A week Sunday will mark the centenary of the end of the First World War. Commemorative events will be taking place across the world from Buenos Aires to Bristol. In next week’s MusiCB3 post, we’ll be examining how the war affected one musical family, but this week, inspired by Siegfried Sassoon’s poem, Everyone sang, a look at the music inspired by the horrors of 1914-18.
Most of Sassoon’s archive is held here in Cambridge University Library. The manuscript of Everyone sang is also in Cambridge at St. John’s College library (Miscellaneous/Box 15/ SA4/9).
A number of new items have arrived recently in the UL just in time for the commemoration – Philip Wilby‘s Armistice 11.11.1918 (MRB.210.201.308) for SATB and organ, was specially commissioned for the anniversary by the Nidd Chorale. Unusually instead of drawing on the vast canon of First World War poetry, it has new lyrics specially written by Guy Wilson. Wilson was instrumental in the establishment of the Royal Armouries Museum, having worked for the Royal Armouries for 30 years. He was responsible for commissioning Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: a Mass for peace (Pendlebury Library Pb.221.94J.A1) for the opening of the museum, and wrote the libretto for it.
Another recent acquisition is They shall grow not old by June Nixon, which uses the familiar excerpt from Laurence Binyon’s poem, For the fallen, which features in Remembrance Day services across the Commonwealth. Poignantly the poem was written in 1914, long before the full horrors of the First World War were revealed. It was first published in September 1914 in The Times following the Battle of the Marne. It also formed part of Sir Edward Elgar’s last major choral work The Spirit of England.
Dedicated to “The memory of our Glorious Men, with a special thought for the Worcesters,” The Spirit of England feels like a secular requiem for the lost generation of the First World War. The Worcestershire Regiment‘s web-pages list over 50,000 names of those who served with them during World War One. 10,000 would never return home.
There’s a Midlands connection to another First World War inspired work – Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (M210.a.95.6), commissioned for the opening of the new Coventry Cathedral following the destruction of the medieval building in the Second World War, but drawing on the poems of First World War poet, Wilfred Owen.
Morning heroes (M270.b.95.57) by Sir Arthur Bliss is a rather more personal work. Bliss served on the Western Front, he was injured on the Somme in 1916, and gassed in 1918. His much loved brother, Kennard, an alumni of King’s College, died when he was hit by a shell fragment at Thiepval in 1916. For many years after the war, Bliss suffered with what would now probably be described as PTSD, with nightmare visions of being trapped in a trench, part of a forgotten army in a forgotten war.
The horrors of the First World War, and, in marked contrast, the beauty of the poetry which sprang from it became a rich source for commemorative music. It also inspired British irony at its very best, not least in the stage musical Oh, what a lovely war! conceived on Armistice Day, 1962. Inspired by the tunes of the First World War, as exemplified in the volume Tommies’ tunes (A1940.289), the musical used traditional tunes contrasted with bitterly ironic words charting the course of the War. Joan Littlewood, who directed the play, was less than impressed by Richard Attenborough’s film adaptation; but it’s hard not to be moved by the final camera pan over a field of crosses, each one carefully erected by a member of the production crew, in pre-CGI days, and commemorating one of the many millions who died.