Music of Peace from Great Composers in the First World War

Cortot Landscape 1870(Photo: WikiArt)
Cortot Landscape 1870(Photo: WikiArt)

It was called “The Great War,” then “The War to End All Wars,” and finally, “The First World War,” a dubious distinction considering what it implies about the future.  But even in times of great destruction and turmoil and its aftermath, music has the power to supply much needed solace and beauty.

That is certainly the case with works of three composers I have this evening on Symphony @ 7.

Ralph Vaughan Williams was an ambulance driver serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps.  His Symphony No. 3, which was published in 1922 as A Pastoral Symphony, was inspired by events in France in the summer of 1916.

Instead of expressing the horror of war in music, Vaughan Williams chose to remember a peaceful scene of driving to the top of a hill to watch the sun set on a Cortot-like landscape.  These impressions, plus the sounds of a bugler practicing below made their way into this highly contemplative work.

A Pastoral Symphony is in four movements, all of them rather moderate or slow in tempo.

The final movement has a part for a wordless soprano voice, which may have been suggested by hearing a girl singing in the field.  This is very much music of tranquility and peace inspired by a scene in nature, although its genesis was in a time of great man-made destruction and chaos.

George Butterworth was a close friend of Vaughan Williams who died from a sniper’s bullet on the battlefield in France on August 5, 1916 at the age of 31.  He was considered by some to be the most promising English composer of his generation.

Today, George Butterwoth is remembered for his song settings of A. E. Hausman’s poems from A Shropshire Lad and the piece I have this evening, a six minute orchestral idyll, The Banks of Green Willow composed in 1913, a year before the war started.  It is lovely serene music based on folk melodies he collected in Sussex in 1907.

French composer Maurice Ravel tried to enlist in the war to become a flyer because  he thought his small stature and light weight would be an advantage.  Because of his age and weak health, however, he didn’t qualify, so Ravel became a truck driver and was stationed at the Verdun front, the site of one of the costliest battles of the war.

Ravel wrote the six movement piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin (At the Tomb of Couperin) between 1914 and 1917, based on the traditional Baroque suite.  It was both a tribute to the 18th century French Baroque Era as exemplified by Francois Couperin, and more specifically, each movement was a tribute to a friend who had died in the war.

In 1919, Ravel orchestrated four of the movements, Prelude, Forlane, Menuet, and Rigaudon, into the popular suite I’ll have for you tonight.

Even with its nostalgic longing for the past, Le tombeau de Couperin is the lightest sounding music I have for this evening’s program of works related to The First World War.  When Ravel was criticized for the lightness of tone in music commemorating his fallen comrades, he is said to have replied, “The dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence.”

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