Why do we remember the poets but not the composers of WW1?

While much of the poetry of the First World War chimed with later protestations about war and pacifism, its composers, deserve also to be as well-known


George Butterworth, Cecil Coles and Ivor Gurney

The poets of World War One - Sassoon, Owen, Blunden - have acquired an almost celebrity status. Books about the war such as All Quiet on the Western Front and A Farewell to Arms have become bestsellers. But the work of composers who fought in the trenches has largely been forgotten.

Ivor Gurney and George Butterworth belonged to a generation of composers known as the 'pastoral school' who took their inspiration from rural life in England. Like Ralph Vaughan Williams, Butterworth was a great collector of English folk songs. Cecil Coles was assistant conductor at the Stuttgart Royal Opera House before he returned to Britain in 1913.

Before the war, music halls were a popular form of entertainment but there was also a thriving classical music scene. Gramophones were expensive and the radio had yet to be invented, so to listen to music the public had to attend concerts. And they had a rich variety to choose from.

Concert goers would have heard works by British composers Elgar, Parry and Stanford that were largely influenced by their German forbears. But they would have also have heard new modern music by Stravinsky and Schoenberg.

German composers Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven and Bach were popular, but when war broke out there was an attempt to ban German music. Sir Henry Wood, first conductor at the Proms which began in 1895, insisted that 'the greatest examples of Music and Art are world possessions and unassailable even by the prejudices of the hour'.

Impact of war on music

Concerts became more difficult to stage during the war years. The Halle Orchestra, had to employ female musicians because so many of its members were serving at the front. Hubert Parry helped to start the Music in Wartime Committee to aid musicians who were in financial difficulty because of the war.

Ivor Gurney, George Butterworth and Cecil Coles were among the young men who signed up to fight at the front. Ralph Vaughan Williams was 41 when the war began and could have avoided active service, but chose to enlist in the Royal Army Medical Corps. Remarkably, some composers who served in the armed forces managed to continue to write new music during this time. Cecil Coles, Ivor Gurney and George Butterworth were all composers who fought in World War 1 and whose experiences influenced their music.

Cecil Coles served at the front as bandmaster with the Queen's Victoria Rifles. One of the most promising musicians of his generation, he was 29 when he was killed near the Somme in 1918.

Ivor Gurney served as a signaller and considered himself a composer first and a poet second. He survived the war and died of tuberculosis at the age of 47 leaving behind a significant body of both music and poetry, much of it unpublished at his death.

George Butterworth served as Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry. Like Vaughan Williams and Gurney, he set the poems of AE Housman to music. His settings of poems from 'A Shropshire Lad', Housman's most famous work, reflect on mortality and life in rural England.

Butterworth actually wrote the music to Housman's poem 'The Lads in Their Hundreds' in 1911, before the outbreak of the war. The poem contained the message that in a group of young men there would be a 'few that will carry their looks or their truths to the grave'.

Butterworth was 31 when he was killed during the Battle of the Somme in 1916. He became one of the 'lads that will die in their glory and never be old' and was awarded the Military Cross posthumously.

After the Armistice

Returning troops celebrated the end of the war with songs from the trenches. Popular music was influenced by new American jazz. By the late 1920s, the celebrations were replaced by more sombre acts of remembrance like the two minute silence. The British Legion 'Festival of Remembrance' first took place in 1927 and featured communal singsongs of popular trench songs.

The Armistice Day concert broadcast by the BBC in the same year was a more sombre affair and featured music by Elgar and Parry. Parry's 'Jerusalem' was linked to the 'Fight for Right' movement of 1916 that attempted to raise morale.

Composers who had fought in the war were heavily influenced by their experiences. Arthur Bliss dedicated his choral symphony 'Morning Heroes' to his brother who died in combat. Vaughan Williams' work 'A Pastoral Symphony' was written as an elegy to fallen comrades. Gustav Holst, whose ill health prevented him from enlisting, wrote 'Ode to Death' in response to composer friends who had died in the war, particularly Cecil Coles.

Should war composers have more recognition?

Martyn Brabbins, Conductor: Cecil Coles' gravestone, which I visited in France last summer, is inscribed "He was a genius before anything else, and a hero of the first water". This gives a clue to the high regard he was held in by those who knew him. I was honoured to have been given the task of completing an orchestration and subsequently conducting in performance and on record the "Cortege" from Coles' Behind the Lines suite. The poignancy of this funereal lament is profoundly moving and deeply touching when heard in the context of the tragic reality of this youthful composer's life and death.

Professor Jeremy Dibble, Professor of Music: While much of the poetry of the First World War chimed with later protestations about war and pacifism, its composers, who deserve to be as well-known as their literary confreres, expressed a complex but deeply affecting range of emotions embracing heroism, courage, patriotism, grief, horror and personal tragedy from the perspective of several generations.

Director, Hebrides Ensemble: Those who were killed, such as Butterworth, Kelly, Browne and Coles, have left a poignant legacy of lost potential; those who survived such as Vaughan Williams, Gurney and Bliss found catharsis in music; while their Victorian professors, Parry and Stanford, whose more German-influenced works were ignored after the war, mourned the loss of a younger generation they had sought to nurture.

Will Conway, Artistic Director, Hebrides Ensemble: The three British composers George Butterworth, Cecil Cole and Ivor Gurney shared common attributes and experiences, all possessing an intense, lyrical voice, tragically affected or silenced by the First World War. Overshadowed by their peers and teachers, one only has to listen to Butterworth's haunting setting of A Shropshire Lad, Cole's poignant and prophetic orchestral suite Behind the Lines or Gurney's Five Elizabethan Songs written whilst still a student, to realise what individual, inspired artists they were. We owe it to these fine composers who, in their short lives captured the essence of 'Britishness' in their music, to fully celebrate their legacy.

Derek Hotchkiss, Head of English, Hamilton College: Men returned unable to articulate their experiences, struck by the inadequacy of words. The poets expressed their suffering best. We can see the journey from pride and patriotism to rejection and rage as they experienced the grim reality of the war. Pupils respond to "the pity in the poetry" when it is taught in schools. War composers at the Front tuned into killing, as they had to do. Music would have been something out of harmony with their surroundings. And so their melodies from that time do not linger on, their songs and music do not feature on the current curriculum

Source: BBC

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