Today, a choral conductor and a soldier's ghost.
The University of Houston's College of Engineering
presents this series about the machines that make
our civilization run, and the people whose
ingenuity created them.
How strangely things come
together. Sunday afternoon I heard Robert Shaw
directing Benjamin Britten's War
Requiem -- a setting of a poem by Wilford
Owen. Owen was an English soldier killed in the
last days of WW-I.
In 1948 I sang under a Shaw protégé.
Shaw was, by then, the young wunderkind who was
transforming American choral singing. I was
studying calculus, mechanics -- and singing --
surrounded by returning WW-II veterans. I'd
survived the war by being just a little too young
to go. The students around me -- some damaged, some
not, had survived by being luckier than the ones
I went on into engineering and teaching. All the
time I sang everywhere I could. In 1974 I was in
Jugoslavia singing with the Serbian Orthodox
Cathedral and working in the International Center
for Heat and Mass Transfer. That August I drove
down through Bosnia, and through Mostar, to a
conference in Dubrovnik.
The car carried my wife and me, our two boys, and
the conference proceedings. We stopped near the
famous Mostar Bridge for our sandwiches and juice.
Bees hummed in the summer air, and the graceful
bridge reflected in the river water.
The Bosnians were nice to us. A couple took us into
their house that night. Their daughters slept on
the couch. Other Jugoslavs were nice to us, too.
But they told jokes about the Bosnians. They told
the same jokes I once told about the Polish.
Yesterday I saw a picture of what was left of the
Mostar bridge. Croatian guns had pounded it into
rubble. And I know I'll never tell Polish jokes
Now here's Robert Shaw again, still at it a
half-century later. So much comes back: Those
ex-GIs; Art Winship, who finished his degree in a
wheelchair; John Wagner, who'd survived the
terrible 1945 German counteroffensive. That whole
part of my life had played to the background of
Shaw's musical methods.
The students with me had been through the same
things Owen wrote about. They told me about
senseless death. This Sunday I listened as Owen
dreamed up the ghost of a soldier he'd killed. The
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now ...
Twenty years ago in Jugoslavia I sang and studied
coal gasification. I listened to Bosnian jokes and
sat by Mostar's lovely bridge. Sunday I heard
Wilfred Owen: "It seemed that out of battle I
Well, he did not escape -- nor, in the end, do we.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds
(This episode was written in 1993 and makes reference to the events of that time.)
The Houston Symphony, the Houston Symphony Chorus,
and the Fort Bend Boys Choir performed Benjamin
Britten's War Requiem, Op. 66, on
Sunday, November 14, 1993 at Jones Hall in Houston,
Texas. The soloists were Lorna Haywood, soprano;
Stanford Olson, tenor; and Davis Wilson-Johnson,
baritone. Britten's text is woven from poems by Owen
and elements of the Latin Requiem Mass. Sandwiched
between the Pie Jesu and the Dies Irae we hear:
Be slowly lifted up, thou long black arm,
Great gun towering toward Heaven, about to
Reach at that arrogance which needs thy harm,
And beat it down before its sins grow worse;
But when thy spell be cast complete and whole,
May God curse thee, and cut thee from our soul!
WW-I stereopticon photo provided by
The Engines of Our Ingenuity is
Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H.
An idyllic photo of the Mostar bridge
(From Scribners, June, 1898, p. 669.)
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