It’s a natural enough impulse: you’re a student in Paris, and you run into some of your fellow Canadians, and then on a free weekend you find yourself driving out to Nord-Pas-de-Calais to tour Vimy Ridge, the site of one of the First World War’s most decisive battles.
The fight for Vimy Ridge found Canadian forces routing an army of German occupiers at a cost of 3,598 Canadian lives. Military historians generally cite the battle as a significant factor in the development of Canada’s national identity.
But for Lizzy Hoyt, one of those Canadian students, standing in the shadow of Walter Seymour Allward’s sculptural memorial only gave rise to questions. What if? What if you had lived back then, and your husband, lover, or brother had died in the trenches? How would loss have coloured your life?
Those questions eventually gave rise to a song, “Vimy Ridge”, which in turn became the Winnipeg folk musician’s most requested composition. She’s sung it at Remembrance Day ceremonies and on Vimy Ridge on the 95th anniversary of the battle.
“We had an amazing day there,” Hoyt recalls, in a telephone interview from her home. “You can walk through the trenches that they maintain, the tunnels underground. And although it’s hard, sometimes, to put your finger on exactly what inspires you, but definitely just being there, seeing the land still undulating because of all the explosions that had been there.”
“Vimy Ridge” so perfectly marries valour and loss that when Chor Leoni artistic director Erick Lichte first heard it, he knew that he would have to add it to the all-male choir’s upcoming Remembrance Day shows. And once that was settled, he turned to choir member, guitarist, and No Island bandleader Keith Sinclair for an arrangement to turn one woman’s view into a more universal lament.
“I’d never heard the song before, but I was captivated immediately,” Sinclair says in a separate telephone interview. So captivated, in fact, that he’s done his best to stay true to Hoyt’s version—given that he’s had to turn one woman with a band into something suitable for 50 men, accompanied by acoustic guitar, to sing.
“The hardest part, for me, was figuring out what key to put it in,” Sinclair explains. “And on Lizzy’s recording, there are a few different instruments that we don’t have the luxury of having for this performance, so we kind of mimic some of that with the choir.
“What’s most important, though, is that I really want the words to be heard,” he continues. “It’s not about showing off, not about ‘Oh, here’s how low our basses can sing, and aren’t our tenors pretty singers?’ There’s a time and a place for that, but it’s really about telling the story.”
Hoyt, for one, is pleased with how her story will be told. “I love to arrange, myself, so it’s pretty cool as a songwriter to get to hear what another arranger does with one of your creations,” she says. “And I thought it was beautiful.”
Chor Leoni plays two Remembrance Day concerts on Saturday (November 11): 1:30 p.m. at West Vancouver United Church, and 8 p.m. at St. Andrew’s-Wesley United Church.