The Way to Heaven

The Way to Heaven was commissioned by Royal Air Force Music Services (Wing Commander Duncan Stubbs, Principal Director of Music) and premiered by the RAF Central Band, conducted by Wing Commander Stubbs, on 11th April 2015 at a gala concert which they gave as part of the 2015 National Concert Band Festival, held in the Royal Northern College of Music, Manchester.

2015 was the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain, which took place between July and October 1940, when the courageous fighter pilots of the Royal Air Force thwarted Hitler’s ambitions to launch an invasion of the UK. As well as British pilots many squadrons were drawn from other Commonwealth and allied nations, perhaps the most illustrious being those volunteering from the Polish Air Force, who eventually made up 16 squadrons of Fighter Command. Of these, 303 Squadron, which was formed in July 1940, was based at RAF Northolt from August that year, their Sector Control Hut being situated only a few steps from the current rehearsal facilities of the RAF Central Band. This hut is now being lovingly restored to its original condition and pride of place is taken by a painting by Mark Postlethwaite, which shows the Hurricanes of 303 Squadron climbing to intercept a raid on 27th September 1940, a sortie which led to the death of two pilots and the loss of three aircraft. The painting is called Droga do Nieba (Polish for The Way to Heaven) and is the inspiration for this musical tribute.

The Way to Heaven opens with fluttering woodwind figures and brass fanfares which build to a climax before a change of key introduces a short quotation for the Polish National Anthem - Mazurek Dąbrowskiego. This fades and we hear the signal to scramble and the throaty sounds of the squadron’s Merlin engines bursting into life before the planes line up to take off. This leads to the main thematic material of the work, which describes the heaven-bound flight of 303 Squadron as it climbs to intercept the incoming Messerschmitt 109s. A brief allusion to the Polish National Anthem brings the piece to a triumphant close.