On 24 February the BBC Concert Orchestra explores the art that sprung from the First World War in a programme of music by Butterworth, Holst, Vaughan Williams and Julius Harrison. But throughout the programme there will also be poetry by Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon and AE Housman. Conductor Charles Hazlewood spoke to us about a concert that is close to his heart.
Tell us, first of all, how this programme came about.
This concert is early on in the Southbank’s The Rest is Noise season, which runs throughout the year, starting with music from the beginning of the 20th century. For this concert the series has reached the time of the First World War. We were looking to put together a programme to explore the British response to the war in music. Holst’s A Somerset Rhapsody, Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad and Julius Harrison’s Worcestershire Suite are brilliant examples of summoning up the world as it was before the war – there’s a sense of something beautiful and already desperately nostalgic.
What is the nostalgia for?
It’s for this totally idealised, sepia-tinged world that had been blown apart by the First World War. No one could have been prepared for the force of this thing. You have to remember that in Edwardian England people thought that war was a noble, wonderful thing – there was nothing greater than offering your life as a supreme sacrifice for your country. If you asked those people after the First World War if they still thought war was a good thing? I don’t think so.
Vaughan Williams’s Third Symphony, the ‘Pastoral’, is also in the concert – why have you included that in the programme?
He was a member of the ambulance division, so he’d be going out across the battlefield basically picking up corpses all night – an unthinkingly awful job. And he writes this piece of music called the ‘Pastoral’ Symphony. In one respect it’s looking back at this idealised notion of how England had been – the tranquility of England but under the surface there’s this gnawing disquiet. It’s quite an uncomfortable piece. Vaughan Williams, more than any other British composer, sums up a sense of a world of sweet, known, reasonable things which had been swept away utterly by the war and would never return.
Why did you decide to include poems in the concert?
I think it helps to give the music a broader context. In my view you cannot view music in isolation. We felt very strongly that in order to get a flavour of the time we wanted to put it together with poetry by Housman, Owen and Sassoon.
How much of this music and poetry were you familiar with before starting rehearsals?
I knew all the poetry that was chosen, but I’d never performed the Vaughan Williams symphony but it’s been the most amazing voyage of discovery for me. And there’s a personal aspect to it as well: my grandfather fought in the First World War and was a prisoner of war. At the end of the war he took his young family and moved to New Zealand. Like millions of other young men who’d fought in that war, he then wanted to move as far away as possible from Europe.
What would you say to people planning to come to the concert?
I’d say don’t take the music at face value. It’s very easy to listen to this beautiful, elegiac music – but if you only view it on that dimension you’re missing a whole world that is hinted at darkly – a sort of monster which can’t be expressed.
The BBC Concert Orchestra performs ‘Death of Nostalgia: Music and Poetry from World War One’ on Sunday 24 February at 7.30pm. Photos: BBC/Chris Christodoulou