Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Great War and Music

This month is the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War I, sometimes called the Great War, which was an horrific rupture in European civilization that shaped the modern world. The Times (of London) has an article about the effects on music that is quite good. There will be a concert at the Proms devoted to some of the composers who died. Sample paragraph:

Two other promising young composers, the New Zealander Willie Manson and the Englishman George Wilkinson, were both killed on July 1, 1916 — the ghastly first day of the Battle of the Somme. And then there are the two relatively unknown figures whose music is being featured in the forthcoming Prom: the German, Rudi Stephan, and the Australian, Frederick Septimus Kelly. Though the former was only 28 when he was killed in 1915, he was already regarded as the leading German composer of his generation. His powerfully elegiac Music for Orchestra shows why, but tragically we will never know the full extent of his powers because, in a stroke of supreme irony, most of the music he wrote was destroyed by an Allied bombing raid in the Second World War.
The article has no illustrations nor clips, so, just to underline the horror of this war, I give you this photo of a machine gun squad (maybe two squads?) of the Irish Guards. Every single person you see in the photo died in the war. Imagine the impact of this on a small Irish town.

There were two main effects that I can think of: first, the deaths of a whole generation of the best and brightest. These were the people that tended to end up in the officer corps and, according to the remarkable book on his experiences by Robert Graves, Goodbye to All That, the casualty rate among front-line officers (of whom he was one) was 90%. The other effect was on the survivors and explains the extreme pessimism and tortured aesthetic vocabulary of those who survived. The years before the Great War were prosperous and peaceful in Europe and the book that describes this is The Banquet Years by Roger Shattuck.

One of the most horrific things about the Great War was that it was not the "war to end all wars", but merely the first part of a greater conflict that only ended in 1945 with the end of the Second World War. There has been a revival of optimism and a less-tortured approach to aesthetics since then, so perhaps we can hope that the Great Wars of the 20th century, which have been called a "suicide attempt by Western Civilization" were finally an unsuccessful suicide attempt! Perhaps civilization will survive after all, though there are certainly enough new barbarians to confront...

The logical piece to listen to would be the Tombeau de Couperin by Maurice Ravel, each movement of which is dedicated to a friend of his who lost his life in the war:

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