Cecilia McDowall (b. 1951)

The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent (IFRC) was founded in Paris in 1919 in the aftermath of World War I. The war had shown the need to strengthen cooperation between Red Cross societies and build on the large, invaluable volunteer base. To commemorate the centenary of the extraordinary achievements of this charity I asked the British poet Seán Street to create a poem around a particular set of circumstances in 1944. From June 1940 until liberation in May 1945 the Channel Islands were occupied by German Armed Forces. In August 1944 the Bailiff of Jersey, Baron Alexander Moncrieff Coutanche, asked permission of the German authorities to contact the Red Cross to beg for help as the islanders were on the brink of starvation. The Red Cross ship, the Vega (brightest star), came to the Channel Islands after Christmas in 1944, bringing food parcels, medical supplies, and so much more. The Vega made six more visits to the Islands before VE Day.

The opening of Brightest Star underlines the bleak conditions on the Channel Islands that year; dissonant harmony, downward sliding phrases. The pace is steady but underscored by a certain urgency, always driving onwards. Extracts from the Bailiff of Jersey’s letter, sung by the men of the choir, draw attention to the gravity of the situation.  In contrast the upper voices bring an ethereal quality to the texture, one of hope perhaps. Towards the close of this setting the sopranos and altos sing phrases suggestive of the lovely traditional French Christmas carol, Les anges dans nos campagnes, better known in English as ‘Angels, from the realms of glory’.

Brightest Star was commissioned by IFAC for the 9th International Competition for Young Conductors organised in collaboration with the European Choral Association–Europa Cantat and first performed on 20 October 2019 by le Choeur de l’Orchestre de Paris.

Access to the Bailiff ’s Occupation Collection located at Jersey Archive (B/A/W) provided courtesy of Jersey Heritage.

©Cecilia McDowall

Back to Other Notes & Translations