The Story behind In Memoriam—Hong Kong

Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Corps
The Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Corps, 1938.
Lindsay A. Lafford (standing, fifth from left)

Lindsay Lafford lived in Hong Kong from 1935 to 1939, appointed as Organist and Master of the Choristers at St. John's Cathedral. While in the Crown Colony he taught at several British schools and conducted the Hong Kong Singers, the Philharmonic Society, and the Chinese Choral Society. The Hong Kong Broadcasting Committee (station ZBW) pressed him into service as conductor of the Radio Studio Orchestra and pianist for the Chamber Music Ensemble. In demonstration of his loyalty to the Crown, he also served in the Hong Kong Volunteer Defense Corps as a gunner and armored car driver. Leaving the Crown Colony for the U.S. in the spring of 1939 to take up faculty appointments at Haverford and Swarthmore Colleges, and to serve as University Organist at Princeton, he thus by chance narrowly escaped the invasion and capture of Hong Kong by the Japanese at the outbreak of World War II.

While serving in the U.S. Navy during the war, Lafford learned that many of his Hong Kong colleagues, friends, and former students had been killed in defense of the Colony, or had died thereafter in captivity. So he set out to write an orchestral piece to honor the memories of those who had fallen, working on it as opportunity offered, basing it on three Chinese melodies, and finishing it as his wartime service ended.

In 1947 Lafford, by then in St. Louis directing Washington University's chorus and orchestra, was preparing to conduct a performance of the Mozart Requiem with members of the St. Louis Symphony. The performance was to be in a church, and the minister insisted that there be a collection. The little In Memoriam piece seemed ideal for accompanying this offertory, so Lafford orchestrated it for the same instrumentation as that required by the Mozart work (clarinets, bassoons, trumpets, trombones, violins, violas, celli, double bass, and timpani), and there conducted the first of the many performances the piece has received in various parts of the world.

A notable exhibition took place in 1993 in, of all the appropriate places, Hong Kong. The Colony was commemorating the liberation of Hong Kong with a week-long festival, and the HK Sinfonietta, an all-Chinese orchestra, had included the In Memoriam in concerts beginning and ending the week, and invited the composer to fly out and conduct the performances. As it turned out the first concert had to be canceled because of a typhoon threat to the Colony, but the storm just brushed by, and the second concert was a great success.

Lindsay A. Lafford and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta

Lindsay A. Lafford and the Hong Kong Sinfonietta
at the 1993 HK premiere of In Memoriam.