British Music of the First World War

February 19, 2016

We tend to associate British Music of the First World War with songs such as Pack up your Troubles .., Its a long way to Tipperary etc. But as those who attended the talk given by local historian Tim Porter learned recently, classical music was also being composed throughout that terrible conflict, music  that brought solace, inspiration and hope to an already musically literate nation.

This fascinating talk covered the music of Gustav Holst, Ivor Gurney, Edward Elgar, Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Foulds.   The practicalities of composition made it hard for composers who were actively on duty.  So ideas were stored up for future composition, for example Vaughan Williams whose Pastoral Symphony so subtly and atmospherically caught the desolation and horror of the Western Front.  Then there was Ivor Gurney, already in 1914 a gifted musician and later on a poet, who incredibly was able to write in quiet moments between fighting battles.

here were others who didn’t participate in the war but still reacted to it such as Gustav Holst whose Planets Suite was written partly before and partly during WW1 (paradoxically Mars, the bringer of War was written before the war – a premonition of things to come).   Also reacting to the war – and this time contradicting it, Elgar wrote the music for The Starlight Express, a fantasy play which ran very successfully for weeks.   Finally we learned of John Foulds’ World Requiem, “A Cenotaph of Sound” and a call for pacifism for all nations, that was first performed on Armistice Day in 1923 and was performed with support of the Royal British Legion until 1926.  (Interestingly it was only first heard in Germany in 2014.)

The talk, which was liberally supported by extracts from the composers, was much appreciated by members and guests of the Society.

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