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This recital draws its inspiration from those lives upturned by the Great War, whether soldier or civilian. Alongside established works, the programme introduces little known songs which portray the humanity of those caught up in the torrent of war.
This recital draws its inspiration from those lives upturned by the Great War, whether friend or foe, soldier or civilian. Some survived the conflict to produce great catalogues of works. Others never made it home, penning their final songs in the mud of the trenches.
As many of the featured composers fell in battle, I restricted my choice of songs to those composed in the years shortly before, and of, the war itself. With only a few exceptions, the featured poets too were involved in conflict. Alongside established works, this recital programme introduces some little known songs to portray the humanity of those caught up in the torrent of The Great War.
AT THE FRONT
In August 1914 Kaiser Wilhelm II invaded France via neutral Belgium. In his attempt to take Paris quickly, the Kaiser brought the World into a terrible war the likes of which had never been fought before.
Albéric Magnard (1865-1914) became a national hero on 3 September 1914 when he died while defending his property from Germans who were attempting to seize it. From his house he fired shots at the approaching German Cavalry, killing two men. Ultimately Magnard was killed and his house razed to the ground. Many of his manuscripts were destroyed. His gung-ho action towards the Germans is less surprising after hearing Le Rhin allemand, an anti German poem from the Rhine crisis of the 1840s.
Alfred de Musset (1810-1857) was a dramatist and poet. His literary fame spread at an early age, accompanied by a reputation for fast living. During the Rhine Crisis of 1840, de Musset was the librarian of the French Ministry. In response to the poem Rhinelied by the German poet Nikolaus Becker (They shall not have it, the free, German Rhine) de Musset wrote Le Rhin allemand.
Britain already had a professional army of about 800,000 men, but Lord Kitchener knew a far larger force would be needed. After a massive poster campaign men from around the Empire flocked to enlist. In contrast to this, almost half of the soldiers in the German and Russian Armies were conscripts, inflating their ranks to the millions. The difference in soldier numbers was the most significant factor in early British losses.
George Butterworth (1885-1916) enlisted as a Private in the Light Infantry, but was soon commissioned. With the 23rd Division he succeeded in capturing a number of trenches and was awarded the Military Cross. Three weeks later, while defending a trench during the Battle of the Somme, he was killed by a German sniper. Butterworth’s musical reputation is build on a small output of works. Before he went to war he destroyed many of his unfinished manuscripts in case he did not return to revise them.
Alfred Edward Housman (1859-1936) was one of the great classical scholars of his time. The Shropshire Lad (which contains On the idle hill of summer) is a collection of 63 poems which he published in 1896. The poems, set in the shadow of the Second Boer War, became very popular and were widely known by the outbreak of WW1. On the idle hill of summer describes the tramp of the armies heading to war and death, like those who went before them.
Sergei Prokofiev (1891-1953) and his family left Moscow to further his education at the St Petersburg Conservatory. By 1914 he had finished his studies but on the outbreak of war he reenrolled to study organ, and thus avoid conscription. However by 1917's February Revolution Prokofiev felt he had to go even further to escape the disruption to his work; the possible censorship of his experimental music. In May 1918 he left for the USA, followed by periods in Germany and Paris. In 1936 he returned to Russia, just in time for the Nazi invasion.
Boris Verin (1891-?) was the pen name of Boris Nikolayevich Bashkirov. He was a wealthy amateur poet and philosopher, and friend to Prokofiev. They spent the summer of 1916 together and visited each other in the USA and Paris during the 1920’s.
Frederick Delius (1862-1934) was born into a prosperous family in the north of England. After attempting management, he formally began his music studies and moved to France. He and his wife lived there for the rest of his life. During WW1, when the fighting was 20km from their door, they packed or buried their belongings, and left. They travelled by train to Nantes to catch a transport to England. On route they saw thousands of wounded soldiers on their way home and passed the ready fresh faces journeying to replace them at the Front.
Robert Herrick (1591-1674) was a ‘son of Ben’, a follower of literary hero, Ben Jonson, dedicating several poems to him. Herrick took Holy Orders in 1623 and was the vicar of Dean Priory Devonshire for most of his life. He was influenced by classical poetry; writing on pastoral themes and country life. To daffodils deals with the brevity of time, the passing of life.
Allied and German forces began digging trenches in September 1914, a network which would eventually extend from the North Sea in Belgium southward through France, and the stalemate which prolonged the war began. As both sides dug in even cavalry men dismounted to engage the infantry on foot. Army commanders had never encountered this new style of warfare. Generals and their artillery stayed well behind the trenches, while the soldiers, suffering in a subterranean hell, held their lines.
Rudi Stephan (1887-1915) was born in Worms, but left to study in Frankfurt, and then Munich. He is considered a leading composer among his generation despite only leaving a small output of works. Influenced by contemporaries such as Stravinsky, Scriabin and Debussy, Stephan developed his own individual voice. He was killed by a bullet to the brain fired by a Russian sniper on the Galician Front, now in modern Ukraine.
Gerda von Robertus (1872-1939) was the pseudonym of Gertrud von Schlieben. As her father was on the Federal Council she moved in high diplomatic social circles, even being formally introduced to the Berlin Court. Upon his death Gertrud could finally forsake the social life and devote herself to literary work. She first published her poems in 1906.
Cecil Coles (1888-1918) was a Scot who studied at the Royal College of Music and at the Stuttgart Conservatory. He worked at the Stuttgart Opera until 1913. At the outbreak of war Coles joined the Queen’s Victoria Rifles. While at the Front he continued to compose, sending the manuscripts home for safekeeping. On 26 April 1918 while recovering casualties, Coles was killed by a German sniper.
Thomas Moore (1779-1852) was born in Dublin where he attended Trinity College. He moved to London to study law, and lived there until forced to leave following a debt ruling against him. Moore is primarily remembered for his Irish Melodies, setting his own poetry to traditional Irish tunes.
Ernest Farrar (1885-1918) studied at the Royal College of Music. An accomplished organist he held several posts including one in Dresden. He enlisted in the Grenadier Guards in 1915, and was commissioned as 2nd Lieutenant, 3rd Battalion Devonshire Regiment in February 1918. On his second day at the Western Front, Farrar was killed at the Battle of Epehy. The war ended only a few weeks later.
Edward Verrall Lucas (1868-1938) was a poet, humourist, and novelist. His whole working life was in literature. He was an apprentice bookseller, a journalist, and a biographer before joining Punch magazine in 1904.
Darius Milhaud (1892-1974), a member of Les Six, was one of the most prolific of French composers. From 1917-1919 he served as secretary to the French ambassador to Brazil, where the popular music heavily influenced him. In 1940 the rise of Nazism forced Milhaud to emigrate to the USA where he had first heard jazz in the 1920s. There he later taught Dave Brubeck and Burt Bacharach. Milhaud set many poems by his friend Léo Latil, and dedicated songs and a string quartet to him.
Léo Latil (1890-1915) and Darius Milhaud both grew up around Aix-en-Provence. Latil was mobilised on 15 April 1915 into the 67th Infantry Regiment. He was killed in action on 27 September the same year. Written in 1914, Les Lettres d’un Soldat was published after his death.
Of course the conflict was not restricted to Europe. The largest asset and paradoxically the greatest weakness of the British and Prussian Empires was the empire itself; very difficult to defend yet vital to their war effort. Disrupting supply channels of goods and men was a strategy both sides employed. One such campaign took place on the Gallipoli Peninsula, an area of the Ottoman Empire in modern day Turkey. The peninsula forms the northern bank of a strait which was a sea route connecting the Russians and Allies. Britain and France launched a disastrous attack and were defeated by the Ottomans.
William Denis Browne (1888-1915) attended Rugby school on scholarship. He was commissioned into the British Royal Naval Division in September 1914. After the aborted Antwerp Expedition he joined the force heading to Gallipoli. In May 1915 Browne was wounded. He spent a month recuperating before rejoining the battle where he died after being wounded again. His body was never recovered.
Ben Jonson (1572-1637) was one of the most influential playwrights and poets in British history. He was a well cultured man of the English renaissance whose satirical and comedy writing is still lauded. Jonson fought with English Regiments in Flanders before returning to London where he joined the acting group, Admiral’s Men. At home he continued to fight and was briefly jailed for killing a man in a duel. Jonson found a patron in King James I and saw his plays performed on the London stage. His followers, who made up the ‘Tribe of Ben’, included poets Richard Lovelace and Robert Herrick.
Richard Lovelace (1618-1657) was from a distinguished military family and a Royalist during the English Civil War. His enthusiastic involvement in politics led to several incarcerations. After one twelve month prison sentence, during which King Charles I was executed and Lovelace’s cause was lost, his creative powers were at their highest, penning his first volume of poetry ‘Lucasta’.
Henry Constable (1562-1613) studied in Cambridge where he converted to Catholicism (not an easy choice in Elizabethan England). It is thought he might have been a spy in the employ of Walsingham, but Constable certainly acted as an intermediary for the Pope. Only one work of his was printed during his life, Diana, from which Diaphenia is his most famous poem.
Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916) was born in Sydney, Australia, but was sent to Eton College and then Oxford for his education. While there he began rowing, soon competing at the highest levels: Henley, the Boat Race, and the 1908 Olympics. Afterward he focused on music, studying in Frankfurt. In 1914 Kelly was commissioned into the British Royal Naval Division and sent to Gallipoli. Despite being wounded he survived the Gallipoli campaign and was sent to fight in France. He died while rushing a German machine gun post at the Battle of the Somme in November 1916.
William Shakespeare (1564-1616) is widely regarded as the greatest dramatist in the English language.
Once Russia had pulled out of the war, the Germans turned their attention to breaking the stalemate that existed on the Western Front. On 18 March 1918 they launched their Spring Offensive firing a million shells onto the Allies in just 50 hours. Field Marshal Douglas Haig, the commander of the British Forces, made a final rallying call to arms. Britain responded. Industry sent more munitions to the Front than at any other time, and recruiting offices saw a rush of men from protected employment coming forward to enlist. The German Spring Offensive did not break the Allies but it damaged the Germans. Their soldiers were demoralised and the supplies crippled by anti-war protests at home. By June 1918, the tide had turned. With one million American troops boosting the ranks, a huge Allied force was unleashed. The Germans had to retreat and finally signed an Armistice on 11 November 1918.
In 1914 a Berlin racecourse was quickly converted into a makeshift camp to house thousands of men from the Allied Powers who were in Germany when the War broke. The camp, holding up to 5,500 prisoners over the course of the war, was run by the prisoners themselves. They organised a postal service, a newspaper, even a police force to make life in the camp more tolerable. There were also several cultural clubs including an orchestra, a drama society, and a composers group.
James Frederick Keel (1871-1954) was the chair of the Ruhleben Musical Society. He frequently contributed to the weekly concerts both as composer and performer. In prison was composed in the camp in 1915. After the war he continued to arrange and perform concerts with fellow Ruhleben inmates, and wrote a book about the camp, Life in Ruhleben, 1914-1918.
William Morris (1834-1896) was an English artist and poet. He was the founding editor of the Oxford and Cambridge Magazine, where many of his early poems appeared. His continuing fame is predominantly due to his leadership of the Arts and Crafts movement. In prison was first published in 1858 in Morris’ The Defence of Guenevere and Other Poems.
Edgar L Bainton (1880-1956) was arrested while en route to the Bayreuth Festival and transferred to Ruhleben. He became the vicechairman of the Ruhleben Musical Society and was an active member; composing for, and performing in, the weekly concerts given at the camp. All night under the moon was written in 1917 while Bainton was interned. After his release he returned to his post as Principal of the Newcastle Conservatory.
Robert Bridges (1844-1930) studied at Eton and Oxford. He was a doctor who penned poetry until lung disease forced him to retire in 1882. He then devoted himself to poetry full time. In 1900 he became a Fellow of the Royal College of Physicians, and in 1913 he was appointed as Poet Laureate.
Wilfred Wilson Gibson (1878-1962) was a friend of Edgar Bainton. They often took country walks together. Gibson joined the British Army in 1914, and served briefly on the Western Front as a Private in the Infantry.
Benjamin Dale (1885-1943) was detained in Germany while traveling to the Bayreuth Festival. As a member of the Ruhleben Music Society Dale gave talks on Beethoven Symphonies, recreated the score of The Mikado from memory, and wrote incidental music for a performance of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. He was interned in Ruhleben until 1918 when, after breaking his arm and promising not to escape, he was moved to a farm in the Netherlands.
During their advance in Belgium, the German army looted raw materials to feed their war machine. They killed thousands of civilians, something which was new to European war. They also took 58,000 Belgians hostage to ensure obedience and used many as forced labour. The father of French 10 year old Yves Congar was taken hostage when the Germans entered his town of Sedan and sent to Lithuania. Yves kept a unique record of the war in his illustrated diary Journal de la guerre 1914-1918. His entries on forced requisitioning and the desire of the French people are mirrored almost exactly by Debussy’s text for his song Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons.
We no longer have half a gram of bread to eat—the swines will leave us to die of hunger—too bad—after all we are French and if we have to die we shall die but France will be victorious.’ (Yves Congar, 4 November 1914)
Claude Debussy (1862-1918) is among the most influential composers of the 20th century. As a child Debussy had fled Paris to escape the Franco-Prussion war. As an adult suffering from cancer, such an escape was impossible during WW1. Debussy died amid the artillery bombardment of Paris during the Spring Offensive. His last song, Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maisons, is a call for the children of France to be victorious.
While millions of soldiers went to fight, many more civilians were left at home to drive the War machine. They had to supply everything needed by the soldiers: uniforms, shells, guns, tanks, aircraft, ships. To do this, women and young men had to step into the industrial workplaces. Essential work as ambulance drivers, medics, and engineers was given to men deemed unsuitable to fight. Those left at home did not escape the ravages of this war. For the first time casualties were to be found far beyond the battlefields as new technologies made it easier to attack the home nations. The continental Franco-Prussian war had ended just 40 years before WW1, but being an island, Britain had not faced the threat of invasion for over a century. Raids by the modern German Air Force on London were so unexpected they took place in daylight. Coastal British towns, Lowestoft and Yarmouth amongst others, were bombarded by the heavily armed German Navy. The Germans wanted more British troops on the east coast in an attempt to rally support from the Irish Nationalists who fought the Easter Rising in 1916.
Michael Head (1900-1976) was rejected for military service in January 1918. Instead he was set to work in a munitions factory. It was there that he wrote Over the rim of the moon, settings of Irish poet Francis Ledwidge.
Francis Ledwidge (1887-1917), from Slane, Co Meath, enlisted in the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers. Despite his Irish nationalist leanings he signed up to the British Army. He believed he was furthering the cause of Irish Independence by fighting for the British. Another reason may be the loss of his love, Ellie Vaughey. While stationed in Manchester Ledwidge read Ellie’s obituary in the newspaper. To one dead (A blackbird singing) was one of the elegies Ledwidge wrote to her. Ledwidge survived postings in Gallipoli and Serbia before his battalion was posted to Ypres. There, on 31 July 1917, he was blown to bits when a shell exploded beside him. He is buried in Passchendaele.
Albert Roussel (1869-1937) had served in the French Navy before enrolling to study music in the Schola Cantorum aged 29. A native of Flanders, Roussel tried to enlist in an artillery regiment but was deemed too ill to fight. Instead he served as a transport driver with the Red Cross at both Verdun and the Battle of the Somme.
Georges Jean-Aubry (1882-1950) was the pen name of Jean-Frédéric-Emile Aubry. He was born in Le Havre and stayed in France but for a few years in London from 1919. He worked in music as a magazine editor and critic.
Pierre Vellones, pseudonym of Pierre Édouard Léon Rousseau, (1889-1939) was a keen composer and friend to many in French music circles including Ravel and Roussel. However his father steered him away from a career in music. Instead Vellones became a doctor. In 1914 he was assigned to the 117th Infantry Regiment with whom he served as a medical assistant. Lettre du front was written on 24 February 1916.
Marcel Manchez was a French playwright whose play English Maid was featured at the Théâtre aux Armées de la République in 1917. In the 1920s and 30s he wrote and produced his own films.
Returning soldiers found a very different country to the one they left. Their regular jobs were now being carried out by women, rationing was enforced, and although industry boomed during the war, the economies were ruined by the huge expense of the conflict. However many soldiers returned too mentally damaged to notice. Shell Shock was a condition never seen before the War. Harsh treatments such as Electroshock therapy were used to jolt the sufferer back to his normal state. Doctors at Craiglockhart, Edinburgh believed soldiers were repressing their experiences, thus exposing themselves to even further mental anguish which manifested in the visible physical symptoms. To get better the patients needed to talk about their memories. This was groundbreaking and today is the backbone of trauma therapy. War hospitals developed many advances in medicine, including reconstruction and orthopedic surgeries, bone grafting, and x-ray.
Arthur Bliss (1891-1975) joined the army when the war first broke out. He served in France as an officer in the Royal Fusiliers and the Grenadier Guards. He was wounded at the Somme in 1916 and, two years later, gassed at Cambrai. Bliss wrote to The Pall Mall Gazette championing performances of British music, a cause he continued after the war. On returning home wounded from the Somme he 'heard a (London) public vociferously applauding a German soloist', and developed a very personal musical style which owed little to German models.
Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) was already in service with the Sussex Yeomanry on the day the United Kingdom declared war. He was commissioned into the Royal Welsh Fusiliers as a second lieutenant on 29 May 1915. Sassoon’s periods of duty on the Western Front were marked by exceptionally brave actions, including the single-handed capture of a German trench. Deepening depression at the horror the soldiers were forced to endure produced in Sassoon a paradoxically manic courage, and he was nicknamed 'Mad Jack' by his men. His efforts were rewarded with a Military Cross. In 1917 his letter, Finished with the War: A Soldier’s Declaration, was read in parliament. Instead of facing a court-martial however, the Under-Secretary of State for War declared Sassoon insane and sent him to military hospital. There was only one way for Sassoon to escape the hospital, and that was to give up his protest. By July 1918 Sassoon was back on the Western Front where he was hit by friendly fire. He spent the remainder of war in Britain.
Ivor Gurney (1890-1937) enlisted in the Gloucestershire Regiment in February 1915. He served at the Front, and after being gassed, was sent to the Edinburgh War Hospital, Bangour, on 25 Sept 1917 where he recuperated for a month. However he suffered a serious breakdown in March 1918 and was rehospitalised. In October he was honourably discharged from the army. After the war Gurney’s mental distress continued to worsen. In 1922 his family had him declared insane. He spent the last 15 years of his life in mental hospitals.
Frederick William Harvey (1888-1957) had been a close friend of Ivor Gurney since childhood. He too joined the Gloucestershire Regiment, but earlier, on 8 August 1914. He served in Flanders and France, was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and promoted. In 1916, after officer training, Harvey returned to France where he was captured by the Germans. The remainder of his war was spent in prisoner of war camps. In Flanders was written on Christmas Day 1915.
André Caplet (1878-1925) was the conductor of the Boston Opera from 1910-1914. He was determined however to serve his county and volunteered for the French Army. Quand reverrai-je, hélas! was composed at the Front while under fire. During the war Caplet was wounded several times and exposed to toxic gas which left him forever weakened. He later developed, and died of, pleurisy.
Joachim Du Bellay (c1522-1560) came from a noble family, studied Law, and was secretary to his cousin Cardinal Jean du Bellay in Rome. It was in response to the pomp and debauchery he found in what he hoped would be a city of mythical antiquity that he wrote Heureux qui, comme Ulysse, a fait un beau voyage (a sonnet whose second quatrain is Quand reverrai-je, hélas!) in which he criticises Rome and expresses his desire to return home to Anjou.
Charles D’Orléans (1394-1465) was the Duke of Orléans from 1407. He was captured at the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 and spent the following 24 years in England as a prisoner of war. During his captivity he wrote two books of poetry, one in French and the other in English.
As the war dragged on there was a real possibility of it ending when one side simply ran out of men. Fortunately Field Marshall Haig’s Call to Arms and the arrival of American troops to boost the ranks brought the War to a swift end.
Charles Ives (1874-1954) studied music at Yale University. After graduating he worked as an insurance broker while composing in his spare time. He was successful in both fields, starting his own insurance firm and winning a Pulitzer Prize for his compositions. WW1 so affected Ives that he tried to enlist into the volunteer ambulance service of the YMCA in 1918. He was rejected. His collection 3 Songs of the War (in which In Flanders fields appears) is fundamentally about WW1, but Ives uses themes from American Civil War songs (his father was an Army bandleader at that time), marrying two atrocious conflicts which affected his family.
John McCrae (1872-1918) was a Canadian doctor appointed as a field surgeon in the Canadian artillery. He was charged with running a field hospital during the Battle of Ypres in 1915. The burial of his friend, Alexis Helmer, inspired the poem In Flanders fields, written on 3 May 1915. After publication McCrae became quite a celebrity but he continued to work in the Canadian General Hospital in Northern France until 1918 when he died of pneumonia.
Robin Tritschler © 2014