Day 3- a War


Paul Hindemith, Sonata for Viola and Piano, Op. 11 no. 4

I went to a mini-lecture the the other day about music held by an Oxford professor, and her field of work was among other things the evolution of attitude towards music during WWI, which was fascinating. When I went home I searched up more about the subject – unfortunately there was few articles on this particular topic (but this may be because of my mediocre google search skills. There was nonetheless some relevant information which took a while to find but here’s a short (and very general) overview.

In France, repertoire changed significantly during la Grande Guerre, like in many other countries. Of course, the actual music being written and published would have been affected but the content of the concerts were evolving as well. Indeed, one notices a shift from preferring a few long symphonic pieces – many of which from Austro-German composers-  to many shorter, cheerier and popular works with no sight of German music whatsoever. The reasons for this are understandable: the Germans were the enemy and the last thing the French wished was to provide income to them as well as promoting their music.

With the war offering already a plentiful of death, misery and depression, concerts would have been used as light relief, necessary to uplift the deteriorating morale- long and emotionally heavy pieces were not ideal for the conditions at the time. In comes Debussy out goes Wagner. Furthermore, there was a significant increase in vocal pieces: as sad as it may seem, this was mainly because of the lack of musicians due to conscription (most musicians being male at the time). The public also took part in singing La Marseillaise before and after the concert which rose spirits, included the public and strengthened the patriotic sentiments of the crowd.

And why were the pieces shorter? Because of raids. The high probability of being interrupted halfway through a concert meant that picking up in the middle of a two hour symphony was hardly the best sort of entertainment, whereas starting again a shorter song was easier.Of course this is general and doesn’t apply to all concerts at the time but it does give an interesting link between historical events and music.

On the front side, many composers were fortuitous, just about old enough to escape conscription but many were not. In Germany, Strauss, who had just turned 50, and Hans Pfitzner, then age 45 were lucky to avoid the fate of  many, such as their Austrian colleague Arnold Schoenberg, drafted in 1915 at the age of 41. After being trained as a reserve officer, he carried out his service beginning in 1917 as a musician in a military ensemble. Anton Webern, a fellow pupil of Schoenberg,  registered as a volunteer when he learned he hadn’t been drafted after the outbreak of the war. He had written to Alban Berg (another student of Schoenberg and war-enthusiast)  “I must go to war. I must. I cannot stand it anymore.” However, in the course of their service, Webern and Berg became pacifists, presumably horrified by the atrocities of conflict.

 Hindemith as well as Ravel also saw the war’s cruelty up close. Maurice Ravel, like Webern and Berg was thrilled with the prospect of going to war when it first unfolded. In 1915, the 40-year-old French composer served as a truck driver near Verdun. But on account of the severely injured soldiers he had transported from the front to the hinterland, Ravel too grew to despise the war.

Paul Hindemith, drafted in 1917 at the young age of 22 carried out his service as a drummer in a military music troop. Near Flanders, Hindemith experienced numerous air strikes during concerts and later recounted: “Blood, bodies riddled with holes, brains, a torn off horse’s head, shattered bones – horrible!”. It is said that around 25th March 1917, as he and his music troop were reading through Debussy’s String Quartet, they were informed of Debussy’s death. He said:

We did not play to the end. It was as if our playing had been robbed of the breath of life. But we realized for the first time that music is more than style, technique and the expression of powerful feelings. Music reached out beyond political boundaries, national hatred and the horrors of war. On no other occasion have I seen so clearly what direction music must take.

This war trauma had a drastic effect on composers, as well as artists, philosophers and pretty much anyone with any opinion  (eg. Schoenberg’s twelve-tone music/atonality, Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, Kandinsky’s Composition VIII) The rise of modernist thinking after the war focused on the fragmentation of society and of the self, the decay and growing alienation of the individual, breaking away from the Romantic idyll of the nineteenth century – how could they view the world in the same way after seeing  countries being ripped to shreds?

What do you think? I’m sure I missed out lots of stuff so comment below if you have anything to add- do you know anything else about war’s effects on the arts?

Make sure to click on the links for composer info 🙂

Happy listening!



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