Commissioned by Proms at St Jude’s to mark the 80th anniversary of the sinking of the SS City of Benares during WW2. The ship was carrying 90 children away from wartime London to safety in Canada, but nearly all the children perished after the ship was torpedoed, along with many of their escorts.
Innocent and tragic suffering in war and the fate of children caught up in armed conflict are universal themes. In the sinking of the Benares, at night, far from land, on a voyage that should have taken the children to safety, this suffering unfolded in unimaginable terror. The text for this piece does deliberately sacrifice particular and detailed reference to the sinking in order to draw out the timeless tragedy of children in war. Nevertheless, it is hoped that those who hear this work will have no doubt that it honours both the children and adults who lost their lives in the sinking of the Benares.
The work is scored for two SATB choirs and organ and follows a largely through-composed musical structure. The opening chorale, however, does recur at strategic points: as well as ending the work, it appears in the second choir as an important backdrop to the climax of the drama whilst the first choir describes the terrifying moments of the torpedoes’ impact.
At one extreme, the deep sonorities of the organ suggest the depths of the ocean and the ‘double darkness’. At the other, quiet registrations on the choir and swell manuals are intended to evoke an air of innocent beauty. As the work draws to a close, the appearance of a solo soprano brings home the very personal grief of the family members and friends of those who drowned in the darkness of that September night.