Wilfred Lehmann

Violinist (and composer) Wilfred Lehmann photographed in 1963. (ABC archives)


Wilfred Lehmann’s Symphonic Vision

Baroness Caroline Cox, Caroline to her family and friends, has spent most of her adult life campaigning for difficult causes. Her life story is apt to make any ordinary person wonder what they’ve been doing with their time all these years. After qualifying as a nurse, she became a lecturer in sociology, a founding chancellor of Bournemouth University, a major force in education reform and eventually Deputy Speaker at the House of Lords. But her greatest achievement has been in delivering aid to the overlooked and most vulnerable, and nothing has raised the Baroness’s ire more than the abuse of children in the field of war, and especially the conscription of child soldiers.

Her passion is infectious, as composer Wilfred Lehmann discovered while listening to the radio one afternoon:

“When I was in Brisbane I heard a BBC interview with the Baroness Cox, who is a great advocate for children orphaned by war. I was greatly moved and decided I wanted to write a requiem for those kids.”

Lehmann ended up by writing his Symphonic Requiem for the Child Victims of War, a devastating work for violin and orchestra voicing his own outrage at the obscenities suffered by children at the hands of warring adults. Having written the piece, he wrote to the Baroness as a courtesy, addressing the letter to her care of the BBC London and expecting no reply. He discovered that you ought never underestimate the Baroness Cox. “Surprise, surprise, a reply arrived on House of Lords note-paper, saying how much she appreciated my letter, and wishing us every success with the performance. Unfortunately, we were never able to meet, but she was very gracious to do that.”

Lehmann himself premiered the work with the Queensland Symphony Orchestra and conductor Richard Mills in 1994, playing on an instrument he’d constructed himself. The performance was recorded, and the manuscript score duly archived, but somewhere in the bowels of some institutional warehouse, the performing parts vanished into one of the black holes that occasionally devour orchestral material. With a new set of parts recently created from the manuscript, ANAM will present this major work with soloist Shane Chen, who has had the benefit of coaching from its composer and first performer.

Chen’s first encounter with the music was via the recording and it made a seismic impact on him. “The first time I heard it, I though, whoa! This is epic! It sounded to me like an Oscar-winning movie soundtrack. It’s huge. Also, I thought the violin part sounded very, very difficult. Technically, it is brilliant, but I hesitated about whether to accept the gig”.

Fortunately he did, and he is now confident that he can find his way through this challenging piece, no doubt partly as the result of his work with Lehmann. Lehmann, now in his eighties, is one of the finest violinists Australia has ever produced. After moving to England and joining the ranks of the legendary Philharmonia, he was briefly taken under the wing of David Oistrakh, who organised performances for him in Russia. For Chen it was an invaluable direct line to the great traditions of the past. “It’s like meeting an elder of your family, your musical family. It felt like finding an anchor. His generation produced so many great violinists, so I felt I was getting closer to that generation.”

The admiration, it seems, is mutual, as Lehmann has declared his delight in Chen’s interpretation. Having played the Requiem himself, Lehmann knows how difficult it is. He remembers the reaction of one of his colleagues at the Queensland Symphony. “At the first rehearsal one of the violinists said, ‘That’s a lovely cadenza you’ve written Wilfred, but you realise no one else will ever be able to play it!’ “

Wilfred Lehmann is in no doubt whatsoever that Shane Chen will prove that violinist wrong.

This article first published by Philip Lambert in Music Makers, vol 13, 2015.

Wilfred Lehmann’s Symphonic Requiem for the Child Victims of War will be played by the ANAM Orchestra and Shane Chen on Saturday 28 February, 7pm. See ANAM.com.au for more information.


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