1914 - 2014

British Music Collection: Composers and Conflict

Sound and Music

In commemoration of the centenary of the start of the First World War, this exhibition looks at the ways composers featured in the British Music Collection have reacted to war in the 20th century.
Curated by Tom Butler on behalf of Sound and Music

In this exhibition, in commemoration of the centenary of the outbreak of war in 1914, this exhibition shines a light on the artistic response to the First World War amongst British composers. It remembers those who gave their lives in that and subsequent conflicts, and considers the ways composers have continued to pay tribute to the fallen through sound, and write music that touches on the subject of war.

Music, for so long a part of warfare, can be descriptive of great horror, a primal reaction to the monstrosities of battle. But it can also be healing, or used memorially.

This story is told through artifacts in the British Music Collection. The Collection is a unique archive with an impressive collection of recordings (commercial releases, radio broadcasts and one-off performances) and up to 40,000 scores from the early 1900s to the present day.

 The Collection is owned by Sound and Music, the national agency for new music, and is physically based at Heritage Quay, a brand new, state-of-the-art archive centre based at the University of Huddersfield

Through exploring the archive we can begin to understand how British composers came to terms with the First World War, its legacy, and other conflicts in the 20th century.

Perhaps the most well-known casualty amongst British composers in the First World War was George Butterworth (1885–1916). He studied at Trinity Collage, Oxford, and briefly under Hubert Parry at the Royal College of Music, and is known today for his settings of A. E. Housman's collection of poems ‘A Shropshire Lad’ (1911–12) and ‘The Banks of Green Willow’ for orchestra (1913). He was killed in action at the Battle of the Somme.

Many of Britain's most promising and talented young composers did not survive the war, including William Denis Browne, Ernest Farrar, Willie Manson, Cecil Coles and F. S. Kelly. For those who did survive, the effect of war was profound, prompting both personal crises and a changing musical landscape in the United Kingdom.

One of the many young composers to serve in the First World War was Ivor Gurney (1890–1937), who is well-represented in the British Music Collection. Gurney's prodigious talent, both as a poet and a musician, saw him compose over 200 songs in his lifetime. Initially turned-down for military service due to poor eyesight, he was eventually drafted in 1915 and by 1916 was serving as a private in the trenches of France. There he continued to compose both poetry and music, including ‘Severn Meadows’, a rare and sublime setting of his own poem. A longing for his native Gloucestershire, the song ends with the lines “Do not forget me quite, / O Severn meadows” marked “with passion”.

“I have known no man, save Gurney, who had the double creative gift that Rossetti had in his two arts.”

— Ralph Vaughan Williams, 1938

Despite being 41 years of age when WWI began, Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) enlisted in the Royal Army Medical Corps and spent time as a stretcher-bearer in France.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Like all who suffered its consequences, the war had a profound effect on Vaughan Williams, not least permanent hearing damage brought on by the noise of battle. He confronted the horrors of conflict in ‘A Pastoral Symphony’ of 1922. Comprising four movements (“all of them slow”, according to the composer), the most symbolic memorial to the war is found at the end of the second; a solo trumpet plays a Last Post-like fanfare over ghostly sustained chords, suggesting the scene described by the composer is not the bucolic idyll expected in a traditional pastoral symphony.

Edward Elgar (1857–1934)

The War was also keenly felt by those composers who remained at home. Germany's invasion of Belgium in August 1914 prompted Edward Elgar to pen a new text for his nationalist song ‘Land of Hope and Glory’. Written with Arthur Benson, who had authored the original text, and published in The Times, Elgar intended this new lyric to further galvanize patriotic feeling in light of events on the Continent. However, this new version of the song did not achieve the popularity Elgar had hoped for.

“Land of Hope and Glory, Mother of the free,

How shall we uphold thee, who are born of thee!

Gird thee well for battle, bid thy hosts increase.

Stand for faith and honour, strike for truth and peace.”

‘A War Song’, an early work by Elgar with the refrain “Glory or death, for true hearts and brave, / Honour in life, or rest in a grave”.

The invasion of Belgium affected Elgar considerably. When asked to contribute to an anthology by leading artists in support of the King and people of Belgium, Elgar composed ‘Carillon’ on a text by Belgian poet and playwright Émile Cammaerts. Cammaerts' poem, written after the Siege of Antwerp (September–October 1914), encourages Belgians to reclaim their cities lost to the invading Germany. Instead of creating a song from this poem, Elgar scored the work for orchestra and a reciter, who reads verses of the poem between passages of instrumental music. ‘Carillon’ was recorded in 1915 and became very popular.

A further musical contribution to the war effort was composed by Elgar between 1915��–1917 after his friend Sir Sydney Colvin introduced him to the poetry of Laurence Binyon. Impressed by the poetry, Elgar began setting Binyon's ‘For the Fallen’ and its now-famous stanza “They shall not grow old, as we that are left grow old...”. However, the project was briefly called-off after Elgar learned that Cyril Rootham, a composer who, like Elgar, was published by Novello, had already set that particular text. Elgar was eventually persuaded by colleagues to continue and ‘For the Fallen’, alongside two further settings of poems by Binyon, appeared as ‘The Spirit of England’, a work for orchestra, chorus and solo soprano first performed in its entirety in 1917.

Frank Bridge (1879–1941) was a pacifist composer whose music was greatly affected by the First World War. His short work ‘Lament’ of 1915 (for either solo piano or string orchestra) is a beautiful, restrained and poignant elegy to Catherine, a nine year old girl who died alongside her family in the sinking of the civilian RMS Lusitania by a German U-Boat.

In 1918 he composed ‘Three Improvisations’ for pianist Douglas Fox who had lost his right arm whilst serving in France in 1917. Each short movement uses the left-hand highly effectively to conjure exquisite and delicate soundworlds. Writing to Fox, who was recuperating in a military hospital in Bournemouth, Bridge commented “I doubt whether you will be attracted when you try these pieces through at first, but just work a little at them and then I fondly hope they will stand up on their own legs and smile at you”.

Bridge's music expresses the tragedy of war at a personal level, evoking the suffering of millions through focussing on individual sacrifice. His Piano Sonata of 1921–'24 is dedicated to the memory of Ernest Bristowe Farrar (1885–1918), a young British composer who was killed at the Battle of Epehy Ronssoy on only his second day serving on the front line.

It is through examining the dedications of scores at the BMC that you sense the palpable loss endured by those who survived the major conflicts of the twentieth century. Some works are dedicated to specific individuals: the dedication page of the score to Stewart Hylton Edwards' (1924–'87) ‘Adagio for Orchestra’ reads: “A Threnody in memory of my brother Flight Sergeant Pilot Derek (‘Pat’) Barlow Edwards R.A.F., killed in action 12 Sept. 1944, Burma, aged 23”...

...others offer a more general dedication. Patric Standford's (1929–2014) ‘War Memorial’ of 1992 is simply dedicated “To the memory of the Innocent”. His Symphony No.6, completed two years later, bears the same inscription. Standford had undertaken military service in the RAF before studying composition at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama from 1961, and later studied with Witold Lutosławski.

Standford's ‘War Memorial’ is a stately but dramatic elegy for string orchestra, based on a series of orchestral swells where melodies that begin in the cellos and basses are eventually emulated in the violins. These swells get faster as the piece progresses yet the rhythm of the piece remains constant and measured in the manner of a slow procession. After a collage of shifting harmonies we hear a tune made up of notes that are very close to each other, played by the violins; this is then repeated towards the end of the work but augmented with clashing notes in the rest of the ensemble. Despite the pain expressed throughout the piece, it ends on a surprising, radiant and powerful chord.

Benjamin Britten in 1950

Benjamin Britten (1913–1976), who like his teacher Frank Bridge was a noted pacifist, dedicated his ‘War Requiem’ of 1961–'62 to four friends who were killed in the Second World War.

The Requiem received its first performance in 1962 at the consecration of Coventry Cathedral which had been rebuilt after the destruction by bombing raid of the original structure. Alongside the traditional Latin text of the Requiem Mass, Britten set eight poems by Wilfred Owen, now revered as one of the great poets of the First World War. Britten uses a chamber orchestra to accompany intimate settings for tenor and baritone of Owen's poetry and contrasts this with the use of full orchestra to accompany the Requiem text, which is sung by a solo soprano and choir.

The work is just one of many in the Collection that is based upon the poetry of Wilfred Owen.

Settings of three Wilfred Owen poems have been donated to the Collection by composer A.J. Downing. Written in 1975, the handwritten score sets Owen's ‘Anthem for Doomed Youth’, ‘Futility’ and ‘The End’. The composer uses dramatic, angular melodies accompanied by piano music occasionally reminiscent of military marching rhythms to illustrate Owen's tragic poetry.

Another popular poet amongst composers is Stephen Crane (1871–1900), particularly his poem ‘Do not weep, maiden, for war is kind’, which has at least three settings in the Collection. Alastair King's version of 1992 is most interesting as he treats the first verse as an Edwardian hymn — “ a rather pompous, stiff-upper-lip chorale with chords that are slightly more angular than would be expected”. This contrasts with the lyrical melody of the second verse which describes the horrors of conflict. The composer writes: “The next two verses follow the same contrasting moods and then the final verse is a version of the hymn tune but with much softer, lyrical chords, bringing together the two strands of the song. Even though the ending is strongly in G major, it feels anything but triumphant.”

Janet Beat, aged three-and-a-half, with her parents in June 1940. Her father had just received his call-up papers to serve in WWII.

Janet Beat's (b.1937) ‘After Reading “Lessons of the War”’ is a work for violin and piano, ostensibly a reaction to the trilogy of poems by Henry Reed which were written and published during the Second World War. However, the work was also inspired by writing from or about the First World War — particularly Guillaume Apollinaire's poem ‘Fête’ and the novel ‘All Quiet on the Western Front’ by Erich Maria Remarque — as well as the experiences of the composer and her family during the two World Wars.

The composer's grandfather had been severely injured in a mustard gas attack whilst serving in the First World War, and her father served in the Second World War. Some of Beat's earliest memories are of living under constant threat from war: air raid shelters, doodlebugs falling on the West Midlands, and a house she was in being bombed (luckily the bomb failed to detonate). At the end of the war she did not recognise her returning father as she had not seen him for so long.

Sometimes lyrical, sometimes full of aggressive energy, the piece uses military fanfare motifs during the second of its five contrasting sections and, later, the violinist is required to play “like a machine gun”.

"After Reading 'Lessons of the War'" by Janet Beat. Performed by Peter Mountain (violin) and Angela Dale (piano). © + ℗ Furore Verlag, Kassel 1996.

Familial experiences of wartime are also central to the most recently-written work in this exhibition. ‘My parents' generation thought War meant something’ is part of Michael Finnissy's (b.1946) extraordinary five-hour cycle of solo piano pieces ‘The History of Photography in Sound’. Finnissy's father, George, was responsible for photographing post-WWII reconstruction efforts for London County Council before resigning the post in disgust at the rife corruption in the rebuilding programme.

Amid virtuosic and strikingly original writing for piano, Finnissy weaves quotations from ‘Onward Christian Soldiers’ by Arthur Sullivan, the Soviet war song ‘Sacred War’ and impressions of 1940s popular music. However, according to Ian Pace (to date the only pianist to perform the complete History in a single evening), “to read ‘My parents’ generation...’ simply as a parable of the horror of war is only to scratch the surface of the work... it stands equally as a reflection on popular culture, its role as ‘distraction’, and even upon the continuing fate of a world built upon the ashes of the Second World War”.

The old card catalogue at the BMC

Other conflicts commemorated in the Collection include the 1999 East Timorese crisis, where fighting by anti-independence factions escalated into general violence after East Timor chose independence from Indonesia (Alan Taylor ‘For the people of East Timor’, 1999, scored for recorders and piano), and the Vietnam War.

There are two works in the Collection by Cornelius Cardew (1936–1981) regarding Vietnam: ‘Vietnam's Victory’, for brass and flutes, and the ‘Vietnam Sonata’ for solo piano. In the preface to the sonata, this most political of composers makes his intention very clear: “This sonata celebrates the resplendent victory of May 1975. The outside movements are based on two songs I wrote in connection with the Vietnam war. The first — entitled ‘A Law of History’— describes how the people of a small country can defeat aggression by a big country, if only they dare to rise in struggle”.

The preface to Vietnam Sonata by Cornelius Cardew. © Horace Cardew.

In 2014 we continue to remember those who lost their lives as a consequence of the First World War and later conflicts. Amongst the many memorials and commemorations in this centenary year are several new works by composers featured in the British Music Collection. The weeks proceeding the publication of this exhibition saw the premières of two such pieces; ‘Equal Voices’ by Sally Beamish — a setting of poems by Andrew Motion and verses from the Biblical Song of Songs — and ‘Absence’ by William Sweeney — a mediation for wind, percussion and strings on the subject of loss and the reticence of soldiers returning from the front line.

2014 also sees the British Music Collection move to a new, purpose-built home at Heritage Quay at the University of Huddersfield. With state-of-the-art climate control, better public access and room to house the whole collection in one facility, who knows what stories the Collection will be able to tell in another hundred years?

An interactive display at Heritage Quay, the new home of the BMC.
Credits: Story

Curator — Thomas Butler
With thanks to — Janet Beat and Furore Verlag, Kassel; Michael Finnissy, Oxford University Press and Divine Art Recordings Group; Alistair King; Sophie Standford; Horace Cardew; Janet Waterhouse and the University of Huddersfield Library; David Smith, Robert Clegg and Heritage Quay.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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