Tuesday, 3 June 2014

Another War Requiem

I am immensely grateful to those members and other correspondents who brought to my attention the current edition of BBC Music magazine, which deals in depth with the subject of the First World War, highlighting the plight of the musicians and composers who were involved and exploring the changes in the world of music that came about as a result of it.  Most of my readers will, I imagine, have heard the names of George Butterworth and Cecil Coles, two particularly promising British composers who died in that war, aged 31 and 29 respectively.  

The Scotsman Coles, little known in his lifetime, was "rediscovered" at the start of the 21st century; one of his works, Cortège, was used as the theme music to a documentary series about the Great War.  Some of his compositions survive as a result of his friendship with Gustav Holst (who at forty had been turned down for military service), to whom he posted copies of his manuscripts while on active service on the Western Front.  If you want to sample Coles's work, I would have to recommend a CD called Artists Rifles, issued in 2004, which includes not only Cortège but recordings of Sassoon, Blunden and others reading from their own work.

Butterworth, a close friend of Ralph Vaughan Williams as well as of Holst, was beginning to make his name as a composer by the time war broke out.  A teacher at Radley College (where our SSF President, Dennis Silk, was coincidentally headmaster for over twenty years in the latter part of the century), he kept his career as a musician secret from his fellow-officers in the Durham Light Infantry; having known him as G. S. Kaye-Butterworth, they discovered only after his death how distinguished a figure he had been. Among his best-known works are his settings of poems from A E Housman's collection, A Shropshire Lad, but it is his Banks of Green Willow, first performed early in 1914, that has captured the public imagination and led to his work featuring in the top 100 favourite classical pieces selected by Classic FM listeners in the annual "Hall of Fame".

The BBC magazine comes with a "free" CD included, containing works by Ivor Gurney and Frank Bridge. Gurney we know well and have been discussing on the SSF Facebook page ever since the BBC documentary about him, The Poet who Loved the War, presented by Tim Kendall in April 2014. Gurney's settings of the work of other poets include Sassoon's "Everyone Sang".  Bridge, on the other hand, is an unknown quantity to most people, even music lovers.  A committed pacifist, who was already in his thirties at the time war broke out, he produced one of his first war-related works in 1915 in the form of a Lament for the victims of the Lusitania.  His Oration, with Steven Isserlis on cello, is the work featured on the CD.

As for Gurney, a lot of what we have learned about him in recent years is a result of the efforts of Philip Lancaster.  Many members will recall how Dr Lancaster led us in a sing-song at our joint event with the WOA at The Lamb a couple of years ago; others will have enjoyed his lecture on Gurney at the recent Spring School in Oxford.  It was therefore disappointing to see him relegated to a non-speaking role in the BBC documentary, mostly popping in and out of library stacks.  Nevertheless, the programme brought Gurney to the attention of many who would otherwise never have heard of him, and showed how music and poetry were intertwined in the course of his artistic career.  Although certainly a tragic figure, he left a rich legacy for us to enjoy.


What the magazine achieves most effectively, however, is to draw attention to other musical figures of the time whose reputations are as yet unmade, not to mention some whose war service has been overlooked because they survived. Who knew, for example, that Arthur Bliss had fought on the Western Front and been mentioned in dispatches, many years before he became Master of the King's Musick?  Who knew that Maurice Ravel, nearly forty at the beginning of the war, was desperate to sign up as an airman but was rejected on health grounds and resorted to driving military vehicles at Verdun, and that Le Tombeau de Couperin was written in memory of fallen friends?  Herbert Howells, a Gloucestershire man like Gurney, was unable to serve after being diagnosed with Graves' disease (nothing to do with the poet of that name!) and was told in 1915 that he had six months to live; he eventually died, aged 90, in 1983.  He did, however, perform a useful service in being a regular correspondent of Ivor Gurney and the recipient of some of his manuscripts, as well as dedicating his 1915 Piano Quartet in A Minor "to the Hill at Chosen and Ivor Gurney who knows it"; the two men had often walked Chosen Hill together.  As for Arnold Bax, who would be Bliss's predecessor as Master of the King's Musick, he too was prevented from enlisting on health grounds, but, in view of his sympathies with the Irish activists involved in the 1916 Easter Rising (one of his works is entitled In Memoriam Patric Pearse), this may have come as a relief to him.  In addition to his music, Bax wrote poetry (heavily influenced by W B Yeats) and prose.


How many, though, have even heard the names of William Denis Browne and Ernest Farrar, not to mention their German equivalent, Rudi Stephan, the Australian F S Kelly and the New Zealander Willie B Manson?  Both Kelly and Browne were companions of Rupert Brooke on board the "Grantully Castle", and it was Browne who selected Brooke's burial place on Skyros. Browne himself was killed only a few weeks later; Philip Lancaster has kindly posted a fascinating article about him on our Facebook group.   The young composer had two degrees from Cambridge - like Siegfried, he was at Clare College, though somewhat later than our hero.  He had also, like Brooke and Sassoon, enjoyed the patronage of Eddie Marsh.


Frederick Septimus Kelly, like Gurney and Bax, had another string to his bow, so to speak, being an Olympic rower! Having survived Gallipoli, he died on the Somme in 1916.  Rudi Stephan, from a privileged background, had been able to get his work published in his early twenties largely thanks to his father's money and influence, but was considered a little avant-garde by contemporary standards; his music is now highly regarded.  He was killed, aged 28, by a Russian sniper on the Galician front, where unrest continues to break out sporadically to this day.

Further material about these composers and their work is not difficult to find on-line.  I was staggered by the sheer quantity, once I started googling.   Although none of the composers who were killed in action are exactly household names now, you can be sure that Siegfried Sassoon, himself no mean practitioner of the piano, would have been familiar with several of them.

The Spaniard Enrique Granados, who died, aged 48, when his cross-channel ferry was torpedoed by a U-boat, has fared a little better, fame-wise, than those mentioned above, on account of having made his name as a composer and performer prior to the outbreak of war; he was in fact on his way back to his homeland from the USA where he had been playing the piano for President Woodrow Wilson. Meanwhile, the Russian Alexander Scriabin, also slightly too old to serve in the war, died in 1915 of septicemia from a sore on his lip!   Avoiding military service has never, alas, been a guarantee of longevity, even if it does give one a slightly better chance.

If I may suggest some further individual works with a wartime flavour, Arthur Bliss's "choral symphony", Morning Heroes, is written in memory of his younger brother Kennard, who was killed in 1916 aged 24, once again reminding us of Sassoon's experiences.  This rather epic work was performed at the Wilfred Owen centenary concert in Shrewsbury Abbey back in 2008, with Robert Hardy as narrator, and uses words from the work of Owen himself, Homer, Walt Whitman, Li Tai Po and Robert Nichols - a somewhat curious combination.  The other work performed at that concert was The Lark Ascending, composed by Ralph Vaughan Williams, yet another Gloucestershire composer, who was too old to enlist as a fighting man but joined the Royal Army Medical Corps and certainly saw some action at the Western Front.  Later he transferred to the artillery, where continued exposure to the sound of the guns led to his becoming deaf in later life, always a disadvantage for a composer.  The poem after which The Lark was named is, coincidentally, by George Meredith, the subject of a 1948 critical study by Siegfried Sassoon.

I could go on all day.  There is, however, another aspect to the music of the First World War, highlighted in the BBC Music magazine, that had not seriously occurred to me, in the shape of its propaganda value.  I'm not just talking about popular songs like "Keep the Home Fires Burning" but about classical music.  I think this may be a subject for a future post.

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