From the madness of the Great War came great music, says Mahlerman…
….the old lie:
dulce et decorum est
pro patria mori
Wilfred Owen, 1917-18
Well, the sentiments expressed by Owen (‘it is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’) are not almost one hundred years old, but were coined in an Ode by Horace two millennia ago. Am I alone in thinking that ‘the old lie’ has a rather hollow ring today?
Reading again, as I have been, about the horrors of this ‘war to end all wars’, it was not the heartbreaking descriptions of the carnage by the ‘cannon fodder’ that shook me, so much as the detachment of the officer-class who felt able to stand-back, and inscribe ‘instructions’ like this, on how to kill somebody with a steel blade. From the British Army Training Manual:
Guiding Rule No.8 for weapons training.
If possible, the point of the bayonet should be directed against the opponent’s throat, as the point will enter easily and make a fatal wound on entering a few inches, and, being near the eyes, makes the opponent flinch. Other vulnerable parts are the exposed parts of the face, the chest, lower abdomen and hights (sic), and the region of the kidneys when the back is turned. Four to six inches penetration is sufficient to incapacitate and allow for a quick withdrawal, whereas if a bayonet is driven home too far it is often impossible to withdraw it. In such cases, a round should be fired to break-up the obstruction.
Although Frederick Septimus Kelly was born in Sydney in 1881, it was probably the only Australian thing about him. Family wealth allowed this affluent and beautiful Edwardian to develop his education at Eton, become an Oxford scholar and sculler (Boat Race 1903, Olympic Gold Medal 1908), and go on to become a noted pianist and composer. His war service was spent in the Hood Battalion with his friend, the poet Rupert Brooke, who died of blood poisoning in 1915, Kelly assisting at his burial on the Greek island of Skyros. The loss of his friend devastated the composer who channeled his grief into the truly wonderful Elegy for Strings “In Memoriam Rupert Brooke” – shades of RVW’s Tallis Fantasia here, but a unique voice notwithstanding. Kelly survived Gallipoli, winning the DSC, but died in the Somme trenches late in 1916 aged just 35.
Even before the outbreak of hostilities in 1914, the French composer Maurice Ravel had planned a piano ‘suite’ using the 17th/18th Century models of his illustrious predecessor, ‘Le Grand’ Francois Couperin. In the event, this deeply affecting suite of six movements, Le Tombeau de Couperin, completed in the penultimate year of the war, became not just an homage, but a tribute to the handful of his friends who had perished in the conflict. After the war, in 1919, the composer orchestrated the suite, reducing the six movements to four, and from that collection, here is the exquisite Menuet, dedicated to Jean Dreyfus. About 40 years ago I owned a recording of this piece by the Swiss Ernest Ansermet, and I mention this because the playing had a ‘rightness’ about it that I have never heard since – particularly in respect of the tempi. This performance by the po-faced Pierre Boulez and the Berlin Philharmonic runs it very close. No stick, no smile, no apparent pleasure being gained – but a performance to die for – literally.
Morning Heroes is a Symphony for Orator, Chorus and Orchestra by (Sir) Arthur Bliss. I have to admit I had never heard a note of it, nor even heard of it, but it could be one of the great discoveries, perhaps greater even than the Britten War Requiem, for a requiem is what it most certainly is. The composer experienced the Great War at first hand in French trenches, wounded and gassed as he was. But he survived to succeed Sir Arnold Bax as Master of the Queen’s Musick, and went on to become a sort-of infant terrible of British music. I know and admire his chamber music, which has a lyrical thoughtfulness and a depth of feeling unusual in British music, but it was, I guess, his misfortune that he was composing at the same time as both Walton and Britten and, naturally enough, his music was eclipsed by both these masters. Here, the first part of the third movement Virgil, with words by the 8th Century poet Lie Tai-Po. A discovery for me, and perhaps for Dabblers too?
Listening to Beethoven’s transcendent Pastoral Symphony it strikes me always as the work of a townsman, glorying in the beauties of the countryside. The Third Symphony of Ralph Vaughan Williams, also named the Pastoral, is that of a composer whose native element is the English countryside. The highly-strung bitterness and bellicose resentment of the F minor Fourth Symphony is more obviously a reaction against war in general, and perhaps the Great War in particular – but it is to the Pastoral that I turn for a pointer, beneath its gentle surface, to the horrors that RVW knew about only too well. The clue is in the date, 1922. The piece is not a ‘monument to English pastoralism, as was suggested by Constant Lambert (“..a cow looking over a gate”) and Igor Stravinsky (“…like staring at a cow for a long time”), but a very personal reflection and meditation on the recently defiled landscape of wartime France. I believe it to be his greatest symphony and perhaps even his greatest work. Here is the serene, yet troubled final movement, the wordless soprano seeming to stop time, creating a sort-of transcendental stasis, and drifting eventually to an eerie, spectral silence. Masterful….and rather upsetting.