Unfinished Remembering – Q&A: Euan Tait

An experienced trainer, retreat leader and librettist, Euan leads Quiet Days for parishes and other groups UK-wide. 

His Praying with Music retreats explore the inner life of music of such composers as Bach, Beethoven, Elgar and Vaughan Williams. Euan has been a Lecturer in English and Creative Writing since August 2014, and his work has been published in a number of leading poetry titles.

Having recently collaborated with Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen, Euan is currently developing a number of projects including a new choral symphony and an opera.

For more information, see: euantait.co.uk

Euan Tait

Euan Tait

Q: When did you first start writing? And how did it come about?

I started drafting the piece in 2008 – it haunted me, that the 2014 centenary was on its way – I felt very strongly that our generation should take this opportunity to say what this great anniversary meant to us, what the sacrifice that those sometimes very young soldiers made meant to us, how proud we were of that generation – and also what sort of society we were trying to build in their memory – just, true, courageous?  I wanted to ask those questions.  I then showed a draft to [composer] Paul Spicer in the summer of 2009, but I’d met him in the 1980s, loved his music, and was deeply impressed by his warm humanity and I thought – I’d love to write something for him to set one day! But never expected that such a distinguished person would accept!

Q: What initially inspired the work?

I’m proud to say I’m from an army family; both my father and my brother served in the Queen’s Own Highlanders, and their strength and compassion as people showed me what the hearts of soldiers were truly like. As for the initial inspiration for the work – I moved to a flat on the High Street of Wootton Bassett in late 2008, saw the hearses go by after the planes landed at RAF Lyneham, and stood there in the huge, aching silence of those occasions – and I later attended the very last repatriation through the town.  I was awed by the powerful atmosphere of love, honour and grief at these events – and I thought – I must do something to speak from our time.

Q: The marking of such a century-defining conflict is a monumental undertaking … how did you initially approach the subject? Did you have an initial ‘way in’, a starting point?

The Wootton Basset experience, seeing grieving families including young widows, made me think of the unfinished lives of the First World War’s young soldiers and how some of them never got a chance to come back and start a family.  I also had this sense that if they had come back, they might have some hard questions for us about how we live our lives – and this sparked the first movement where the souls do question us and the society we’ve built, and from this the whole piece grew.  I wanted to speak with compassion and respect of the War experience – with of course the conflicts we were involved with in the 2000s in mind.

Q: If just exploring WW1 wasn’t enough, the work extends to honour those affected by other conflicts, and also references contemporary hate-crimes …

Yes, indeed – soldiers fight for something, for something precious – and I think so often, as the First World War poetry shows so powerfully, it is so that we who follow after them respond to the violence of war with a strong compassion.  This kind of compassion isn’t sentimental, but means rejecting the hatred that causes wars and instead building a society of active respect, not just tolerance.  We are a very diverse nation, increasingly so, and to make it work in the future we must engage positively with each other, recognise the value of difference and what we can learn from sometimes very different ways of seeing the world and its values – and not see such difference, especially the racial and religious, as a threat to our identity, but as an enriching of it.  I don’t stop being me because someone living in my street is different to me – my vision of what it is to be human just gets wider!  If we are committed to each other in this way then I think the future of Britain is very exciting indeed, very positive.

Q: The work is in four movements – can you outline each movement?

The first is a song of grief – the cry “O Absalom, my son, my son” is at the heart of it – yet it also imagines the soldiers’ spirits returning from the battlefields where they fell, and their souls coming back to a contemporary England to question us.  The second movement is full of those difficult, challenging questions – what society are we building?  Is it worthy of their sacrifice?  The third movement is a “battle for life” – a soldier faces overwhelming odds in a battle, yet the chorus affirm the value of being human.  The forth then imagines a city being destroyed by conflict (this has become tragically relevant since I wrote it with the destruction of Syrian cities), and speaks with honour of the lost soldiers, and expresses longing that we continue to struggle to build a better peace.

Q: As Paul Spicer began composing, did you revisit the work in anyway? Or has the text remained solid?

Paul Spicer’s brilliant professionalism, experience and insight was crucial is shaping the work as it now is, particularity in ensuring the current text’s variety of pace to create an exciting musical and emotional experience.  And as you’ll discover, what music he has written – it is amazing, so moving!  I’m so proud to have worked with him – what a musician, what an experience for any poet!

Q: Hearing the completed work after six years – how does it feel?

The journey has been shared, collective – partly in shaping the work with one of this country’s greatest musicians, and partly in working with the passionate commitment to the project of Kate Crocker, Hilary Boszko and others from the Birmingham Bach Choir.  I have a sense that we’ve been engaged together in making something we all deeply believe in happen – and it wouldn’t  have happened without Kate and Hilary. What inspiring people!   I really hope that this work has achieved its dual aim of honouring the Centenary of the First World War and also asking some tough but creative questions about our time.

Q: A Shared Singing (a new National Song with music by Paul Spicer and sung by a new Military Choir) will also be premiered at the September concert – that piece must have presented a very different set of challenges …

In a sense, there were strong similarities, in that my aim as a poet was to create memorable, moving, singable words that set off the musical imagination of the composer.  The idea was again from the dynamic Kate [Crocker] – the Military Choir and this song came into being through some very sparky people, and the result is I hope a National Song which reflects the challenges and hopes of our time, that speaks with our contemporary voice.

* Unfinished Remembering receives its premiere on Saturday 13 September 2014 at Birmingham’s Symphony Hall with Paul Spicer conducting Birmingham Bach Choir, Orchestra of the Swan, (Soprano) Johane Ansell and (Baritone)William Dazeley. For more details, see: http://www.birmingham.bachchoir.com

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