Classical music and the First World War

The First World War is often remembered through its literature, but many classical composers also reflected and shaped attitudes to the war.

Composers were involved in active service and some including George Butterworth, F S Kelly, William Denise Browne, Ernest Farrar and the Scottish composer Cecil Coles did not survive.

The majority of music written during the war was by those too old or unfit to serve – it was difficult for composers to write whilst on active service.

Composers on the home front wrote music to mourn, commemorate and to raise spirits. Later, composers returning from the front after the war channelled their experiences of trauma and loss into their compositions.

Some of the most memorable pieces were inspired by a response to war. Just a selection:

Ralph Vaughan Williams – Pastoral Symphony (1922) – this elegiac piece represents Vaughan Williams’ personal response to the horrors of war and the scenes he witnessed.

Edward Elgar – Carillon (1914) and The Spirit of England (1915-1917) – Elgar held strong views about the idea of war: both these pieces were inspired by World War One.

Arthur Bliss – Morning Heroes – A Symphony for the Orator, Chorus and Orchestra (1930) – Bliss fought at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 and was noted for his bravery. Despite his heroism he suffered long lasting psychological pain which he was able to find public expression for through his music.

Ivor Gurney – Gurney served with the 2/5th Battalion Gloucestershire Regiment. He wrote over 300 songs, several of which including `Severn Meadows’, `By a Bierside’ and `In Flanders’ are known to have been written while he was serving in the trenches.

Gustav Holst – The Planets (1914) – Holst seemed to have foreseen the ferocity of war with his depiction of war-like Mars in The Planets.

Benjamin Britten – War Requiem (1961) – Written for the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral following war damage in World War Two, this piece represents Britten’s cry of fury at the futility of war and expresses his pacifist beliefs.

Borrow these pieces on CD or stream online on Naxos.

Browse our specially chosen selection of books, CDs and DVDs on classical music and the First World War.

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