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Veterans Day and Armistice Day – Composers in World War I

A few months back, I wrote a post about some of the music of the World War I era, both popular and classical. That post describes the music of that time; however, I did not go into much detail about how World War I affected composers of that era, some penning music that expressed their sense of grief, loss, and futility of war.

One of the sadder composer stories is of George Butterworth, who was born in London in 1885. He attended the University of Oxford and was an acquaintance of Vaughan Williams, sometimes travelling with him to the countryside to collect folk songs. Butterworth joined the war effort shortly after England entered, and he served as a platoon leader. Tragically, he was shot by a sniper during the battle of the Somme. He was 31. Two of his most famous works are song settings of A.E. Housman’s poems: Six Songs from “A Shropshire Lad,” composed in 1911, and Bredon Hill and Other Songs, composed in 1912. We have these books at BRM09510 and BRM02812, respectively.

A poster from the UK during World War I

The veteran’s farewell. Enlist now! 1 print (poster) by Frank Dadd, 1914. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3g10886

Like Butterworth, Arthur Bliss, was keen to join the war effort, and he fought in France until 1917 with the Royal Fusiliers. His brother Kennard was killed in action, and this tragedy affected him deeply. We have two pieces by Bliss in the collection: The Beatitudes: A Cantata for Soprano and Tenor Soli, Chorus, Orchestra and Organ (BRM29678) and The Buckle: for Voice and Piano (BRM21921).

Alban Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian Army from 1915 through 1918. During that time he also worked on his opera Wozzeck, which coalesced many of the tensions, horrors, and distress of the modern age, specifically those of World War I. We have a few digital talking books that discuss this opera: Wozzeck: Commentary by Alfred Glasser (DBM01605), Wozzeck (DBM01314), and Michael Barclay Lectures on “Wozzeck” by Berg (DBM00787). We also have an opera guide with libretto at BRM30057.

Maurice Ravel also wished to join the war effort for France as a pilot; however he was too old, and instead became a truck driver.  Ravel suffered a number of ailments during the war, including insomnia, digestive issues, and frostbite. During the war, he composed Le Tombeau de Couperin. Each of the six movements is dedicated to a friend of Ravel who had died during the war. We have three versions of this piece in bar-by-bar (BRM05545), bar-over-bar (BRM18929), and paragraph formats (BRM21733). Between 1929 and 1930, Ravel also composed the Concerto for the Left Hand (BRM24137), which was commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm during World War I.

Many other composers were affected by the war, including Frederick Delius, Enrique Granados, and Benjamin Britten. Please get in touch with the music section if you would like to borrow any items mentioned in this post.

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