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Musical lamentation

Klaus Gehrke / gswAugust 7, 2014

The patriotic and heroic sounds in concert halls began to vanish from concert halls as the horrors of the war set in. Rather than singing the praises of war heroes, composers turned to requiems.

A troop of musicians from WWI
Image: picture alliance / Mary Evans Picture Library

Whether in Berlin, Vienna, Paris or London: by the end of July 1914, there was widespread support for mobilizing the armed forces. Young men enthusiastically registered for the war effort - in the hope of returning from their service as heroes decorated with medals of honor.

They soon discovered the reality on the battlefield was something entirely unexpected.

Initial doubts

Heroic sounds were still standard fare at home in concert halls far from the front, but by the end of 1914, some composers already began to doubt the government's war push. Claude Debussy, a thoroughly patriotic Frenchman, wrote in 1916: "The war continues - it's unfathomable. When will the hatred finally cease? Can you even talk about hate when it comes to this development in history? When will people stop entrusting the fate of nations to people who view humanity as a means to their own ascent?"

With his "Noel des enfants qui n'ont plus de maison," (Christmas Carol for Children from Destroyed Homes), Debussy brought forth one of the first works to take up the horrors of the war.

Maurice Ravel at a piano
Maurice Ravel wrote music for friends lost in the warImage: picture-alliance/dpa

A musical monument

The longer the fighting lasted, the more musicians examined and worked through the topic of death or used their works to mourn the loss of close friends. One of the best known of these pieces is Maurice Ravel's piano suite "Le tombeau de Couperin" (Couperin's Grave), which was written between 1914 and 1917 and later adapted by the composer into an orchestral version.

French composers working during the Baroque used "tombeau" in pieces for colleagues who had died. Ravel dedicated his "tombeau" to Francois Couperin, France's greatest Baroque composer. With the six-movement suite composed successively over the course of World War I, it became an elegy of a different kind. Ravel dedicated each of the individual movements to a fallen soldier from within his circle of friends.

He wasn't the only one to write piano music as an expression of mourning. British composer Frank Bridge also wrote a piano sonata for a friend who died in 1918 - Ernest Farrar. In Germany, Max Reger's "Requiem," begun in 1915 and dedicated to German soldiers who had lost their lives, was never completed.

Requiem for all war dead

The well-known composer Hanns Eisler, who grew up in a left-leaning home and later established contact with the Communist Party, began working in 1916 during his time in the military on an anti-war oratorio ("Oratorium gegen den Krieg"). This work also remained unfinished. For his song "Epitaph auf einen in der Flandernschlacht Gefallenen" (Epitaph for a Fallen Soldier in the Battle of Ypers), Eisler's friend Bertolt Brecht wrote the lyrics.

Soldiers huddled in a trench
Many musicians lost their lives in the trenchesImage: picture alliance/akg-images

Years later, Britain's Ralph Vaughan Williams worked through his war experiences on the French front. In 1922, he wrote his Symphony No. 3, known as the Pastoral Symphony. And a quarter of a century before Benjamin Britten wrote his famous "War Requiem," drawing from the terrors of the Second World War, his now largely forgotten colleague John Foulds composed "A World Requiem" - a moving denunciation of the senseless deaths between 1914 and 1918.

Debilitating trauma

In contrast to many of his contemporaries who often enthusiastically carried out tours of duty for the Russian Tsar, Igor Stravinsky lived in Swiss exile and avoided enlistment. But in 1918, he also took up the theme of war.

"My 'Histoire du soldat' remained my only work for stage taking up contemporary events," Stravinsky said in 1962 of his work known in English as "The Soldier's Tale." In it, the protagonist tries to outsmart the devil, but is ultimately overpowered by demonic force - a moving parable on the seductive force of the powers that be.

When Stravinsky's work premiered on September 28, 1918, in Lucerne, the First World War was only a few weeks before ending. Its effects on many composers' creative output cannot be ignored.

In the wartime years of destruction and death, few composers were still writing music. Even after war's end, it would take some time for the pain and trauma to settle and a musical consideration of the years 1914-1918 to begin.