In 2014, London-based mezzo soprano Patricia Hammond and musician Matt Redman were researching a First World War recording project, and discovered a German songbook published in 1917. They found one piece they particularly liked, but the dates above the music showed that the composer, Ernst Brockmann, had written the song in Verdun on the 20th of April, 1916, and died there a short time later, on the 7th of June.
Patricia said she felt particularly touched by the beautiful tune and poignant words. Matt wrote an arrangement and they played the song at a number of venues including the Wigmore Hall and the National Portrait Gallery. Eventually they made a recording, and decided to try to find where Brockmann was buried. They sent a CD to the German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgraberfursorge) in an effort to locate his grave.
The VDK searched records, matched documents and checked several sources. Eventually they found his grave with thousands of other 'unknown soldiers' in Verdun. He had been buried nameless, as "E.B." of the 39th Fusiliers. They exhumed the body, and were able to positively identify him, because he had been buried with a clock. Ernst Brockmann was reburied in time for the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Verdun.
One verse of his song describes three spades digging a grave for a soldier. Patricia was chilled to see one of the photos of the exhumation sent to her by the VDK shows four men with three shovels by the graveside.
Patricia and Mattwere invited to take part in a special wreath laying ceremony at the cemetery. They were accompanied by some Wandervogel, or Boy Scouts.
Patricia wrote: " I had a lump in my throat, thinking of the picture of the bones, the three shovels. The crystalline immediacy, right now, of the sound of birdsong and the earthy trampling of shoes was as distinct and shocking as when regaining consciousness after fainting. Never had a song on faded yellowed pages had such an immediate physical presence.
"Brockmann's grave was the one with fresh soil over it, and a stone cross with the words 'Ein Unbekkanter Deutscher Soldat' Arne (from the VDK) walked round it in a circle, the scouts following him until Ernst Brockmann was in the centre of us. One of the older girls in the scouts group took out a laminated sheet of paper with all the biographical information they'd found, and beneath that, a copy of the song. She read it out, and then, with a string attached to the sheet, looped it over the top of his cross. Another girl draped around it a length of felt in the colours of the German flag, and they both stood back.
The birdsong was loud in my ears. Arne looked at us and Matt fell to his knees and played the first notes of the song. I brought out the book from 1917 that I had bought, as it turned out, from a bookshop near his birthplace. And no tears came. All I could feel was a deep joy that this was happening now. I sang his song easily. We finished and a loud tractor went by on the road below. Our heads were bowed, and then the Pfadfinder boys and girls took up their guitars and the hopeful sound of young fingers on guitar strings, portable music for those on a journey, filled the newly-settled stillness amongst the crosses that ranged up that hill. Their teenage voices swelled out in a happy, jaunty marching song, the song of the 39th. I didn't even have to think about it; these boys would have been identical to those lying beneath us. It wasn't even a thought, it was a symbol, an icon of a vast tragedy and the tears rolled down my cheeks as I tried to control my face."
06.01.1893 - 07.06.1916
See a youtube film with Patricia and Matt performing the song, here: https://youtu.be/29CjK9sTb5M
Patricia Hammond - http://patriciahammond.com
Matt Redman - http://matt-redman.co.uk
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