In Tune > Society > Musical Voices of WWI (1914-18) - Vaughan-Williams, Stephan and Bliss
by Georg Predota | March 7th, 2018

standard Musical Voices of WWI (1914-18)
Vaughan-Williams, Stephan and Bliss

Credit: Wikipedia

Credit: Wikipedia

Ralph Vaughan Williams was already an established composer at the onset of the First World War. By 1914, he had created a considerable body of works, including two symphonies and various works for orchestra, an opera and a number of songs. He was nearly 42, but seeing naval exercises taking place in his hometown and witnessing troops being deployed to France, inspired him to join the British forces. He enlisted as a private in the Royal Army Medical Corps and served as a wagon orderly in France and on the Salonika front. Rescuing wounded and dying soldiers from the battlefield under heavy bombardment was a highly dangerous assignment, and his composer colleague Cecil Coles was killed in this line of work.

Ralph Vaughan Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams

In 1917, Vaughan Williams was employed to France as an artillery officer. As a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal Garrison Artillery, he was responsible for firing heavy shells towards enemy lines, and he contributed his deafness in later life to that experience. Soon after the armistice he was made director of music for the First Army of the British Expeditionary Force, with responsibility for organizing amateur music making among the troops. The impact of the war on his imagination was deep and lasting but did not express itself in an obvious protest or change of style; rather it is felt in a more intense inwardness. It is said that the inspiration to write his 3rd symphony came during the war, “after hearing a bugler accidentally playing an interval of a seventh instead of an octave.” And The Lark Ascending was finished shortly after his return from the war.

Ralph Vaughan Williams: The Lark Ascending

Rudi Stephan

Rudi Stephan

Among the lost generation was Rudi Stephan (1887-1915), considered the most promising German composer of his generation. Although he seemed to have had reservations about the war, Stephan volunteered for service and completed his basic training in the summer of 1915. Posted to the Eastern Front in Galicia—currently located in the Ukraine—he was killed by a sniper two days after his arrival. He was only 28 years old when he died, but his music remained potently relevant for German musical life. Rooted in the late 19th-century style of Wagner and Liszt, Stephan sought to eliminate all non-essential stylistic features and extra-musical associations from his compositions. Extending tonal practices, Stephan exploited and redefined tonal ambiguities and explored modal connections. During the postwar years, “Stephan’s music was seen to have anticipated the aesthetic of Neue Sachlichkeit.” The majority of his autographs and other primary documents were destroyed in a 1945 bombing raid on his hometown of Worms. More recently, “the distinctive formal and tonal language of his music and its unmistakable individuality led to a renewed appreciation of his achievement.”

Rudi Stephan: Music for 7 String Instruments
Arthur Bliss

Arthur Bliss

In his autobiography I Remember, Arthur Bliss writes, “Although the war had been over for more than ten years, I was still troubled by frequent nightmares; they all took the same form. I was still there in the trenches with a few men; we knew the armistice had been signed, but we had been forgotten; so had a section of the Germans opposite. It was as though we were both doomed to fight on till extinction. I used to wake with horror… Did I really crawl on my belly in the mud at night towards the German trenches, patrolling with Mills bombs in my pockets and a revolver in my hand?”

Arthur Bliss and his brother,  Kennard

Arthur Bliss and his brother,

In the spring of 1914, Bliss attended the Royal College of Music for a single term, and received instruction from Vaughan Williams and Holst. Just as he was getting his musical feet, his studies were rudely interrupted by the outbreak of the First World War. He obtained a commission to serve in France, first with the Royal Fusiliers, and then with the Grenadier Guards until the end of the war. Apparently, he carried a pocket score of the Cockaigne Overture with “good luck” inscribed by Elgar with him to the Front. Bliss was wounded on the Somme in 1916 and, two years later, gassed at Cambrai! Yet miraculously, he physically survived relatively unscathed. However, the mental toll was tremendous as he lost his brother Kennard and numerous friends and fellow officers. Deeply affected, Bliss wrote his choral symphony Morning Heroes in 1930, and was finally able to write frankly about his war experiences only in 1970.
Arthur Bliss: Morning Heroes

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