As with all other walks of life, the First World War took its terrible toll on classical music, with many composers and performers dying in battle or left irrevocably scarred. Some pieces of music were written especially for the cause, while others were the result of despair at the tragedy of it all.
Ultimately though, the First World War changed the very course of music history and gave rise to some incredible pieces that may have otherwise not existed. Here are the main impacts that the First World War had on music.
New pieces were composed for the war effort
Numerous composers were inspired to wield their pens for the cause. Although he was ambivalent about the war, Edward Elgar wrote his Carillon for voice and orchestra in support of Belgian resistance in December 1914 and this was soon followed by Polonia, composed for a Polish Victims’ Relief Fund Concert in the Queen’s Hall in London.
Max Reger also wasn’t generally inclined to share many of his colleagues’ enthusiasm for patriotic tub-thumping, but he greeted the beginning of the War with his 15-minute Eine Vaterländische Overtüre (A Patriotic Overture), dedicated it to the German army.
Other composers, including Ruggero Leoncavallo, Valentin Valentinov and Maurice Ravel all rallied to the cause with their music, the latter completing his patriotic Piano Trio just in time to take himself off to war.
Which composers died during the First World War?
British composer George Butterworth was shot at the Somme in 1916 and he left behind only a small handful of works that gave a tantalising glimpse of what might have been. Another talented composer who only left a small number of works was the German Rudi Stephan, who was killed by a Russian sniper at Tarnopol in Ukraine.
Scottish composer Cecil Coles was still writing music while he served on the Western Front and he sent manuscripts of works such as his orchestral suite Behind the Lines back to his friend Gustav Holst before being killed.
Other composers lost to the conflict were the Hungarian Aládar Rádo, Belgian André Devaere, British composers William Denis Browne and Ernest Farrar, Willie B Manson and Frederick Kelly who were both killed in the Somme, and the French composer Fernand Halphen.
Music was written in response to the tragedy of war
The appalling human tragedy of World War One left its indelible mark on a generation of British composers. Some died on the field of battle, while those who survived were deeply affected either by what they had seen or the loss of friends, colleagues and family.
Whatever their stylistic differences, works such as Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony, Holst’s The Planets, Bliss’s early Piano Quartet (composed during the Battle of the Somme), Gurney’s War Elegy and Bridge’s Oration all bear the scars of human conflict.
Technology changed everything
New technologies, particularly the motor car, the telegraph and the advent of recording had a huge impact on music. The War itself involved new technologies such as tanks and submarines, and above all huge pieces of artillery used by both sides.
The new battlefield became a kind of modernist symphony, vividly described by Cecil Barber in the Musical Times, who spent time on the Western Front. ‘The various timbres stand out clearly,’ he wrote. ‘The melancholy passage of great shells, the whizz and bang of smaller ones, the long swishing strides of the gas shells… and the constant spurt of sniper’s fire, molto staccato, in stupendous counterpoint.' One hears that sound echoed in the monstrous percussion of Holst’s ‘Mars’ from The Planets, composed between 1914 and '16.
And everywhere one finds march rhythms, strangely or threateningly distorted, in pieces such as the first of Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet and the third of Alban Berg’s Three Orchestral Pieces.
How World War One facilitated the rise of jazz
In one of the prophetic coincidences of 20th-century history, the first jazz records were released in New York in March, 1917, just a month before the US entered World War One. Though it would be silly to maintain that the Original Dixieland Jazz Band’s raucous creation of ‘Livery Stable Blues’ and ‘Original Dixieland One-Step’ was comparable to thousands of American soldiers throwing themselves into the European fray, both events signalled New World energy surging into Old World culture, a wave of modernity that would transform everything in its path.
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In fact, Europe had already had a taste of the novel pleasures of American music with the pre-war vogue for ragtime: its catchy syncopation had appealed to ballroom dancers and the likes of Debussy and Stravinsky, who wrote ragtime compositions. But jazz was different, more visceral and raffish, hinting at the prurient origins of the word itself.
The normal, respectable sound of brass instruments took on a new character – pungent and intoxicating – when played by the bands accompanying the US Army’s black regiments, such as the ‘Hellfighters’ and the ‘Seventy Black Devils’.
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Did World War One change the role of women in music?
For all its horrors, the First World War gave women unprecedented opportunity to prove they could do what was then seen as men’s work – an important catalyst for some women getting the vote in 1918.
In classical music, though, this doesn’t seem to have been a watershed moment. In 1912 it was, recalls violist and composer Rebecca Clarke, ‘considered very, very strange to have women in a symphony orchestra.’ It was the same after the War. The Hallé’s records show that eight women were admitted in 1916, but by 1920 it was back to being an all-male orchestra until 1941.
Over in the capital, the LSO carried on playing until 1917, when concerts were put on hold until the end of the War. Thirty of its members were in active service, but apart from two female harpists, no other women were employed.
Clarke had been recruited by Henry Wood in 1912 as one of six women to join his Queen’s Hall Orchestra – possibly the first time women had been employed by a professional orchestra – but it wasn’t until many years later that the make-up of orchestras really began to change.
Composers left behind invaluable letters
As with their literary counterparts, a number of composers who went to fight in the First World War wrote often and at length about their experiences.
George Butterworth wrote lengthy letters home, recording the boredom that was a major feature of life in rest behind the trenches: ‘There is nothing to do here – no places to go, the most frightfully dull country imaginable, and any amount of rain’. Tellingly, he never mentioned the honours he was receiving for bravery in his letters, nor does he mention music; it was as if he had entirely put that chapter of his life to one side, in favour of his new, military identity.
Most prolific of the composer correspondents was Ivor Gurney, who wrote practically every day during the war, to fellow composer Herbert Howells (‘Dear Howler’, he would begin), and to other friends from the Royal College. His letters are a brave mixture of humour and deep affection for the other soldiers.