Equal Voices

Composition Date: 2014

Duration: 50'

Instrumentation: S.Bar Soli-SATB ChorusPicc.2.2.CA.2.BCl.2.CBsn-4.3.2.BTbn.1-Timp-Perc-Hp-Cel-Str

Text by Andrew Motion


Commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra and Royal Scottish National Orchestra.

First performed by LSO and the London Symphony Chorus conducted by Gianandrea Noseda and Simon Halsey at the Barbican Centre, London, 2 November 2014.

Programme Note:

Equal Voices

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness. Only light can do that.

Hate cannot drive out hate. Only love can do that.”

Martin Luther King

Music: Sally Beamish

Text: ‘An Equal Voice’ by Andrew Motion, with additional text taken from the ‘Song of Solomon’.

PART ONE: Prelude

  1. Chorale 1: Whither is thy beloved gone? choir

  2. Behind the lines baritone

  3. I sought him soprano

  4. Admirable order baritone, soprano

PART TWO: Pastorale with Seascape

  1. Pastorale orchestra

  2. A distant lark baritone, choir

  3. Seascape orchestra

  4. Like granite rocks baritone

  5. Chorale 2: Many waters soprano, choir


Behold thou art fair soprano, baritone

PART FOUR: Scherzo

  1. The place was full of men (with Kyrie) soprano, choir

  2. I could feel the bullets soprano, baritone, choir

  3. Then trembling began soprano, baritone, choir

  4. The hate room

  5. See, your eyes are already heavy soprano

  6. Chorale 3: Set me as a Seal choir


  1. Who is she? choir

  2. I am quiet and healthy baritone

  3. I found him whom my soul loveth soprano

  4. Interlude orchestra

  5. Chorale 4: The winter is passed choir

The work is in five movements. The powerful poem An Equal Voice is full of the haunting images associated with the battlefield. It describes the aftermath of war – the damage inflicted on the psyche of men trained to kill, yet unprepared for the horrors they are forced to encounter.

I wanted to counteract this bleakness with some element of redemption – albeit as a yet unachieved vision for the future. I chose the Song of Solomon from the Old Testament, because it reminds us that love is our natural state, and that we are constantly searching for connection with each other; but over and again find ourselves distanced by conflict – not only in war, but in our daily lives. Separation from the Beloved is a theme which recurs often in Middle Eastern poetry.

Equal Voices centres on four very simple chorales, all using texts from the Song of Solomon. Material for movements 1,2,4 and 5 is taken from the chorale appearing either at the beginning or the end of each movement. The central movement (3) is a love duet, based on the ancient French folksong L’Homme Armé (the armed man), which has been used so often by many composers as a basis for the Mass.

Most of the text from Andrew Motion's poem is taken from first-hand accounts contained in Ben Shephard's book 'A War of Nerves', which also contains this statement:

We hear more from doctors than patients. However hard he tries, the historian cannot even the account, cannot give the patients an equal voice, because most of them chose not to recount their experiences.

In the context of the music, though, the title also signifies the dual texts – one describing war, and one love – and the equal male and female voices of the soloists and choir.

Sally Beamish 2014

Andrew Motion writes: The poem 'An Equal Voice' appears as part of a series of war poems called 'Laurels and Donkeys' in my collection The Customs House. Like several others in the series, it is a kind of collaboration - a 'found poem', if you like - in the sense that it combines (and sometimes slightly alters) material that I found in existing books: most of it derives from 'A War of Nerves. Soldiers and Psychiatry 1914-1944' by Ben Shephard, and other parts from 'Shell-shock' by Anthony Babington. I am indebted to both these authors.

The subject of the poem is what used to be called 'shell shock' and is now usually known as 'post traumatic stress disorder' or simply 'PTSD', and the words are mostly quotations from soldiers and others who have been afflicted with this condition. I chose to assemble the poem in this way because I thought it would be an affront to the sufferers if I as a non-combatant had presumed to write about their experience as if it were my own. I have arranged and combined the material so that it tells a story that recurs with tragic and dismaying frequency through the course of the last century and into our own.

Equal Voices was commissioned by the London Symphony Orchestra, with support from Susie Thomson; and the Royal Scottish National Orchestra;

to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War. It was first performed at the Barbican, London, on November 2nd 2014, by the LSO and LSO Chorus (director Simon Halsey) conducted by Gianandrea Noseda, with soloists Marcus Farnsworth and Shuna Scott Sendall.


‘An Equal Voice’ by Andrew Motion

Text in italics is from the Song of Solomon/liturgy

PART ONE: Prelude

I.1. Chorale 1

Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou fairest among women? whither is thy beloved turned aside? that we may seek him with thee. Whither is thy beloved gone, O thou fairest among women?

I.2. Behind the lines

War from behind the lines is a dizzy jumble.

Revolving chairs, stuffy offices, dry-as-dust

reports, blueprints one day and the next –

with the help of a broken-down motor car

and a few gallons of petrol – marching men

with sweat-stained faces and shining eyes,

horses straining and plunging at the guns,

white sweat-clouds drifting beneath them,

and piles of bloody clothes and leggings

outside the canvas door of a field hospital.

At the end of the week there is no telling

whether you spent Tuesday going over

the specifications of a possible laundry

or skirting the edge of hell in an automobile.

I. 3. I sought him

By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.

I will rise now, and go about the city in the streets, and in the broad ways I will seek him whom my soul loveth: I sought him, but I found him not.

The watchmen that go about the city found me: to whom I said, Saw ye him whom my soul loveth?

I. 4. Admirable order

There were some cases of nervous collapse

as the whistle blew on the first day of battle.

In general however it is perfectly astonishing

and terrifying how bravely the men fight.

From my position on rising ground I watched

one entire brigade advancing in line after line,

dressed as smartly as if they were on parade,

and not a single man shirked going through

the barrage, or facing the rapid machine-gun

and rifle-fire that finally wiped them out.

I saw with my own eyes the lines advancing

in such admirable order quickly melt away.

Yet not a man wavered, or broke the ranks

or made any attempt to turn back again.

PART TWO: Pastorale with Seascape

II. 1 Pastorale

II. 2. A distant lark

A soft siffle, high in the air like a distant lark,

or the note of a penny whistle, faint and falling.

But then, with a spiral, pulsing flutter, it grew

to a hissing whirr, landing with ferocious blasts,

with tremendous thumps and then their echoes,

followed by the whine of fragments that cut

into the trees, driving white scars into their trunks

and filling the air with torn shreds of foliage.

The detonation, the flash, the heat of explosion.

And all the while fear, crawling into my heart.

I felt it. Crawling into me. I had to set my teeth

and steadied myself, but to no avail. I clutched

the earth, pressing against it. There was no one

to help me then. O how one loves mother earth.

II. 4. Seascape

II. 5. Like granite rocks

One or two friends stood like granite rocks

round which the seas raged, but very many

other men broke in pieces. Everyone called it

shell-shock, meaning concussion. But shell-

shock is rare. What 90% get is justifiable funk

due to the collapse of the helm of self-control.

You understand what you see but cannot think.

Your head is in agony and you want relief for that.

The more you struggle, the more madness creeps

over you. The brain cannot think of anything at all.

II.6. Chorale 2

I don’t ask you what you feel like but I tell you

because I have been like you. I have been ill as you

and got better. I will teach you, you will get better.

Try and keep on trying what I tell you and you will.

Many waters cannot quench love, neither can the floods drown it.


Behold, thou art fair, my love: behold, thou art fair;