In this remembrance week, it seems a good time to explore music written after the end of World War 1. Composers who wrote not of victory and great deeds done, but more of death, the need for peace, and to exorcise personal demons.

I’m grateful to Dr Kate Kennedy’s article about classical music and WW1 on the British Library’s website for giving me pointers. Have a look – there are many more short essays, informative and accessible, about music and that period in our history.

In telling this story, we’ll bypass those names you may already know (Gurney, Moeran, Butterworth, and Ernest Farrar) in favour of others. Their names might be familiar but not perhaps the pieces selected.

Holst – Ode to Death (1918-19)

In his most famous work, The Planets (completed 1914), Holst wrote music for Mars which presaged many of the horrors to follow. Here’s a reminder:

Yet it’s a very different piece we’re going to look at.

Holst was refused enlistment due to his health (he was already over-age). Many of his musical friends saw service and some didn’t return. Holst wrote the piece after visiting troops in Salonica. It is a partial setting of Walt Whitman’s poem When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d.

This quote shows how Holst regarded Whitman:

a New World prophet of tolerance and internationalism as well as a new breed of mystic whose transcendentalism offered an antidote to encrusted Victorianism.

‘Luminous’ is one of the words used in relation to this piece. I agree.

Foulds – A World Requiem (1919-1921)

Interior of the Royal Albert Hall during the 2015 Festival of Remembrance (photo used under Open Government Licence)

If you know anything about John Foulds, it will be for his light music perhaps, or the fact he experimented with Indian musical techniques long before it became fashionable.

He wrote A World Requiem as ‘a memorial to the dead of all nations in the wake of the First World War’. A huge, eccentric work, it requires much the same forces as Mahler’s Symphony no. 8. It was first performed on Armistice Day, 1923 in the Royal Albert Hall. Despite gaining a great reception and several subsequent performances, the Requiem was soon forgotten.

A brief revival some 80 years later allowed the piece to be heard and recorded by a new generation.



Bliss Morning Heroes (1930)

The Battle of the Somme, 1916. (photo from IWM via WIkipedia)

Arthur Bliss served during the war; his brother was killed during the Battle of the Somme, aged 24. In a online booklet produced by Chandos Records, they reproduce some of Bliss’ memories from that time:

One cannot for long as a young man face the immediacy of death without becoming filled with excitement for the values of life. The smallest evidences of a positive vitality as opposed to a destructive force became of immense significance. A butterfly in a trench, the swoop and note of a bird, a line of poetry, the shape of Orion became as it were more vividly perceived and actually felt than ever before imagined possible. They were clung to desperately, as it were, because of the intimate contact with the saving power of beauty.

Bliss dedicates the work like this:

To the memory of my brother Francis Kennard Bliss and all other comrades killed in battle.

Morning Heroes sets a selection of poems, all concerning war without reference to any specific conflict. By this composition, Bliss managed to rid himself of the shadow hanging over him since the war. The first section’s inspiration comes from Ancient Greece.

Part 1 – Hector’s farewell to Andromache