World War I had a major impact not only on Europe, but on the world. The United States had not been involved in a war of this size since its own Civil War in the 1860's. Warfare had certainly changed in the fifty years between 1865 and 1915, and its effects would change the way the world remembered war forever. Because World War I was far different than anything Americans had seen before. Fighter planes, trenches, mustard gas, and automatic machine guns all made a significantly impact on the way war was fought. Thousands upon thousands of men were killed faster and more efficiently than ever before. And this unprecedented mass killingwould change the world. This new type of war was foreign and mysterious. It was dark and deadly, and can be described simply as chaos.
Like the war itself, the music that comes out of this period is also chaotic for the most part, and reflects what societies all over the world felt about this new kind of warfare. Music about the war in this period is disturbing, unstructured, frightening. Society's view of this war can be heard in the music, and is indeed a dark reminder of what impact this new kind of war had on the entire world.
War's Embers is a recently published collection which calls itself "A legacy of songs by composer's who perished or suffered in World War I." 1 It looks at the music of a handful of English composers who either fought in the war or were deeply affected by it. In addition, poems of men like W. B. Yeates and Robert Graves were put to the music of the composers and used as lyrics, sung to enhance the melodies of the writers. Composer Ivor Gurney's (1890-1937) By a Bierside is coupled with a John Masefield poem, for example. Using only piano, Gurney drives the words "Death drifts the brain with the dust and soiles the young limbs' glory. Death makes justice a dream and strength a traveler's story. Death makes the lovely soul to wander under the sky. Death opens the unknown doors." 2 The song is mysterious, unstructured, and the piano seems almost random, not really moving in any musical direction. There are long, drawn out notes which materialize the emotion of misunderstanding, confusion, chaos. "He (Gurney) seems able to tackle virtually any emotion-from light-hearted and casual to the grim and bleakly powerful...His capacity to identify with his poet and to find the essence of the poems in vocal lines that never for one moment betray the integrity of the words is almost unique..." 3
Gerald Finzi's (1901-1956) Only a Man Harrowing Clods also gives the listener an idea of what war's impact on society was at the time it was written. Thomas Hardy's words speak volumes: "Yonder a maid and her wight/Come whispering by: War's annals will cloud into night/Ere their story die."4 Again the piano is alone, and in the height of the melody is quite dissonant, or unstructured (meaning the root of the chord does not fit with the other two notes). Dissonance is a very common tool used by composers to symbolize chaos, confusion, or lack of structure. The chords sound "wrong" to the listener, because theys are not in the standard I-IV-V formation with which one is familiar.
Indeed, War's Embers truly gives us a good reflection of how society remembered World War I because the composers wrote about the events going on around them. But besides War's Embers, perhaps the piece which best shows society's view of the dangers of the time of World War I is Igor Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky masterfully takes the listener back in time to the period, and shows what society was like. As a professional musician and Artist-in-Residence in piano at Dickinson College, Professor of Music Jennifer Blyth has a strong interest in The Rite of Spring. In discussing the piece's meaning she says "I think the reactions that came out of that particular piece of music contributed to the kind of discontent that led to World War I." 5 This idea can be heard in listening to the piece. In one part of the first section of the piece called The Dance of Abduction, Stravinsky wonderfully articulates this "discontent." He has numerous flutes and other similar instruments all playing different things, making it sound like unorganized people or lost souls walking around, unaware of what is going on. This then leads into sounds of drums and strings, making it sound like a clear march of soldiers. The piece moves from march to soft, march to soft, almost going back and forth between the soldiers and the citizens. This section climaxes in absolute chaos, with all the instruments building up, moving in all sorts of directions, rising in volume.
The Rite of Spring was first performed in Paris in May, 1913. The people that saw the ballet that night would never be the same. It blew away convention as the performers came on the stage in dresses and boots with terrible makeup (see above photo). The audience was shocked, to say the least. "To turn ballet, the most effervescent and fluid of art forms, into grotesque caricature was to insult good taste and the integrity of the audience."6 One person wrote in a letter to a newspaper: "Who wrote this fiendish Rite of Spring? What right had he to write this thing? Against our helpless ears to fling, Its crash, clash, cling, clang, bing, bang, bing?"7 Stravinsky's piece along with the performers were so controversial in fact that author Modris Eksteins suggested "...there was such a din that the music may have been almost drowned out at times." 8
The Rite of Spring
was a monumental piece for all societies. Stravinsky seemed to almost
predict the tone of cultures towards war, and was able to convey through
music the emotions that people who heard and saw the piece felt about it.
Stravinsky's work almost exudes war, and anyone who listens to this piece
can be led to the same conclusion. That it happened to be written right
before World War I started, serves as a precursor of attitudes towards
war which would grip the world soon enough.
Not all music which
came out of the World War I period was dark and deadly, however, especially
in the more "popular" styles of music. National Public Radio's The
Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century takes a more rousing
look at songs of this era. It should be said that instrumentals like Mason
and Circumstance, written by Sir Edward Elgar, arose in this period
and in American society they really gave the war more of a positive outlook.
(At least if put next to The Rite of Spring). It is interesting
indeed that songs like this were popular in America. During the early years
of World War I, the United States could listen to The Great War and
smile about the "glory of war" because it was uninvolved. Yet at the same
time in Europe, clearly opposite emotions are felt by societies which can
be heard in War's Embers and The Rite of Spring. This shows
that American society initially remembered World War I with less fear and
confusion than European ones. When hearing these pieces from the World
War I period, which one do you think an American would recognize first?
Most likely a song like The Great War or Pomp and Circumstance.
yet it is a piece like Stravinsky's which in the aftermath of the war which
would come to reflect American society. It was "The Great War," but it
changed the way wars would be fought, and the world forever. With
Rite of Spring, Stravinsky is making this very point.
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