Choral with orchestra
Ensemble with string orchestra
Vocal with chamber orchestra
Choral with orchestra works
Duration: 50 minutes
Published by Oxford University Press
The oratorio Or Shall We Die? was commissioned from Ian McEwan and Michael Berkeley by the London Symphony Orchestra Chorus. It was first performed in 1983, the year that Reagan declared that a nuclear conflict in Europe was not only thinkable, but winnable; cruise missiles came to Britain; Heseltine was appointed by Thatcher to extinguish CND; Professions for World Disarmament and Development was formed at the suggestion of Fenner Brockway and MANA was formed as one of those professional peace groups.
For more than thirty years we have been in a position unprecedented in our history to destroy ourselves as a species. There are now more than sixty thousand nuclear warheads primed and programmed for their destinations, and each year more sophisticated systems are planned and deployed. One may search the history books in vain for a time when nations armed for war and none had happened. For all the complexities of nuclear strategy, the situation has about it the aspect of very simple human folly: each side arms for war because it sees the other doing the same. This oratorio grew out of the conviction that the responsibility of the survival of our species is not limited to governments, but is collective, involving every single one of us. It is as if we had been set a simple test of maturity; we either pass it, or perish, for it seems unlikely that we can muddle through forever with this array of weapons.
The first nuclear explosion almost 40 years ago represented a bleak pinnacle of human achievement. Typically, the scientists who worked on this project were elated by finding solutions to technological problems, but gave little thought at the time to the consequences of their invention. Or Shall We Die? argues that only if we have the strength to bind feeling to the intellect shall we survive. Our manly civilisation with its emphasis on aggression, competitiveness, objectivity, the mastery of nature, will need to become more womanly if it is not to destroy itself more compassionate, nurturing, intuitive in its best sense. None of these manly and womanly qualities, these principles of male and female, is limited to one sex. The roles, therefore, of the soprano and baritone in the oratorio are in no way fixed. At some points they stand in opposition, the soprano the caring mother, the baritone the disciplined servant of the patriarchal state, his thoughts unmuddied by emotion; at others, and particularly in the final section, they sing from the point of view of a wholeness to which we all must aspire and they pose the question, Shall we change, or shall we die?
William Blake was an early and fierce opponent of Newtonian science and his poetry returns again and again to the perils of divorcing reason from feeling. Inseparable from these polarities were those of the male and female principles which took many forms in his writing. Stanzas from The Tyger, A Divine Image and The Divine Image are used in the oratorio as chorales. Blake is the presiding spirit of the work.
Although the text is divided into sections, the momentum of the words carries the music through without a break. Lyrical passages are constantly interrupted by more strident sounds creating a relentless sense of unease. The opening notes, played by the oboe, provide the thematic basis for what follows, and leitmotifs are established for the Woman and her daughter. Here the orchestration is warm and yearning, but many of the ides that are now richly scores appear later in much sparer vein.
The Woman is rudely curtailed by the chorus whose intervention heralds the first awesome words of the Man. The chorus pose the crucial test of wisdom, Shall we pass, or shall we die?, to harmony derived from the opening notes and now extended for the Man's account of the bombing of Hiroshima. He is repeatedly jostled by the chorus parodying a Victorian hymn complacently satisfied by the blessing of the aircrew prior to take-off. As the target grows closer, so their smugness increases.
The barrage stops abruptly to reveal the Woman searching for her daughter amidst the devastation, and the music of the opening section reappears but considerably intensified. As the daughter dies, the chorus sing with great tenderness and mounting incredulity the words of the first Blake quotation to the notes of the Victorian hymn now transposed and sounding more like a Bach chorale. But once again the music is taken over by a militant ostinato, full of the sounds of war. The inevitable progress of this passage is broken only by the hopeless questioning of the Woman.
The opening music (now inverted) accompanies a return of the initial sentiments of the Woman and, as her family sleep, she awaits dawn with ever growing despair.
Now at last the Woman and Man join together to sing of the nature of our science and of its inadequacies. The chorus energetically endorse this in a garish setting of Blake's A Divine Image with a crude distortion of the notes from the Woman's gentle reflections near the beginning of the oratorio. The Woman and Man resume their duet to sing of what science could be, leading the music into the final Blake chorale. The chorus return again and again to the notes of Or shall we die? but now singing the words Love, Mercy, Pity, Peace. There is a half resolution but over the final notes there lies the inevitable question mark.