As with all other walks of life, the First World War took its terrible toll on classical music, with many composers and performers dying in battle or left irrevocably scarred. Some pieces of music were written especially for the cause, while others were the result of despair at the tragedy of it all.
Ultimately though, the First World War changed the very course of music history and gave rise to some incredible pieces that may have otherwise not existed. Here are the main impacts that the First World War had on music.
New pieces were composed for the war effort
Numerous composers were inspired to wield their pens for the cause. Although he was ambivalent about the war, Edward Elgar wrote his Carillon for voice and orchestra in support of Belgian resistance in December 1914 and this was soon followed by Polonia, composed for a Polish Victims’ Relief Fund Concert in the Queen’s Hall in London.
Max Reger also wasn’t generally inclined to share many of his colleagues’ enthusiasm for patriotic tub-thumping, but he greeted the beginning of the War with his 15-minute Eine Vaterländische Overtüre (A Patriotic Overture), dedicated it to the German army.
Other composers, including Ruggero Leoncavallo, Valentin Valentinov and Maurice Ravel all rallied to the cause with their music, the latter completing his patriotic Piano Trio just in time to take himself off to war.
Composers were lost
British composer George Butterworth was shot at the Somme in 1916 and he left behind only a small handful of works that gave a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Another talented composer who only left a small number of works was the German Rudi Stephan, who was killed by a Russian sniper at Tarnopol in Ukraine.
Scottish composer Cecil Coles was still writing music while he served on the Western Front and he sent manuscripts of works such as his orchestral suite Behind the Lines back to his friend Gustav Holst before being killed.
Other composers lost to the conflict were the Hungarian Aládar Rádo, Belgian André Devaere, British composers William Denis Browne and Ernest Farrar, Willie B Manson and Frederick Kelly who were both killed in the Somme, and the French composer Fernand Halphen.
Music was written in response to the tragedy war
The appalling human tragedy of World War One left its indelible mark on a generation of British composers. Some died on the field of battle, while those who survived were deeply affected either by what they had seen or the loss of friends, colleagues and family.
Whatever their stylistic differences, works such as Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony, Holst’s The Planets, Bliss’s early Piano Quartet (composed during the Battle of the Somme), Gurney’s War Elegy and Bridge’s Oration all bear the scars of human conflict.
Technology changed everything
New technologies, particularly the motor car, the telegraph and the advent of recording had a huge impact on music. The War itself involved new technologies such as tanks and submarines, and above all huge pieces of artillery used by both sides.
The new battlefield became a kind of modernist symphony, vividly described by Cecil Barber in the Musical Times, who spent time on the Western Front. ‘The various timbres stand out clearly,’ he wrote. ‘The melancholy passage of great shells, the whizz and bang of smaller ones, the long swishing strides of the gas shells… and the constant spurt of sniper’s fire, molto staccato, in stupendous counterpoint.' One hears that sound echoed in the monstrous percussion of Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets, composed between 1914 and '16.
And everywhere one finds march rhythms, strangely or threateningly distorted, in pieces such as the first of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet and the third of Alban Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces. (Ivan Hewitt)
It facilitated the rise of jazz
In one of the prophetic coincidences of 20th-century history, the first jazz records were released in New York in March, 1917, just a month before the US entered World War One. Though it would be silly to maintain that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s raucous creation of ‘Livery Stable Blues’ and ‘Original Dixieland One-Step’ was comparable to thousands of American soldiers throwing themselves into the European fray, both events signalled New World energy surging into Old World culture, a wave of modernity that would transform everything in its path.
In fact, Europe had already had a taste of the novel pleasures of American music with the pre-war vogue for ragtime: its catchy syncopation had appealed to ballroom dancers and the likes of Debussy and Stravinsky, who wrote ragtime compositions. But jazz was different, more visceral and raffish, hinting at the prurient origins of the word itself.
The normal, respectable sound of brass instruments took on a new character – pungent and intoxicating – when played by the bands accompanying the US Army’s black regiments, such as the ‘Hellfighters’ and the ‘Seventy Black Devils’. (Geoffrey Smith)
The role of women changed (eventually)
For all its horrors, the First World War gave women unprecedented opportunity to prove they could do what was then seen as men’s work – an important catalyst for some women getting the vote in 1918.
In classical music, though, this doesn’t seem to have been a watershed moment. In 1912 it was, recalls violist and composer Rebecca Clarke, ‘considered very, very strange to have women in a symphony orchestra.’ It was the same after the War. The Hallé’s records show that eight women were admitted in 1916, but by 1920 it was back to being an all-male orchestra until 1941.
Over in the capital, the LSO carried on playing until 1917, when concerts were put on hold until the end of the War. Thirty of its members were in active service, but apart from two female harpists, no other women were employed.
Clarke had been recruited by Henry Wood in 1912 as one of six women to join his Queen’s Hall Orchestra – possibly the first time women had been employed by a professional orchestra – but it wasn’t until many years later that the make-up of orchestras really began to change. (Rebecca Franks)
Composers left behind invaluable letters
As with their literary counterparts, a number of composers who went to fight in the First World War wrote often and at length about their experiences.
George Butterworth wrote lengthy letters home, recording the boredom that was a major feature of life in rest behind the trenches: ‘There is nothing to do here – no places to go, the most frightfully dull country imaginable, and any amount of rain’. Tellingly, he never mentioned the honours he was receiving for bravery in his letters, nor does he mention music; it was as if he had entirely put that chapter of his life to one side, in favour of his new, military identity.
Most prolific of the composer correspondents was Ivor Gurney, who wrote practically every day during the war, to fellow composer Herbert Howells (‘Dear Howler’, he would begin), and to other friends from the Royal College. His letters are a brave mixture of humour and deep affection for the other soldiers. (Kate Kennedy)
Listen to our Music of Remembrance playlist here:
#morninglistening to @thetwiolins on @HaensslerMusic PROFIL
for classical #Crossover, this is frightfully good! Bit in the direction of the (awesome) “Spincycle” disc of the @afiaraquartet
#classicalmusic #classicalmusiccollection #classicalcdcollection #contemporarymusic #chambermusic #violinmusic
The old joke that the audience will have a chance to chat shortly – there’s a bass solo coming up – is never further from reality than when Dave Holland‘s in the house. Back at Ronnie Scott’s, the club where Miles Davis first heard him over 50 years ago, Holland’s full-toned muscular style was dominant from the opening bars of the first tune, a haunting new piece called ‘Leandi’ by saxophonist Chris Potter. Starting with Holland alone, the track’s long tension-and-release chord sequence had a Middle Eastern or Moorish feel. Playing ‘work out the time signature’ proved fruitless before the tune seamlessly became a samba with the odd 7/4 measure thrown in, Potter taking a second, stratospheric, solo. Holland told us that it was while working in a Greek restaurant during his teenage years that he was first exposed to 5/4 time – it seemed he was giving a clue as to how scarce 4/4 would be tonight.
As with much of Holland’s repertoire down the years, the tracks were built up from labyrinthic bass riffs, with guitar and sax creeping in, picking up on and mutating fragments of Holland’s phrases. The distinctions between solos, melodies and collective improvisation were sometimes clear, sometimes blurred, with each player constantly upping the ante, then taking it back down so that Holland’s bass once again was alone in the spotlight. Eric Harland‘s drumming was a vital component; almost conversational with a non-stop supply of inventive, exciting fills, always supportive, but never overly dominant. Kevin Eubanks‘ idiosyncratic guitar playing came to the fore as the evening progressed. Eubanks, depping for Lionel Loueke here, played with great subtlety and a sense of space, moving in and out of focus with sudden squalls of rapid notes and powerful, tension-building chordplay.
Bursts of funk and then what seemed purely improvised passages with ever-changing points of focus between the musicians would suddenly come into view; it was like taking a musical rail journey with a constantly shifting landscape seen through the window. The occasional look of wry amusement which spread across Potter’s face as he contemplated the latest junction of chords and rhythm was revealing, a reaction to the delicious bouts of spontaneity unravelling about him. But then it would all come together, Eubanks strumming powerfully, both sets ending with a rocking, explosive intensity. Pure joy.
– Adam McCulloch
– Photo by Carl Hyde
On 11 November 1919, King George V presided over the inaugural Remembrance Day, a year after the end of World War I. That initial ceremony of remembrance centred on a two-minute silence at 11am.
‘The first stroke of eleven produced a magical effect,’ reported The Manchester Guardian that day. ‘The tram cars glided into stillness, motors ceased to cough and fume… and the mighty-limbed dray horses hunched back upon their loads and stopped also, seeming to do it of their own volition.’
Silence remains an important part of today’s Remembrance Day, marked by the lengthy musical programme of the day, which has remained unchanged since 1930. From Elgar’s evocative Nimrod, to our National Anthem, we present a guide to the music of remembrance.
Rule, Britannia! – Thomas Arne
One of the fixtures of the Last Night of the Proms, Rule, Britannia! is also performed at the Remembrance Day service. First heard in 1745, Thomas Arne’s patriotic piece sprang from the era of empire and naval might.
The Britannia of James Thomson and David Mallett’s poem originally referred to the Roman name for England and Wales. With its rousing chorus, it has remained popular and has popped in music by Beethoven, Wagner and Sullivan.
Heart of Oak – William Boyce
‘Heart of oak are our ships, heart of oak are our men,’ begins the refrain of William Boyce’s Heart of Oak, the official march of the UK Royal Navy. With music by Boyce (not Arne, as once thought), its text is by David Garrick, one of the renowned British actors of the 18th century.
It’s a jaunty, uplifting number, written in 1759 for Garrick’s pantomime Harlequin’s Invasion celebrating British victories against the French.
The Minstrel Boy – Thomas Moore
Poet Thomas Moore wrote this song in remembrance of his friends who fought and were killed in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. Set to the melody of an old Irish air called The Moreen, The Minstrel Boy became a popular song among the Irish soldiers who fought in the American Civil War and, later, World War I.
Men of Harlech
Traditionally attributed to the seven-year siege of Harlech Castle in the 1460s – the longest in British history – Men of Harlech remains a patriotic Welsh anthem. The rousing tune is often played at memorial services of British Army regiments associated with Wales.
Skye Boat Song
A slightly unlikely choice for the Remembrance Day ceremony, given that the figure whom it celebrates was once public enemy number one (if, that is, you were English and Protestant…).
The words, which were written by Sir Harold Boulton in the 1880s, tell of the escape of Charles Edward Stuart (Bonnie Prince Charlie) to the island of Skye after the failure of the Jacobite rebellion in 1745. The tune, meanwhile, is an old Scottish air.
Isle of Beauty – Thomas Haynes Bayly
This song, by English poet Thomas Haynes Bayly (1797-1839), is often credited with being the source for the now common expression: ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder,’ a line which appears mid-way through the song.
Dafydd y Garreg Wen (David of the White Rock) – David Owen
Legend has it that the composer David Owen wrote this haunting song while on his deathbed, at the age of just 29. The words are autobiographical, telling the tale of the dying composer from White Rock (the name of the farm where Owen lived).
In 1923 Dafydd y Garreg Wen became the first ever Welsh language song to be played on the BBC.
Oft in the Stilly Night – John Andrew Stevenson
A former chorister of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin and vicar-choral of St Patrick’s, Irish composer Sir John Andrew Stevenson (1761-1833) wrote a considerable amount of choral music, songs, glees and catches.
He also published dozens of ‘symphonies and accompaniments’ to poet Thomas Moore’s collection of Irish melodies, of which his simple and affecting piano accompaniment to ‘Oft in the Stilly Night’ is but one.
Flowers of the Forest – Traditional
This Scottish folk tune commemorates the defeat of James IV’s army at the Battle of Flodden in 1513. The original words are lost, but the melody was recorded in 1615. Today, the most commonly used words are those by Jean Eliot (b1727), who originally published her text anonymously.
Her poem was believed to be the original, but Robert Burns and others suspected it was an imitation and tracked down the author along with Sir Walter Scott and Allan Ramsey. Many pipers today refuse to perform this song except at funerals and memorial services, due to the reverence in which it is held.
Nimrod – Edward Elgar
The most famous of Elgar’s Enigma Variations, written in 1899, ‘Nimrod’ is a musical depiction of the composer’s friend Augustus Jaeger. ‘Jaeger’ in German means ‘Hunter’, and Nimrod in the Bible is described as ‘the mighty hunter’ – hence the name.
Jaeger, who worked for the music publisher Novello, was a close friend of Elgar’s and a constant source of encouragement and kind words. The warmth of their friendship is reflected in this calm, reflective variation in E flat major, which (intentionally) also has a hint of the second movement of Beethoven’s Pathétique Sonata to it.
Dido’s Lament – Henry Purcell
While the ‘Skye Boat Song’ (see earlier) celebrates the swift journey of a boat towards its destination, Dido’s Lament is a heartbroken response to the sight of a ship disappearing away over the horizon.
The ship in question belongs to Aeneas who, after a brief fling with Dido in Carthage, is reminded to pursue his destiny and head on his way. She, left behind and utterly grief stricken, avows to kill herself. Heard at the end of 1689 opera Dido and Aeneas, the Lament, whose words begin ‘When I am laid in earth’ is arguably the most famous, and sublime, music Purcell ever wrote.
Solemn Melody – Sir Henry Walford Davies
Best known for the hymn tune ‘God be in my head’, composer, lecturer and educator Sir Henry Walford studied composition with both Parry and Stanford at the Royal College of Music and was organist at London’s Temple Church for 21 years.
String quartets, a couple of cantatas and a 74-minute oratorio are among works now largely forgotten, although his touching Solemn Melody, scored originally for organ and strings, has endured.
He was made Master of the King’s Musick after Elgar’s death in 1934, by which time he was well-known as the presenter of the popular radio series ‘Music and the Ordinary Listener’, first aired in 1926.
O Valiant Hearts – Charles Harris
Charles Harris (1865-1936) earned a doctorate from Oxford and served as vicar of Colwall, a small town in Herefordshire. His only lasting contribution to music was the rousing hymn tune ‘The Supreme Sacrifice’, setting the words ‘O Valiant Hearts’ by poet Sir John Stanhope Arkwright.
The tune’s name is taken from the book The Supreme Sacrifice and other Poems in Time of War which features Arkwright’s verse.
The Last Post
One of the most universally recognisable tunes of Remembrance Day is The Last Post, a bugle call played at services across the UK and the Commonwealth, with its distinctive lingering second note.
It originally marked the end of a sentry inspection at the close of the day and its use as an act of remembrance appears to have begun in the mid 19th century.
The piece is now longer than it once was, extended from 45 seconds to 75. It is integral to the Remembrance service at the Whitehall Cenotaph.
Beethoven's Funeral March No. 1 – Johann Heinrich Walch
The majestic, elegiac tone of this brass band march has earned its place at many a state funeral, including that of King Edward VII. There’s a gentler major-key trio at the heart of an otherwise sombre, succinctly written work.
For many years misattributed to Beethoven, it’s now believed to be the handiwork of Johann Heinrich Walch (1776-1855). He was a German musician well known for his marches, which also include the Pariser Einzugsmarsch.
O God, Our Help in Ages Past – words by Isaac Watts, music by William Croft
William Croft wrote his ‘St Anne’ tune while he was organist at the Church of St Anne, Soho, but the hymn text we know today wasn’t added until 1719.
Another bugle call, the Reveille often follows The Last Post. While the latter reflects on the fallen, evoking sunset and the end of the earthly life, the ‘Reveille’ symbolises sunrise and resurrection.
It was traditionally used to wake military forces and its name comes from réveiller, the French word for ‘wake up’.
God Save the Queen
The national anthem of the UK takes a key role in Remembrance Day activities across the Commonwealth.
Although the piece has obscure origins – sometimes attributed to composer John Bull, c1619, or even Purcell – the first published recognisable version dates from 1744.
The anthem, when played in the presence of the Queen at the Royal Albert Hall’s Festival of Remembrance, is enriched by the venue’s grand organ.
Former Smiths frontman Morrissey stopped a concert halfway through his second song after being hit by a beer bottle. The 50-year-old singer who was hit in the eye by a plastic bottle of beer, said goodnight to the 8,000 strong crowd in Liverpool, England before walking off.