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14 composers who died in the First World War

Tragically around 20 million men lost their lives during the First World War, including many composers. Here are some of those who sadly never made it home

Which composers died during WW1
Published: October 7, 2021 at 3:16 pm

It’s thought that some 20 million men died during the First World War. Given many had little choice but to serve their country at some point during the 1914-18 conflict, it’s no wonder that composers did their bit too.

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Holst wanted to serve, but was thought too old and unfit. He did visit Eastern Front troops in a musical capacity, though, so did his bit. Then there’s Ravel, who was also not allowed to join up as he was too slight – he went anyway, helping medical teams. Berg was also considered unfit for service, instead doing his bit with the Austrian War Ministry. Vaughan Williams lied about his age, pretending to be younger, so he could serve as a private in the Army.

Some, like EJ Morean and Ivor Gurney, made it through by the skin of their teeth; they returned home with their lives, even if they did so with physical and mental scars. Others were not so fortunate, as the following list attests. Many died in battle, others – like Granados – were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Then there are those who suffered ill health as a result of what they’d seen and where they’d been.

Which composers died during WW1?

William Denis Browne

Died 1915, at Gallipoli. Browne is said to be the first composer to die in the First World War and at his own behest, very few of his works survived.

Rudi Stephan

Died 1915, when he was hit by a sniper on the Eastern Front. Stephan was one of Germany’s most prominent and promising young composers.

George Butterworth

George Butterworth died in 1916, aged 31, when he was hit by a sniper during the Battle of the Somme. He was posthumously awarded a medal for bravery.

Enrique Granados

Enrique Granados died in 1916, after the ship he was travelling on was torpedoed in the English Channel. He and his wife drowned. He had stuffed gold into his belt, which didn’t help. It probably seemed like a good idea at the time.

Frederick Kelly

Died 1916, in the Battle of the Somme. The Australian composer was also a gold medal-winning Olympic rower.

Willie B. Manson

Died 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. Manson was from New Zealand and studied at the Royal Academy of Music (one of the best music colleges and conservatoires in the world).

Francis Purcell Warren

Died 1916, at Mons. He was presumed dead after being missing for some time. Purcell Warren was actually a violinist who studied at the Royal College of Music, though he also composed. He was acquainted with Herbert Howells.

George Jerrard Wilkinson

Died 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme at Beaumont Hamel. Wilkinson was a composer and a notable folk dancer.

Fernand Gustave Halphen

Died 1917, from ill health while serving in a French territorial regiment – he was too old to serve at the front. Halphen was a composer and violinist.

Frank Maurice Jephson

Died 1917. Jephson was an organist and composer.

Georges Antoine

Died 1918, from ill health a few days after the war ended. Antoine was a Belgian composer and pianist.

Cecil Coles

Died 1918, near to the Somme while attempting to rescue other casualties. Coles was a pupil/protege of Gustav Holst and in 1917 he sent Holst a blood-spattered copy of a work he penned while in the trenches – Behind the Lines.

Ernest Bristow Farrar

Died 1918, at Ephey Ronnssoy, near the Somme. Farrar was Gerald Finzi’s composition teacher.

Herbert Matheson

Died 1918, on the Western Front. Matheson was an organist and composer.

Recommended recordings and books…

Coles/Holst – Piano Music (Delphian)

George Butterworth – Orchestral Works (BIS)

Rudi Stephan – Chamber Works and Songs (Sony Classical)

Dweller in the Shadows – A Life of Ivor Gurney (by Kate Kennedy)

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Top image credit: Getty Images

Authors

Michael BeekReviews Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Michael is the Reviews Editor of BBC Music Magazine. He was previously a freelance film music journalist and spent 15 years at St George's Bristol. Michael specialises in film and television music and was the Editor of MusicfromtheMovies.com. He has written for the BBC Proms, BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal Albert Hall, Hollywood in Vienna and Silva Screen Records.

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