Arts Blog

Composers in the Great War

The “war to end all wars” claimed many lives, and forever altered the lives of those who survived. Here’s a look at some of the composers who served in World War 1 and the music they created.

George Butterworth (1885-1916)

George Butterworth (1885-1916) was a promising young English composer who collected folk songs and found inspiration in the poetry of A.E. Houseman, whose texts he set to music in Six Songs from A Shropshire Lad (1911). The next year, Butterworth revisited his Houseman settings in an orchestral rhapsody. It closes by quoting his setting of Houseman’s text, which seems almost prescient of the coming war’s loss of life:

With rue my heart is laden
For golden friends I had.

Butterworth enlisted in 1914, served at the Battle of the Somme, and died shortly afterward. The place of his death is named Butterworth Trench in his memory.

William Grant Still (1895-1978)

By 1917, the United States had entered the Great War, and among American composers to enlist was William Grant Still (1895-1978). Still’s professional training was interrupted by the war: in 1918 he left his music studies at Oberlin College to serve in the Navy. After his military service, Still went on to compose pioneering works like his blues-inflected Afro-American Symphony (1930), the first symphony by an African-American to be premiered by a major orchestra.

Maurice Ravel (1875-1937)

Maurice Ravel tried to enlist in the French Air Force, but due to his age and small stature, he was assigned to drive a lorry instead. Ravel drove petrol and other supplies to the front lines during the Battle of Verdun in 1916, wearing the thick coat shown in this photo to try and stay warm in his open truck (which he named Adelaide). After the war, Ravel composed his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand for Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had lost his right arm while serving in the war.

Alban Berg (1885-1935)

In 1915, Serialist composer Alban Berg was coming off several years of intense composition study with Arnold Schoenberg and trying to establish an independent musical career when he was called up to serve in the Austrian army. The rigorous army camp training proved too much for his health, so he was transferred to serve in a War Ministry office until 1918. Berg’s opera Wozzeck, completed in 1922, was inspired partly by his own traumatic experiences upon enlistment.

Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)

English poet and composer Ivor Gurney left the Royal College of Music in 1915 when he joined the 2/5th Gloucesters to serve in France, where he was wounded. Gurney published two collections of war-influenced poetry, Severn and Somme (1917) and War’s Embers (1919), and he published his first collection of songs in 1920. Tragically, Gurney struggled with his mental health throughout his life, dying in 1937 while hospitalized for his condition. Among Gurney’s sensitive, rhapsodic songs is “Severn Meadows,” a setting of one of his own poems from Severn and Somme:

Only the wanderer
Knows England’s graces,
Or can anew see clear
Familiar faces.

And who loves joy as he
That dwells in shadows?
Do not forget me quite,
O Severn meadows.

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