Songs of desolation I

March of the Recruits from 1915. A1915.226

March of the Recruits from 1915. A1915.226

July 1st 2016 marks the centenary of the Battle of the Somme. The first day of the battle remains the most costly single day in British military history  with around 20,000 deaths, and a further 40,000 casualties. The Somme was costly too in terms of musical lives – Arthur Bliss was wounded on the 7th July, his brother, Kennard, to whom Morning Heroes would be dedicated, died in September. Gordon Jacob also lost a brother at the Somme. George Butterworth, a rising star of British music, died; while Ivor Gurney‘s physical wounds were little compared to the deep mental wounds that would lay a dark shadow over the rest of his life. There is more about the Somme and musicians here.

At the UL we’re lucky enough to receive music under the Legal Deposit Act. This means that we receive a vast amount of popular music. On the anniversary of the Somme, I was interested to discover whether the shocking events of that bloody year, altered the nature of the songs that people were singing at home and in the trenches, so I headed to the basement…

The first thing that struck me was the drop in the number of A-4-fig items received over the period of the First World War (A-4 figures is the major classmark for popular music of this period at the UL). 1914 remained fairly stable, as you might expect with war being declared part way through the year, the number of items received in 1915 and 1916 dropped dramatically, with 1915 50% down on the previous year. There was only a slight increase in 1916 and ’17. 1918 was the lowest year with less than 14% being boxed up in that year. It’s not clear why there was such a slump – it may have been due to a drop in the music publishing workforce, a sales slump as few people had the time or inclination to make music, a lack of raw materials such as paper, or maybe there  were far fewer people working at the UL or for the Legal Deposit Agency.

The songs from the start of the war are principally written as an aid to recruiting. Alongside such songs as For the Empire, there’s a “stirring descriptive war piece arranged for the piano” – The nations 1914 at war. In light of the events that would follow the descent into war, it’s a chillingly silly work – 5 bars dispose of the march to the scene of battle, the battle takes just 15 bars (most of it an exciting tremulando), followed by a swift victory, a quick attendance on the wounded, and a return to home. It is war as fought in the imagination not in reality.

"...a stirring descriptive war piece...." A1914.629

“…a stirring descriptive war piece….” A1914.629

Call 001

A call to arms. A1914.558

By October A call to arms : the great patriotic appeal song had been published. With photos of the Prince of Wales (later King Edward VIII) and Lord Kitchener prominently emblazoned on the cover, the song was a charity song, designed both to fund the Prince of Wales National Relief Fund, and to encourage young men to join the army. The song, which was almost guaranteed popularity through its charity and patriotic appeal, was also a sales pitch for Naunton’s national music system, promising an extensive course of piano lessons for half price “available during the war period only”. One wonders, perhaps a little cynically, how many of the young men who took up the offer of cheap music lessons were able to complete the course.

To my surprise by Autumn 1914 a number of songs intended for Australian and New Zealand forces had also arrived at the UL. These are quite puzzling. The songs include Some hearts will be joyful, which has an evocative cover showing the Australian contingent passing through Bourke Street, Melbourne. There’s also Dear old home across the sea : a song from the trenches. Both these songs are clearly aimed at forces from the Antipodes, copyright notices and adverts all suggest that ANZAC forces were the primary focus. What is puzzling however is that I can find little evidence elsewhere that Australians were involved on the Western Front until at least 1916. Any more information on this puzzle would be appreciated.

Also from the end of 1914 comes the comic song Pompey Chimes published by R.W. Russell of Portsmouth. The “Pompey pals” responded to Kitchener’s call for troops, with large numbers of the men of Portsmouth and surrounding areas joining up in August 1914.  The 1st and 2nd Pompey Pals arrived in France in the spring of 1916. Over 1400 would die before the end of the war.

By 1915 it was more evident that the war would not be over swiftly. Although there were still a number of patriotic songs, some evidently aimed at expanding troop numbers, the tone of the songs generally is very different. There are more comedy songs, a lot more love songs, and much more serious meditative music too. There was also the opportunity to celebrate individual heroism; but that’s another story…

Slain 001





About mj263

Music Collections Supervisor at Cambridge University Library. Wide musical interests. Often to be found stuck in a composer's archive, or enthusing about antiquarian music.
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3 Responses to Songs of desolation I

  1. Pingback: Songs of desolation I | MusiCB3 Blog | First Night History

  2. Pingback: Songs of desolation II | MusiCB3 Blog

  3. Pingback: Arthur Bliss 125 | MusiCB3 Blog

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