World War I: Music Out Of The Madness

Above - Tommies blinded by mustard gas; Below - French children orphaned late in the war

Above – Tommies blinded by mustard gas; Below – French children orphaned late in the war

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.

Share This Post

About Author Profile: Mahlerman

Mahlerman's life was shaped by his single mother, who never let complete ignorance of a subject get in the way of having strong opinions about it. Facing retirement after a life in what used to be called 'trade', and having a character that consists mainly of defects, he spends his moments of idleness trying to correct them, one by one.

3 thoughts on “World War I: Music Out Of The Madness

    John Halliwell
    April 13, 2014 at 19:18

    “Who the hell is this Arthur Bliss? I occasionally come across the name but usually because he’s written another bloody fanfare. Brass players must love him!” “How little you know philistine! Go find and listen to his music for the film Things To Come; it’ll blow your socks off.” “I’ll keep my socks on if it starts with a fanfare.”

    Having sought out and listened to the music for Things To Come, my socks went on the missing list. Is there a greater film score than this? Then the discovery of a wonderful cello concerto, written for Rostropovich; then The Enchantress, written for Kathleen Ferrier; then a Colour Symphony, and then Adam Zero. And now MM comes in with Morning Heroes; and the thought that it might just be greater than Britten’s War Requiem. Good Lord, I must track it down in full – eight minutes can only whet this appetite, but first I need a lie down to digest that thought.

    You refer to Stravinsky’s seemingly dismissive view of RVW’s Pastoral Symphony, MM. Perhaps not too surprising as Igor on another occasion observed: ”Music, by its very nature, is essentially powerless to express anything at all, whether a feeling, an attitude of mind, a psychological mood, a phenomenon of nature, etc…. Expression has never been an inherent property of music. That is by no means the purpose of its existence.” I wonder what Vaughan Williams made of Igor’s comment? I love this symphony very much and turned to Simon Heffer’s fascinating biography: Vaughan Williams, to gain further understanding of a truly great work:

    ‘The composer’s assertion that this was music of the war, of the tortured landscape of northern France, is felt at once by the listener to be true. He told Boult when he was writing the symphony that ‘I’ve got a new tune and it’s in four movements and they are all slow. I don’t think anyone will like it much.’ So lacking in confidence about it was VW that he urged Boult , during the rehearsals, to see it was played much faster than the conductor had imagined it ought to be. For the first few years (from 1922) this would characterise his interpretation of it. Then, VW heard a performance under Boult and said to him: ‘You know, you’re doing it terribly fast. Every movement’s really faster than I want.’ When Boult reminded him of his earlier injunction, the composer replied: ‘I’ve conducted it a bit and I’ve heard it a good deal now since those days. I realise that it isn’t so boring to people as I thought it was going to be.’

    The joke of Peter Warlock’s that the music was that of a cow looking over a gate, or Hugh Allen’s observation that it represented ‘VW rolling over and over in a ploughed field on a wet day’ suggest that both men missed the point about the genesis of the music. There could, after all, be no clearer clue than the mis-sounding of the octave of the Last Post in the second movement, echoing a mistake made by a bugler in VW’s hearing while on Salisbury Plain. Yet the composer invited misinterpretation by giving such a name to the symphony.The expression in the first movement is not so much of physical beauty as of calm, though it is a calm made overwhelming, almost oppressive, by some thick orchestral textures. It is then dispelled by the darker tone of the second movement, such calm as survives being that of mourning rather than contentment. At the moment when the Last Post is deliberately misquoted, the image is unquestionably one of white headstones

    Then the third movement brings a surprise. A scherzo, it has the subdued tone of the rest of the symphony, never escaping into sheer joy; but it is a sophisticated, grand tune redolent of a Spanish dance that lifts the whole work, before a finale that, with its plaintive soprano intervention, restores not merely a mood of contemplation, but of mysticism and other-worldliness. With three slow movements and a fourth that barely gets out of third gear, the symphony can hardly be arresting in any conventional way; its beauty, dignity, and sincerity are not, however, in question, and are captivating in themselves. It’s best seen as one man’s attempt – broadly successful – to come to terms with the worst war in modern history, and with the wiping out of a generation that included both family and friends.’

    Great post, as always, MM. The juxtaposition of those two photographs is overwhelmingly poignant.

  2. April 14, 2014 at 08:34

    I agree with Mr Halliwell about the Pastoral, which is now finally being given the recognition it deserves. And as a war requiem, it beats Britten’s by a mile.

    Perhaps part of the problem with VW’s 3rd is that it’s not really a work for the concert hall. The hushed intensity of the music is best experienced alone, without the distraction of coughing concert goers.

    I first heard the Pastoral when I was a teenager and was disappointed that it wasn’t anything like the symphonic Lark Ascending that I was expecting. I put the record to one side for a year before playing it again. At that point, something clicked and it ended up becoming my favourite symphony. Whenever I was in the Dorset countryside at twilight, I thought of the haunting F minor/major beginning of the second movement.

    I have several versions on CD, but the one I admire the most is, surprisingly, Kees Bakels on Naxos. He seems to have the measure of the work even more than Previn.

    April 15, 2014 at 12:44

    First I’d head of F.S. Kelly, Mahlerman. Splendid! Thank you.

    Just as the West Ham manager Sam Allardyce has claimed he would have had greater recognition had he pronounced his name “Al-ar-dee-chay”, I suspect Vaughan Williams’s true greatness would have been universally recognised had he changed his name to von Williams.

Comments are closed.