Britain’s war requiem

  • Themes: Classical Music

In the First World War, British and French composers created music to commemorate the dead, but they also celebrated the way that art could transcend the divisions wrought by conflict.

Pianist Eugen D'Albert with an orchestra, 1916.
Pianist Eugen D'Albert with an orchestra, 1916. Credit: Sueddeutsche Zeitung Photo / Alamy Stock Photo

At Christmas 1914, when the First World War was less than five months old, the English novelist Hall Caine organised a literary fund-raiser for Belgian refugees. King Albert’s Book was published jointly by three major newspapers: the Daily Telegraph, the Daily Sketch and the Glasgow Herald, and it contained personal tributes to the people of Belgium, and passionate denunciations of German aggression, from more than 200 ‘representative men and women throughout the world’. ‘Never before, perhaps, have so many illustrious names been inscribed within the covers of a single volume,’ wrote Caine, in his introduction: a cavalcade of public figures united ‘in love of justice and in hatred of oppression’.

King Albert’s Book was a British initiative, but its scope is truly international. Kipling, Maeterlinck, Jack London and Romain Rolland share the pages with the explorer Nansen, the scientist Marconi and the suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst. There are illustrations, too: Arthur Rackham, Maxfield Parrish and Kay Nielsen contributed allegories of struggle and sorrow, reproduced in colour. And then there’s the music – complete works, printed in piano score, by Ethel Smyth and Charles Villiers Stanford, as well as the operetta composers André Messager and Edward German and (remarkably, since at this point Italy was nominally allied with Germany) a lament by the composer of Cavalleria Rusticana, Pietro Mascagni.

The two most striking musical contributions are by a Frenchman and a Briton. Claude Debussy’s Berceuse héroïque could be by no other composer; a sombre meditation that evokes a mood of purposeful mourning, with the Belgian national anthem La Brabançonne appearing as a source of consolation rather than defiance. Debussy confessed that he found the project, and the subject, ‘very hard’, but by now he was constitutionally incapable of putting anything less than his whole imaginative self into a composition. In the Berceuse héroïque, the jagged rhythms of military fanfares become purely musical material for something infinitely sadder and stranger, before Debussy returns to uneasy silence.

Edward Elgar’s Carillon is almost as unexpected – a tribute to Belgian courage in the then-popular medium of a melodrama: a spoken recitation punctuated by music. The poem is by the Belgian-born poet Emile Cammaerts, whose wife was a friend of the composer. Elgar had been reluctant to contribute, and Caine had reminded him, rather forcefully, of his duty as a public figure: ‘This is not the moment when Elgar should be silent.’ Elgar responded by setting Carillon in the original French, and it stayed in French when Elgar conducted the premiere in London on 7 December 1914. By that point, it had already appeared in King Albert’s Book, where Cammaerts’s name heads the score and Elgar is credited as ‘associé de l’Académie Royale de Belgique’. Britain’s greatest living composer seemed to be identifying, in wartime, as a Francophone Belgian.

The audience didn’t mind: in fact, they cheered. ‘Perhaps only an Elgar could achieve such a startling result,’ commented an American journalist in the audience, tacitly acknowledging that, while the sentiments of the time certainly shaped and directed the public response, the voice and vision of the individual creator was what counted above all. But then any artist responds to their time as a complex, sometimes contradictory creative personality.

Our own era – in which responses to world events are circulated, crystallised and distorted by the unprecedented speed and reach offered by social media – offers countless examples of artists bending before received opinion. In the 21st century, funding bodies frequently insist upon the ‘relevance’ of the art they subsidise; but their ideas of what constitutes relevance don’t always align with those of posterity – or even the contemporary public. During the Covid-19 pandemic, an effort was made to find and revive the great art that must surely (so it was assumed) have documented the 1918-19 influenza pandemic.  None was forthcoming, for reasons which became evident once contemporary artists started producing dutiful meditations on the misery of lockdown. No-one wanted (or needed) reminding.

Current affairs swiftly become yesterday’s news, and universal, generalised experience simply isn’t very interesting as material for art. (Not all pandemic poets were as fortunate as the British composer whose BBC-commissioned concerto about social distancing was held over for premiere until 2022, when it was discreetly renamed and presented as a Ukraine-inspired hymn to freedom.) To witness artists of the past subverting modern assumptions about how they thought or felt is a bracing corrective; a reminder that the muses have their own agenda.

Yet misperceptions around art and the Great War remain potent; especially now that the conflict has passed out of living memory and commenced its evolution into myth. Myths serve a necessary purpose in any society. That successive generations of Britons since the 1960s have thought of the First World War primarily through the lens of the soldier poets is probably a healthy development, overall, even if generalisations about ‘lions led by donkeys’ and soldiers who ‘died as cattle’ deny the lived reality of millions who volunteered to fight. In the aftermath of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, a mini-backlash against an imagined backlash (that classic phenomenon of the social media age) briefly ruffled the arts pages: we mustn’t boycott Russian music, like they boycotted German music in the First World War!

Perhaps it needed to be said: the comparison with 1914, though, was wholly spurious. The myth of a wartime ban on German music (in the UK at least) seems to have arisen from the postponement of a single Promenade concert in August 1914. Monday nights were traditionally Wagner nights; on this occasion the organisers of the concerts received a letter warning that the concert would be disrupted and changed the programme, to widespread and vociferous dismay. ‘Art recognises no local or racial limitations – it is international,’ wrote one correspondent to the Westminster Gazette, in response, and German music was played across the UK throughout the war. In spring 1915 the Queen’s Hall even promoted an entire festival devoted to Bach, Beethoven and Brahms.

Meanwhile, the responses of individual composers to world events were as unpredictable and varied as the artists themselves – startlingly so, if one adopts the post-1960s assumption that art automatically aligns itself with the progressive and the anti-patriotic. In France, Maurice Ravel was disappointed to be rejected for military service in 1914 (he was nearly 40, and only five foot three inches tall). Frustrated, he made musical plans instead, which included ‘a French suite – no, it isn’t what you think: La Marseillaise will not be in it, but it will have a forlane and a gigue’.

Ravel finally talked his way into an auxiliary unit in March 1915, and in March 1916 he was posted to the front at Verdun. He drove a lorry (he christened it Adélaïde) under mortar fire; at one point hiding out in the forest for ten days after shrapnel disabled the engine. By the time his ‘French suite’ was performed in Paris in April 1919, six months after the Armistice, it had become Le Tombeau de Couperin: simultaneously a musical book of remembrance dedicated to friends lost in the War, and an exquisite tribute to the French baroque without a gloomy note in it.

Nor was there a trace of La Marseillaise in Debussy’s principal wartime project; a series of instrumental sonatas conceived, like Ravel’s Tombeau, in direct emulation of the French baroque – a period, in other words, before the pre-eminence of German music. There’s still something startling in the vehemence with which he described these fantastic, elusive works. ‘There are many ways that one can vanquish the enemy,’ he wrote, in an essay published in 1917, ‘and music is both an admirable and fecund means to do so.’ He saw the sonatas ‘as proof, however slight, that, even if there were 30 million Boches, French thought is indestructible’.

There’s unmistakably an element of defensiveness there, too – and for non-combatant composers, the pressure to say the expected thing could be inhibiting. Some years earlier, Elgar had told the Strand magazine that ‘I like to look on the composer’s vocation as the old troubadours or bards did. In those days it was no disgrace for a man to be turned on to step in front of an army and inspire the people with a song.’ In August 1914, he gamely signed up to patrol suburban streets as a member of the Hampstead Special Constabulary (the only war service open to a man of 57).

In private, though, he despaired. ‘Concerning the war I say nothing,’ he wrote to his friend Frank Schuster shortly after enlisting. ‘The only thing that wrings my heart & soul is the thought of the horses… the men – and women – can go to hell… I walk round & round this room cursing God for allowing dumb beasts to be tortured…’ His creative impulse withered. It’s revealing that the works he did create were largely inspired by appeals from Belgium (Carillon, and two further Cammaerts settings) and Poland (the symphonic prelude Polonia).

When Elgar finally dealt with explicitly British subjects, they were anything but the expected patriotic epics. The Fringes of the Fleet (1917) was a music-hall sketch with words by Kipling, celebrating the least glamorous units of the Royal Navy. The Spirit of England (1916-17) is a work of mourning dedicated ‘To the memory of our Glorious Men, with a special thought for the Worcesters’ – the regiment of his home county. The major compositions that Elgar created in the final months of the war and the aftermath of victory – three chamber works, and the Cello Concerto, which would be his last substantial orchestral work – are tormented, poetic and intensely inward. The complex, melancholy man and artist triumphs over the public figure: Caine had been poking at dying embers.

Among the combatant composers, there was often a lag of some years before they confronted their experience directly. Ravel’s friend, Ralph Vaughan Williams, served as a medical orderly, transporting the dying and maimed. (In that light, to dismiss The Lark Ascending – which he drafted before the war but completed after its close – as sonic escapism is a particularly callous misreading.) Vaughan Williams explained that his outwardly serene Pastoral Symphony of 1922 was inspired by the landscape of the Western Front. Although saturated with melancholy, it’s a deliberate and conscious rejection of the violence that he witnessed during his military service.

The young British composer Arthur Bliss was wounded on the Somme in 1916, where his beloved younger brother Kennard was also killed in action. Arthur was gassed at Cambrai in 1918, but survived to cakewalk through jazz-age London, the most irreverent of bright young British composers. Only in 1930 did he deal directly with his wartime experiences in Morning Heroes, a huge choral symphony that combines text from the Iliad and Walt Whitman with verses by the war poets Wilfred Owen and Robert Nichols – an approach later used by Benjamin Britten in his War Requiem of 1962. Britten had been an infant during the First World War and was a conscientious objector in the Second: highly proficient art for art’s sake came easily to him.

Bliss, however, explained that he composed Morning Heroes as an attempt to exorcise recurring nightmares about the war: dreams in which he was trapped in a trench, doomed to ‘fight on till extinction’. ‘I used to wake in horror,’ he recalled. To modern eyes, it’s an unmistakable description of trauma, and, in parts of Morning Heroes, Bliss – like Elgar – seems to concede that music unaided is impotent to articulate the realities of war. Here, too, a narrator declaims the poems, accompanied by a sparse orchestral accompaniment. Percussion evokes the thunder of distant artillery.

His fellow-veteran Ravel started to deal openly with the war at around the same time. His dark, trumpet-torn Piano Concerto in D (1930) was a direct product of conflict – its dedicatee, the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, had lost his right arm on the Eastern Front in Galicia. Vaughan William’s violent, dissonant Fourth Symphony was premiered in 1934. His cantata Dona Nobis Pacem followed in 1936 and was intended as a warning of impending cataclysm from a citizen-artist who had seen the world end once before. It went unheeded, as is usually the case with art.

Yet it’s these difficult, unexpected and sometimes ignored musical responses that continue to fascinate, long after more conventional statements have ceased to inspire. The literary contributors to King Albert’s Book are unanimous in their outrage; convinced (in the words of one contributor, Lord Curzon) that they were witnessing ‘a suffering unparalleled in modern history, inflicted by an enemy, to whose cruelty ancient history scarcely affords a parallel’. No observer of the modern news cycle will doubt the sincerity of the emotions; just as we know, all too well, how quickly such words will fade once the next headline appears.

Perhaps Debussy and Elgar sensed it, too. Possibly their artistic spirit – the irreducible, insistent inner voice heard by any serious artist – simply revolted against demands for trumpets and drums. Camille Saint-Saëns, the most distinguished representative of France’s senior generation of composers, knuckled down with a will to musical war-work. ‘Saint-Saëns has informed a delighted public that since the war began he has composed music for the stage, songs, an elegy and a piece for trombone,’ observed Debussy, bitterly, in 1916. ‘If he had been manufacturing shell-cases instead, it might have been all the better for music.’ Little of Saint-Saëns’s wartime output is heard today.

Debussy’s wartime sonatas, however – like Elgar’s Cello Concerto and chamber music, and Ravel’s Le Tombeau de Couperin – are still played; with many (possibly most) listeners being wholly unaware that such subtle music was a response to a bloodbath. None of these composers lived to see the Second World War. Debussy didn’t even witness the Armistice; he died of cancer in March 1918, while long-range German shells exploded in the Paris streets around him. Arthur Bliss carried his memories of the Great War with him into the 1970s. As an elderly, moustachioed Master of the Queen’s Music, he was mocked as a figure from another age. By then, Morning Heroes – that awkward, epic, intensely personal response to global tragedy – was almost as forgotten as King Albert’s Book.

Still, its composer had enough of the divine spark to understand that, while great public events can prompt vigorous artistic activity, the qualities that give a work of art its human value are altogether less biddable. They’re not always a comfortable match for the mood of the time – but they contain at least the possibility of eternity. Bliss knew that, even if the realisation seems to have left him somewhat bewildered. ‘Do you know, in the course of my life I have been three things,’ he told a radio interviewer, some five decades after the guns of the Western Front had fallen silent. ‘I have been ahead of the times, of the times and now behind the times. But I don’t in myself feel any different.’


Richard Bratby