WWI in Classical Music

Earlier this month Minnesota Public Radio (MPR) presented an evening program focused entirely on classical music written by French and English composers during and right after World War I. Here’s the playlist if you’d like to order any of the pieces (for February 7th; the WWI music ran from 8-9pm).

For the occasion Classical MPR host Bill Morelock contributed a fine essay on the theme, focused largely on the 1916 Battle of the Somme and drawing heavily from Paul Fussell’s seminal The Great War and Modern Memory:

George Butterworth
George Butterworth (1885-1916) - Wikimedia

The initial Battle of the Somme (like many other “battles” of the war, it was a protracted affair that lasted until November) came to symbolize everything that was unimaginative, idiotic, horrific, and ultimately, ironic about the conduct and the phenomenon of World War I. According to author Paul Fussell, 1915 had been a year of small optimistic hopes ending in small ironic catastrophes. 1916 was characterized by one vast optimistic hope leading to one ironic catastrophe. The Somme. The troops just called it the Great F***-Up.

Five weeks later, along the same front, an Englishman named George Butterworth was killed at Pozieres. No one in his company knew that he was a well-known composer of music back home. And no one at home, not even his family, knew that he’d been decorated for valor earlier in the Somme conflict. He was 31 years old.

Two Butterworth pieces are on the MPR playlist, The Banks of Green Willow and this song, “The Lads in Their Hundreds” (from one of the poems in A.E. Housman’s 1911 cycle, A Shropshire Lad):

Other composers/works mentioned by Morelock (not all on the playlist):

  • Ralph Vaughan Williams (who served in France as a middle-aged ambulance driver), Symphony No. 3 “Pastoral”
  • Maurice Ravel (who drove trucks for the French Army near Verdun), Le tombeau de Couperin
  • Edward Elgar, Cello Concerto
  • Gustav Holst, Ode to Death (from a Walt Whitman poem; Morelock suggests it “might be heard more often if titled differently”)
  • Claude Debussy (who died while Paris was being bombarded during the last great German offensive of the war, in March 1918), Berceuse héroïque, Cello Sonata, Sonata for Violin and Piano, and “Carol of the Homeless Children”
  • Plus two ballets: Erik Satie’s Parade and Darius Milhaud’s The Blue Train

Music hall tunes are more in my line, but let me add one other classical piece with a strong WWI connection that didn’t fit into Morelock’s essay or playlist: Benjamin Britten’s 1962 War Requiem. Commissioned to write a requiem in honor of the reconsecrated Coventry Cathedral, famously destroyed during the Battle of Britain, the pacifist composer blended the traditional Latin requiem mass with the English words of Wilfred Owen, the greatest poet of World War I. Here’s Britten’s heartbreaking Agnus Dei, integrating Owen’s “At a Cavalry Near the Ancre.”

Thanks to Pietist Schoolman reader Tim Johnson for mentioning the MPR program and essay!

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