've written dozens more scores and hours and hours of choral, orchestral, and other forms of music. In spite of many additional successes, I am still best known as the composer of "Flanders Fields." It's something that I've had to become accustomed to -- and I've embraced it better the past few years. (That said, I am usually quick to point out that yes, I did write "Flanders Fields," but there is so much more in my catalog. Please check it out!)
For those who have performed it over the years, please know how tremendously grateful I am that you have programmed it -- some of you many times over. It is my great honor and privilege to work with those who have reached out to me and invited me into your classrooms to workshop "Flanders Fields," and other pieces that I have written. Please continue to reach out; it is an honor to work with you and your students.
And finally, I want to add a special message for those students who may be struggling right now. Writing "Flanders Fields" gave me the opportunity for a second chance as I was ultimately given the opportunity to move from part-time music student (taking doctoral-level classes) to being a full-time student under Dr. Shrock's tutelage. I graduated with my DMA in 2006. It wasn't the course I'd chosen...but it was the course I needed in order to be the person I am today.
I believe that everyone has a "Flanders Fields" moment in their lives -- a pivotal point where your life changes and where you can look back and say: "my life changed for the better that day." What is your "Flanders Fields" moment? If you know what it is, take some time to go back and thank those people -- your parents, your teachers, your mentors, your friends -- who were part of that experience. It will remind you just how grateful you are for those amazing people who have joined you on your journey.
Share your Flanders story:
"Composing music to McCrae's timeless poetry was one way that I could reconnect with who I was, who he was, and the small rural Canadian towns to which we are tethered."
John McCrae (1872-1918)
"I do recall being quite excited by the collaboration of poet and composer: if John McCrae, who was killed in combat in 1918, could speak through a musician 98 years his junior, it was happening in Oklahoma during those weeks of inspiration."
Photo courtesy of Colleen Zurbrigg
"It was my piece. I could hardly believe that I was hearing my piece, my soul, the marriage of text and music coming to life in a way that I had never truly experienced before."