World War One – The Music of Britain

‘Now, youth, the hour of thy dread passion comes;

Thy lovely things must all be laid away;

And thou, as others, must face the riven day

Unstirred by rattle of the rolling drums

Or bugles’ strident cry.’

Ivor Gurney, British Composer and Poet, 1917

This year marks the centenary of the outbreak of World War One, a conflict of four years unlike a war that anybody could have ever imagined. Almost 957, 000 British soldiers were killed, and over two million were wounded in action. Most are very much familiar with war poetry by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen, whose works are harrowing and devastating as well as humbling and comforting. But what about the music of The First World War? How much do we know about the composers who fought at The Front Line?

The most well-known and celebrated British composers at the time of the war were Edward Elgar, Hubert Parry, Gustav Holst, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Charles Villiers Stanford. The music of these composers was widely performed at music halls by orchestras throughout the country, at a time when the radio had not been invented and the gramophone was a new and expensive invention. In order to listen to music most people had to attend public events, of which there were plenty.

Prevented either by their age or health, these celebrated British composers could not enlist to serve their country at The Front even though their patriotic feelings were aroused. It was their students, of the younger generation and enlistment age, whose undergraduate musical studies were cut short in 1914.

These new composers included Ivor Gurney, Arthur Bliss, George Butterworth and Cecil Cole. Today they are known as the composers of the ‘Pastoral Movement’. Gurney and Cole even managed to continue composing in the trenches. Although most of Gurney’s written work in the trenches was through the medium of poetry, he managed to write a little music despite surviving being shot and gassed. Cecil Cole began writing his orchestral suite Behind The Lines, which in 1917 he sent home – the manuscript stained with blood and mud – to his tutor Gustav Holst (famously known today for his orchestral suite The Planets). He was killed at the Somme one year later, after attempting to rescue his wounded fellow comrades.

Other extremely talented young composers who did not survive the war included George Butterworth, F.S Kelly, William Browne, Ernest Farrar and Willie Manson. They have left a heartbreaking legacy that is very much of its time. British classical music may have been extremely different today if this generation of composers had survived.

Rights; Ernest Brooks | WikiCommons

Rights; Ernest Brooks | WikiCommons

Perhaps one of the most famous pieces of this time was The Lark Ascending, written by Ralph Vaughan Williams in 1914 for piano and violin, and based upon a poem by George Meredith about the song of the skylark. It is richly devotional and pastoral, portraying purity and innocent joyfulness. Beginning The Lark Ascending prior to the outbreak of the war, there is evidence that Vaughan Williams still continued to work on the piece during the war although he had enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps. It was not long before he was arrested after it was thought that he was writing secret codes.

Arthur Bliss wrote his choral symphony Morning Heroes in memory of his brother who had died in conflict, and Gustav Holst composed his haunting Ode to Death - his most beautiful choral work, remembering his composer friends who had fallen in battle. Another famous piece is Vaughan Williams Pastoral Symphony, completed in 1922. It has gained a reputation of being a beautiful, meditative and evocative elegy for those who died in World War One.

Returning soldiers celebrated with popular songs that were sung in the trenches, including It’s a Long Way to Tipperary, Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire, and Oh it’s a lovely war! Popular American Jazz music was also becoming a heavy modern influence upon British music, reaching the country though gramophone recordings and performers who visited the country shortly after the end of the war.

Sir Henry Wood, English conductor known for the Proms, commented on the attempted ban of German music, such as Bach and Beethoven, who were incredibly popular before the beginning of the war, stating “the greatest examples of music and art are world possessions and unassailable even by the prejudices of the hour”.