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> > > > Composers, Trauma and The First World War: the sprouted poppy-rooted veins of British pastoral music

28 January 2015

As part of the commemoration of the centenary of the beginning of the 1914 war, Dao commissioned Dr Simon Jenner to write an appreciation of lives of British composers, disabled by The First World War

Ivor Gurney (1890 – 1937)

First World War poets are remembered in their own words, in collections, in themed though often discrete anthologies, and as documenters of the first mass modern trauma. The composers who went through and often didn’t survive the First War were both more numerous and in some cases even more gifted - Ivor Gurney, only recently celebrated, achieved a shrouded greatness as both poet and composer. 

The reason is that with the British musical renaissance there were more gifted or great British composers born to the 20th century than arguably any other country, and unarguably this last century saw the greatest flowering of British talent since the 17th century. Thus the death-roll of British composers was higher than any other nation.

We remember casualties. First the names of those who died: George Butterworth (1885-1916), Frederick Kelly (1888-1916), Denis Browne (1888-1915), Cecil Coles (1888-1918), Ernest Farrar (1885-1918). The first three were known as song composers but Butterworth’s Rhapsody: A Shropshire Lad took this further as well as a clutch of other works he didn’t destroy before he left for the front.

His name is remembered now as one of the finest British song composers. Kelly was Australian, an intellectual who premiered works from the continent, as did Browne, who premiered Berg’s Piano Sonata Op 1. Both were friends of Rupert Brooke and buried him, Brown killed shortly after at Gallipoli. This is how they’re remembered: not their few marvellous songs and internationalist reach.

Coles was répétiteur in Stuttgart: Richard Strauss approved him. Xenophobia drew him home, an old pupil of Holst who preserved his effects after his death in March 1918 saving a comrade. Farrar was a pupil of Frank Bridge (1879-1941), the pacifist and primarily too an orchestral composer.

Damage spreads loss to the way survivors coped with it. For instance, Frank Bridge who paced London at night reflecting on pupils killed and maimed, which had a catalysing effect on his own music, which moved from British pastoral (it had already shifted before the war) to a rapprochement with the Second Viennese School. No wonder his pupil Benjamin Britten inherited his modernist brilliance, technical address and strong pacifist beliefs. 

One earlier pupil who moved Bridge was Douglas Fox a brilliant pianist who lost his right arm and for whom Bridge wrote three left-hand studies in 1918. Fox is still cited, primarily by German contributors on Wikipedia: this echoes Paul Wittgenstein, who similarly lost a right arm and commissioned composers fro left-hand works – Ravel, Schmidt, Prokofiev, Korngold, Britten: pieces we hear today. Wittgenstein was wealthy, and like his philosopher brother Ludwig, tough-minded. German losses are confined to the remarkable Rudi Stephan (1887-1915) expressionist opera composer, who feared what did befall him, a sniper bullet to the brain in Galicia, which killed several, including Butterworth. 

Trauma widens to include familial and social groups of tight-knit people. Gifted musicians from families boasted other talented members. Adolphe Goossens (1896-1916) the horn player was just one of a brilliant family boasting renowned harpists, Marie and Sidonie, world-class oboe player Leon and pianist/conductor composer Eugene.

Kennard Bliss (1892-1916) was the younger brother of Arthur Bliss (1891-1975), of e.g. Things to Come, master of the Queen’s Music) whom Arthur claimed was more gifted than he. Arthur Bliss’s response was protracted. Wounded himself in the same battle that claimed his brother, he kept waking after the Armistice from a recurring dream: he and a few others on either side were detailed to fight on in No-Man’s Land though the war was ended. He never recovered from Kennard’s death.

His masterpiece, Morning Heroes, an oratorio for narrator and orchestra, was, like many other war works, a delayed affair, emerging in 1929. It snapshots poetry from Homer through Whitman to the First War, refracting its futilities and bizarre excitements, which had nearly claimed him

The effect on families, for instance, begins to wrench focus slowly to the living. Gerald Finzi (1901-56) was too young to fight, but lost all his brothers; his work’s infused with regret, loss, and supreme settings of Hardy and Shakespeare. More, he became the protector, with musicologist Marion Scott, of Ivor Gurney (1890-1937). 

Gurney is the most renowned World War One casualty of recent memory by which I mean his twin gifts of major poetry and song-writing of genius has belatedly come to light and been celebrated. The reasons for his obscurity have to do with the protracted, confused publication of his works, still in progress, which also reflect the key factor in his earlier obscurity: his incarceration in two asylums (the latter the City of London) from 1922 till his death in December 1937. Oxford University Press had brought out ten new songs before he died. ‘Too late’ he commented. 

Gurney’s friends called him Schubert; he seemed to Charles Villers Stanford, fine composer and excellent judge, potentially the greatest of the two generations of composers he taught at the RCM. But Gurney was ‘unteachable’. Even his gifted friend Herbert Howells (1892-1983) admitted that. Howells’ own trauma was complex: his son’s death, in 1935; and being too ill for the war, which occasioned survivors’ guilt. He wasn’t able to continue his visits to Gurney once Gurney presented symptoms leading to his unsympathetic family having him certified. 

Gurney’s symptoms might paradoxically have remitted during the military regimen he relished; it certainly occasioned an explosion of poetry – informed by Manley Hopkins whose works appeared in 1918, as well as Whitman, an inspiration to composers particularly, but on Gurney a poetic stimulant too. But the inevitable drag effect of gassing (‘mild’) and loss would amplify the dislocation Gurney experienced when trying to return to his studies and afterwards.

There’s unsung loss: incarceration. British music lovers were stranded on the outbreak of war. The brilliant Benjamin Dale, (1885-1943) - whose Piano Sonata at 20 set Edwardian chamber music alight, with viola works - was interned in the civilian camp at Ruhleben, near Berlin, with fellow composer and RAM professor, Frederick Keel; and the now rediscovered Edgar Bainton (1880-1959) a superb composer obscured – because he emigrated to Australia in 1934! Dale returned, composed less, becoming RAM President and dying of overwork. 

John Foulds (1880-1939) a non-combatant composed a World Requiem regularly performed at the Albert Hall, recently revived. His later works found Indian quarter-tones musically and philosophically liberating from Eurocentric dogmas. Vaughan Williams, ambulance driver (like Ravel) reluctant artillery officer, elegized all in his Third Symphony’s flat bugle call. It set much post-war work. Bliss moved from radicalism. British pastoralism as we know it sprouted poppy-rooted veins, though fixed in the 1910s. Britten’s and Tippett’s pacifist reactions sent one to America, the other to jail. 

Memory, different traumas, impacted on music directly as loss and injury, more obliquely in incarceration, bereavement, guilt. It affected the next generation and even now, with Turnage’s opera The Silver Tassie. This anti-martial expression particularly informs a fractured but still elegaic curve, the rationale and function of British music.

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