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Program note: Nigel Westlake's "Glass soldier suite"

  • by Nigel Westlake

The Glass Soldier was commissioned by Don Farrands in memory of his grandfather N. H. Ferguson, and in honour of his contribution to art and his virtuous life.

In 5 movements, the suite is inspired by Hannie Rayson’s epic play which tells the story of Nelson Ferguson’s misfortune in war & his ultimate triumph against adversity.

1. The Glass Soldier
Beginning slowly & tentatively, this is a portrait of the young Nelson, an artist imbued with dignity & optimism as he embarks upon his journey to France, an ill fated adventure that will change his life forever.

The low register trumpet phrases in the final bars suggest an apprehension of the fate awaiting Nelson & his comrades that lies over the horizon. 
2. The Age of Destruction
An orchestral representation of the battle of Villers-Bretonneux  in North France (April 17-24,1918) in which Nelson, a stretcher bearer was embroiled. This  music seeks to describe the relentless juggernaut of war & the terror of life on the battlefield. Nelson’s cornet can be heard from time to time, a vulnerable lone voice searching for reason amongst the surrounding mayhem.

Various effects are incorporated into the score in an attempt to conjure the desolate atmosphere of death & destruction, including a wind machine, thunder sheets, air raid sirens & gas alarms. On the battlefield of World War 1, empty shell casings were hung & struck like a bell to warn of an impending gass attack.

3. White Birds Fly over the Valley of the Somme
Solo cello is featured in a slow lament for the aftermath of the battle.
The image of white birds juxtaposed over a desolate landscape devastated beyond recognition is a metaphor for hope, the title inspired by a scene descriptive from Hannie Rayson's original screenplay. As Nelson surveys the killing fields of the Somme he yearns to be back in the arms of his true love, Madeleine. The sweet sounds of her piano playing inhabit his daydreaming & offer a glimpse of hope amongst the scarred earth & mud-filled trenches.

4. Symphonies of Glass
Escaping from the horror of the trenches, Nelson has carved out a moment in time (on leave) & finds himself inside an ancient village church somewhere in the French countryside. He admires the grandeur of the stained glass windows &  lovingly communes with the spirits of the artisans responsible for such beauty, empathising with and marvelling at their work. Their search for beauty, for colour. Basking in the play of light, the music opens with a refernce to the 15th CenturyFrench Advent plainchant "Veni, Veni Emmanuel"over which is superimposed a filigree texture of harp arpeggios, celesta, crotales (pitched metal discs) & solo violin.

Nelson reflects on the meaningless slaughter of the war & berates the Almighty for allowing such atrocities to occur, at which time the orchestral texture is expanded & intensified exploding at the peak of his anger as a stray bomb lands on the roof of the church & Nelson is covered in broken glass as the windows collapse upon him. Engulfed by mustard gas, there is panic & a deep awareness exploding in a sense of catastrophe. He is hurled into darkness. His visual world is destroyed and his life with it. He is buried alive, suffocated by helplessness and claustrophobia. The mustard gas takes his sight.

5. I was blinded - but now I see

This is the struggle for a man plunged into darkness to find the light. Literally and metaphorically.

For Nelson blindness is akin to being a lost man. Caught up in turmoil and anxiety & unable to be the author of his own life, with extraordinary tenacity, the trumpet cadenza charts Nelson’s journey as he sets about the process of regaining control.

Optimistic & uplifting, this finale speaks of hope & rebirth, the regeneration of the human spirit.
I would like to thank Hannie Rayson for her guidance & feedback throughout the composition process & also Don Farrands for offering me a unique opportunity to render his family's powerful story through the medium of music


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