It might sound a rather strange thing to say, but each
year I’m not entirely sure whether today is to be a sad day or a happy day. It
is very hard to get away from the fact that today is about the finality of the human
condition: we must inevitably consider lives of loved ones who have been taken
from families years before they were due, lives that will not be returned to
the bearer. But also built into the human condition is the desire to seek
immortality. Last week, I went to see a performance of Verdi’s Requiem at the
Royal Festival Hall. Rather wonderfully, our own Senior Monitor Harry Guthrie
was singing alongside the Philharmonia. A requiem mass is, as I’m sure you all know, a
piece of music written for the dead; it begs God to allow the soul of the
departed into heaven. It is said that Verdi was so distraught at the death of
his friend and fellow composer Alessandro Mancini, that he could not even bear
to be present at his funeral. He did, however, in time, insist on producing a
piece of music for his friend, a requiem mass, to be performed on the first anniversary
of his death. Verdi was known as a
composer of opera, and one of the interesting features of his Requiem Mass was
that it was not written for liturgical use, but for the concert hall of Milan.
Verdi himself was not religious and, despite the spiritual subject matter, his
work was noticeably secular. It was designed, it seems to me, on the one hand
to honour his devout friend Mancini and to beg God for his place in the
afterlife, but on the other to immortalise him on a wholly human level. Verdi’s
mass, performed regularly (as it is) 142 years after its composition, has
rendered both Verdi himself and his friend Mancini truly immortal.
Others use different monuments to immortalise the dead.
The greatest battle in Athens’ history saw the Greeks beat the Persians at the
Battle of Marathon. The battle itself is best remembered as giving a name to an
Olympic running race today, 2500 years on, after a man called Pheidippides ran
from a place called Marathon to Athens (just under 26 miles) to announce the
famous victory. Interestingly his final words were “JOY to you, we have won”.
This first Marathon runner has been
remembered for ever by an Olympic event. In the Battle itself, the Athenian
army beat a huge Persian force, inflicting 6,400 casualties only receiving 192 itself.
It became the iconic victory of the fifth century BC. 58 years later, the
Athenians finished building the Parthenon, the biggest and most elaborate
temple in all of Greece. It is decorated with beautifully carved sculpture on all
sides and the Parthenon frieze, otherwise known as the Elgin marbles, now
stands in the British Museum. It depicts a great procession to the gods, peopled
by walkers, boys, girls, marshals, and finally soldiers on horseback. To show
men on horseback in the ancient world was to elevate their status to heroes.
The amazing discovery in recent times about this frieze is that the horsemen
number 192: exactly the same number as the losses of the Athenians at Marathon.
Was the Parthenon therefore, at least in part, a memorial to those who died in Athens
most famous battle. If so, there is no doubt that the men have stayed alive in
Western culture for as long as time itself.
So, a piece of music, an Olympic running race and a
magnificent building – all ways of immortalising great people of the past. And this, at least in part, is what today is
about. We gather here today because of
the friends and family of those who died in recent wars, people (and indeed
nations) who were determined that their loved ones would never be forgotten,
that their lives deserved to be revived, year in year out. There have been many
monuments set up to those who died; statues all over Europe; tombstones;
poetry; music; novels; histories. Even now, they crop up almost daily. You may
have seen in the papers recently an argument over whether or not London needs
another Jewish memorial, after David Cameron had left approval for one in Hyde
Park. But today sees arguably the most powerful memorial of them all: a
collective, mass silence. A time for us to simply stop; no gazing, no
listening, no reading; just our own thoughts in our own selves. A time set
aside for the purpose of keeping alive the spirit of the men and women who died
in the walls, ordinary people like you and me, on both sides of the conflict,
who fought and died for their families and friends – and ultimately for us. In
a few moments, when we fall silent, think what a wonder it is that, after all
their sufferings and sadness, we take time to immortalise them today.