Like every facet of society, the classical-music world was profoundly marked by World War I. English composer George Butterworth, who was shot at the Battle of Somme in 1916, was perhaps the best known of the composers who died in the devastating 1914-18 conflict. Others included Rudi Stephan of Germany and Cecil Coles of Scotland.
At the same time, composers like Alban Berg, Gustav Holst and Maurice Ravel fought in the conflagration and survived, each writing works influenced by the horrors they experienced. Others reacted to war-related losses they suffered or found themselves moved to create music that addressed in some way what was happening around them.
“There has been an age-old tradition of composers responding to conflicts or changes in their times or responding to politics,” said Kate Kennedy, a research fellow at Oxford University’s Wolfson College and an expert on early 20th-century British music. “It’s actually the same as medicine or technology — it’s pushed on further by war. Whether or not it’s worth it, I don’t know. But it certainly gives people some subject matter. There is a need to respond, and there is a need for the arts to represent what a country is feeling.”
Joining scores of other classical-music organizations worldwide, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra will mark the 100th anniversary of the end of the so-called Great War with a series of concerts and programs spread across the 2018-19 season. A focal point will be A Time for Reflection — A Message of Peace, a set of programs and an exhibition from Oct. 2 to Nov. 18 that will correspond directly with the remembrance of the Armistice on Nov. 11, 1918 (visit cso.org/armistice for more details).
Perhaps because of the closer proximity of World War II in history, many classical-music fans know more about works that were written in response to the conflict like Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7 in C Major, Op. 60 (Leningrad), completed during the brutal German siege of the key Russian city. “I think that certainly for British composers, the music that was written around World War I and after World War I is quite neglected, and I think it’s because people just haven’t seen it as a genre,” Kennedy said. “There hasn’t been a defined genre of war composition, so people haven’t noticed how many pieces there actually are.”
Britten’s War Requiem, which was composed for the 1962 consecration of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral after the destruction of its 14th-century predecessor during a Nazi bombing raid, is rightly associated with World War II. But the scholar, who has written such books as the The First World War: Literature, Music, Memory (2011), notes the celebrated English composer makes use of texts by Wilfred Owen, one of the iconic poets of World War I. “So it’s like there is a long trajectory from the First World War into the Second World War, and in a way, there almost isn’t a distinction,” Kennedy said.
Among the most notable British compositions associated with World War I, she points to Arthur Bliss’ “monumental” choral symphony Morning Heroes, which debuted in 1930. Bliss was injured on the Somme, but his brother, Francis Kennard Bliss, died on a nearby field. Neither knew at the time that they were fighting essentially in parallel. “Bliss was left with a sense that the more talented brother had been killed, and he had this survivor’s guilt,” Kennedy said. “He had to write this piece to honor his brother.”
Other works include Vaughan Williams’ 1936 cantata Donna nobis pacem (Grant Us Peace), and Frank Bridge’s Oration for Cello and Orchestra (1930), an expressionist concerto in one movement. “That’s quite an interesting statement, to make the cello into an orator without any text,” Kennedy said. “It doesn’t pin you down to anything specific, but it was very much influenced by the war.”
As part of its season-long World War I commemoration, the CSO will incorporate works that relate to World War II, such as Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 13 (Babi Yar) on Sept. 21-22 and 25, and others that have no direct tie to such conflicts but are timeless meditations on life and death, such as Giuseppe Verdi’s Requiem Mass on Nov. 8-10. The piece from the past most directly connected with World War I is Bridge’s Lament, which will be featured Oct. 18-20 on a program led by guest conductor Marin Alsop.
The piece was inspired by a 9-year-old girl killed in 1915 when a German U-boat torpedoed the British passenger liner Lusitania. “It’s like a kind of eerie Brahms Wiegenlied,” Kennedy said. “It has a kind of rocking lullaby feel about it. But then in the middle of it, you can almost hear the ship being torn in two. There is this horrible silent space where the ship has started to sink. It’s very a disturbing, very bleak piece but also very intimate and very touching. It’s incredibly powerful.”
As part of the Symphony Center Presents’ Piano Series, French pianist Cédric Tiberghien will present a Dec. 2 commemorative program of works composed from 1914 through 1918. Among them will be Bridge’s Three Improvisations for the Left Hand. The composer wrote the piece in 1918 for Douglas Fox, a talented keyboardist who won the Challen Gold Medal at the Royal College of Music six years earlier. Fox suffered a severe injury while serving in World War I and lost his right arm as a result. “I doubt whether you will be attracted when you try the pieces through at first,” Bridge told the young pianist, “but just work a little at them and then I fondly hope they will stand up on their own legs and smile at you.”
The anniversary commemorations of World War I across the classical-music world have provided a renewed focus on the fertile music of this era. “I think anything that makes us reflect on our own history is a very good thing,” Kennedy said. “I think it has also made us think a little harder about what the First World War really was and what it meant.”
Part of that reflection, she said, has resulted in a welcome reconsideration of certain composers such as Vaughan Williams, who has too often been associated with his kind of “easy-listening” works. “Whereas pieces like Donna nobis pacem are beautiful and hit you between the eyes,” she said. “They’re very dark and profound, filled with turbulence and passion. People have started to see the bigger picture with someone like Vaughan Williams.”
In addition to spotlighting sometimes overlooked historical compositions, Kennedy said, these showcases have sometimes been accompanied by new works that offer fresh perspectives on World War I, incorporating the perspectives of women, minorities or otherwise marginalized people. Kennedy cited such examples as Anthony Ritchie’s Gallipoli to the Somme, which was performed in Oxford and London in June by the UK Parliament Choir and Southbank Sinfonia, and Anna Meredith’s Five Telegrams, which premiered at this year’s Proms in London.
French composer Bruno Mantovani was commissioned by the CSO and the Pritzker Military Foundation to write a piece for the orchestra’s World War I observance. The resulting work, Threnos, will receive its world premiere during the Oct. 18-20 concerts that also will include Prokofiev’s Piano Concerto No. 3 and Copland’s Symphony No. 3. “The term ‘threnos’ came into existence in ancient Greece and designates a funereal lamentation — be it musical or literary,” Mantovani said. “Generally, a threnos is a slow piece, even a static one. I have made the opposite choice. In fact, here it entails a celebration that is at once violent, virtuosic and extroverted.”
Former classical music critic of the Denver Post, Kyle MacMillan is a Chicago-based arts journalist.