D-Day 70: The Armed Man Project, Normandy (Part V)

Largest amphibious landing….30 miles of beaches assaulted by allied forces…. 

For the fourth day in a row I blearily reach for the TV control to wake myself up listening to the world news. It strikes me how, as our little tour progresses, we find ourselves increasingly caught up and involved in the incredible strength of French feeling as this country remembers the 20,000 Normandy citizens who died in the D-Day landings. As I lie listening I learn that more French citizens died during this time than British were killed during the blitz.

Church of St Jean
Church of St Jean

Tomorrow Vicky Berry (second violin) and I will check out at 6.45 to catch the early ferry back to Portsmouth as we are both playing in Peter Grimes with the rest of the BSO at Grange Park Opera tomorrow night. We will then return to Cherbourg on Monday morning to rejoin our French friends in ORBN for the final performance of The Armed Man (We reckon that we will both spend more than 20 hours in the English Channel this week!) I need to be ready to leave early, so I hastily pack my case for tomorrow with jeans (somewhat tighter now) together with concert black, wine for husband, T shirt for son and Calvados for me, and wander out into the hot sunshine.

Close to our hotel is the church of St Jean, which happens to be right in the middle of the district of Caen that was most heavily bombarded. Although parts of the church were seriously damaged, it miraculously remained standing whilst all around it lay absolute destruction.

To this day the tower perilously leans slightly at an angle, and we just have time to wander around this beautiful church between lunch and meeting Milko for our afternoon departure to Saint Mere Eglise.

Due to general D-Day traffic chaos we have thankfully allowed plenty of time for our journey, and as we crawl into Saint Mere Eglise amongst a sea of camper vans, tents, army jeeps (some of them broken down), real soldiers, pretend soldiers, children dressed as soldiers etc, we become increasingly aware of the truly momentous nature of this occasion.

Saint Mere EgliseThe village of Saint Mere Eglise lies just inland from Utah beach. It is twinned with Sturminster Marshall, a village which, incidentally, is only a couple of miles down the road from my own home in the Tarrant Valley. During the night of 5 June 1944, an American parachutist became caught on the church tower in the village and hung there for hours. He apparently escaped death by playing dead until danger had passed, and to this day his unfortunate landing is represented by a dummy, his billowing parachute caught in the tower above.

The whole area in front of the covered stage is a forest of food tents, beer tents, and a blaze of military uniforms of numerous nationalities. We stand, staring in the brilliant sunshine to take it all in, ….”Penny!!…Philippa!!…” and turn, astonished to see our friends and BSO choir members Andrew and Penny Bellars making their way through the crowd.

How lovely to bump into staunch BSO supporters when least expected! Andrew Bellars kindly takes us into the beautiful old church of Saint Mere Eglise, and points out the vivid modern stained glass window depicting the Virgin Mary surrounded by parachutists and planes.

Philippa Stevens
Philippa Stevens

Our audience this evening appears to number into the thousands; as I sit on the platform, as far as the eye can see are crowds of people standing to listen to us perform The Armed Man, and to watch the accompanying film that so effectively enhances the meaning behind the music and words of this work, depicting the cruelty of war, death, pain and ultimately arriving at peace.

I enjoy looking out as we play on what is now a warm and balmy evening, and have a perfect birds eye view of the dummy soldier hanging by his parachute from the old church tower. As dusk settles around the old church, and Aurore (the principal cello of ORBN) begins to play the hauntingly beautiful cello solo in the Benedictus with such exquisite serenity, I reflect that to share a desk with her this week has been a real delight and, for me, has been one of the high points of the tour.

My french is, frankly, quite appalling, but music is its own language; to make new friends without the need for spoken words, to be included as one with this welcoming orchestra in such a meaningful commemoration is something that I will carry back with me to my musical life only a very short distance away, on the other side of the channel.

Philippa Stevens
BSO Cellist

Posted in BSO

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