This article appeared in short form in the Independent a week or two ago, but what follows here is my longer original: an introduction to the effect of the "Great War" on the composers who had to participate in it, those who lived and those who died. Some are household names, but others can benefit from the chance of rediscovery that this year may bring.
We already had FS Kelly's deeply moving Elegy for Strings for Remembrance Day, so to start let's hear Jelly d'Aranyi (violin) and Ethel Hobday (piano) playing his Serenade Op.7.
The composer and poet Ivor Gurney once wrote: “Despairing work is the noblest refuge among other despairs”. During commemorations for the centenary of World War I this year, Gurney’s music will be much to the fore, together with that of a generation of composers who, if they survived, found themselves indelibly scarred by their wartime experiences. Their responses were extraordinarily varied. Far from being a catalogue of gloom, their works reflect everything from mourning to pacifism, from iconoclasm to wry humour and escapism.
Gurney’s history is as emblematic as it is tragic, and his songs as beautiful as his poetry. Always prone to depression, he had suffered a breakdown while still a student; but after serving in the war, in which he suffered a shoulder wound in 1917 and gassing only months afterwards, he was diagnosed with “deferred shell-shock”. He spent his later years in and out of mental institutions. Later this year there'll be a Radio 3 Composer of the Week series devoted to his compositions.
Among the most familiar of his contemporaries is Ralph Vaughan Williams. He was 41 on the outbreak of war, but served first as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps, later as a second lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery. He weathered considerable horrors with greater than average strength, though later suffered deafness thought to have been caused by noise damage from gunfire. His Pastoral Symphony – light years from Beethoven’s – references not idealised country scenes, but the fields of northern France. It incubated, he recalled, “when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset.” A trumpet cadenza captures the sound he heard of a bugler practising yet hitting the wrong note.
Other survivors were less well adjusted. EJ Moeran was a case in point. He was 19 in 1914 and spent much of the war as a despatch rider until being wounded at Bullecourt in 1917. Not only his psyche but also the progress of his career was overturned; it was soon hampered further by mental instability and alcoholism. He was just beginning to achieve real recognition when the outbreak of World War II intervened. Fortunately his concertos for cello and for violin have recently been enjoying a resurgence of popularity thanks to new recordings respectively by the cellist Guy Johnston and violinist Tasmin Little. Here's the second movement of his Serenade:
Many composers were less fortunate still. George Butterworth died in the Battle of the Somme, aged 31. A friend of Vaughan Williams and fellow collector of folksongs, his most celebrated work is the song cycle A Shropshire Lad, exquisitely evocative settings of AE Housman, as well as an idyllic work for orchestra, The Banks of Green Willow.
A less famed loss at the Somme was the Australian composer Frederick Septimus Kelly, who had survived Gallipoli and was also a rowing champion, having won a gold medal in the 1908 Olympic Games. Recently the director of the Canberra Festival, Christopher Latham, has unearthed a violin sonata that Kelly penned on the boat home from Gallipoli, intending it for the violinist Jelly d’Arányi – also a vital inspiration to Ravel, Vaughan Williams and Bartók – whom he was widely expected to marry. It is a relatively carefree-sounding piece – as if imagining its strains in the trenches had offered a means of mental escape.
Many who did not see action found their attitudes to life and music transformed nonetheless. Frank Bridge espoused strong pacifist views; the impact of the war induced him to transform his hitherto romantic style into near-expressionism – for instance, in an uncompromising piano sonata dedicated to the memory of the composer Ernest Bristow Farrar, who was killed in action. Bridge’s student Benjamin Britten was later to echo his pacifist outlook; and Farrar’s young pupil Gerald Finzi was deeply affected by his mentor’s death, which contributed to shaping his distinctly dark view of life.
Across the Channel, Claude Debussy was dying of cancer; he did not live to see the conflict’s end. He came to view composition as an act of resistance and patriotism. “I want to work not so much for myself, but to give proof, however small...that not even 30 million ‘boches’ can destroy French thought," he declared. His last works are three instrumental sonatas that show not a hint of the turbulence around him, signed ‘Claude Debussy, musicien français’.
Maurice Ravel became a driver of ambulances at Verdun. In his piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin each movement is dedicated to a different fallen friend. He, though, resisted the drift towards nationalism: “It would be dangerous for French composers to ignore systematically the works of their foreign colleagues, and thus form themselves into a sort of national coterie: our musical art...would soon degenerate and become isolated by its own academic formulas,” he wrote. But his La Valse is often seen as an unwitting evocation of the world of the Viennese waltz imploding in cataclysm.
This is the piano version, played by Yuja Wang at Verbier:
The composers of Vienna itself responded to the war in manners ranging from the personal to the outright political. Franz Lehár, that supreme composer of operetta, produced a tone poem for tenor and orchestra entitled Fever, portraying the memories of a soldier in shell-shock. At the other extreme, the youthful Erich Wolfgang Korngold became musical director of a regiment, for which he composed a military march. When his commanding officer complained that it was too fast, he quipped: “This is for the retreat.”
For Arnold Schoenberg, who undertook military service aged 42, the war symbolised – at first – an attack on the reactionary musical world, especially that of France: “Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God,” he wrote in 1914. But German musical losses were intense, too: just one example was the immensely gifted Rudi Stephan, whose opera Die ersten Menschen was only premiered five years after his death on the Galician front.
While surviving composers processed their experiences through their art in many different ways, an overarching result became clear. The war had produced such trauma and disillusionment that the only way forward was to sweep away the past and find a new, sometimes revolutionary approach for the future. The scene was set for a fresh century of music, rising from the ashes of the old one.