Like the artists, poets and writers of the era, the world was also robbed of many of its brightest musical talents. In the latest edition of Overseas Stephen Johns, Artistic Director at the Royal College of Music, looks back at the composers who were lost during the First World War, and those whose experiences informed their later works. 

In September 1914, a month after the declaration of war, Sir Hubert Parry, composer and Director of the Royal College of Music, gave his Director’s address. He spoke with courageous defiance: “If we have to stand in rows over against the Albert Hall with files of Prussian soldiers ready to demolish us we shall all look down the murderous barrels without winking an eyelash”. But, tellingly, Parry spoke also with sadness at what he foresaw would be inevitable loss: “Our pupils are made of different stuff from the pupils of ordinary schools. They are gifted in a rare and special way. Some of them are so gifted that their loss could hardly be made good.”

The poets who lived and died in the First World War are known by many – Wilfred Owen, Siegfried Sassoon, Rupert Brooke – and their works speak powerfully of the horror of war and a nostalgia for home. Fewer may be aware of the effect of this cataclysmic war on the composers of the time.

The years leading up to the war were heady with change and musical development and experimentation. Stravinsky had set the world on fire with his radical ballet score, “Le sacre de printemps”, in 1913. Wagner’s music had challenged and inspired composers through Europe and beyond, with Mahler and Strauss developing the avenues their predecessor had opened up. Debussy, Ravel, and others ploughed different furrows in a uniquely French style. Schoenberg’s experimentation in Vienna had scandalised the public. A nationalist streak in music in earlier decades had been the inspiration for composers including Grieg and Verdi, and now their successors. Vaughan Williams was amongst those busy gathering folksongs around rural England. Composers and performers travelled freely far and wide, experiencing and exchanging each other’s musical traditions.

The Royal College of Music (RCM) in London was home to a particularly talented generation – the contrasting styles of Parry and Charles Villiers Stanford as teachers were attracting a rich seam of gifted young musicians. This war was devastating to them. Of those British composers from the RCM who did not survive the war, George Butterworth, Ernest Farrar, Francis Purcell Warren and William Denis Browne are prominent. Butterworth’s compositions were rooted in a rural England of pastoral idyll. The composer Gerald Finzi wrote of him that his music “sums up our countryside as very little else has ever done”. Butterworth was highly self-critical, and destroyed the majority of his compositions before leaving for the Front in 1915. What remains include the beautiful pastorale “The banks of green willow”, and the song cycle “A Shropshire Lad”, selected from the large collection of poems of AE Houseman, with their own narrative of the loss of ordinary men in an earlier war.

Ernest Farrar taught the young Gerald Finzi, who later wrote his Requiem da Camera in memory of his teacher. Much of his music has not dated well, but notable is his Heroic Elegy, dedicated “To Soldiers”. Francis Purcell “Bunny” Warren was just 21 when he was reported missing at Mons in 1916 – his body was never recovered. Only a few works survive, but his loss was keenly felt amongst his contemporaries. Parry said of him that this was “a peculiarly tragic case… one of humanity’s tenderest possessions was ruthlessly destroyed”. Herbert Howells was particularly close to Warren, writing his “Elegy for solo viola, string quartet and strings” in his memory, which was first performed in a Mons Memorial Concert at the Royal Albert Hall in 1917.

Moving, too, are the stories of those composers who survived the war but who were severely affected by it. Prime amongst these is Ivor Gurney. Gurney was both poet and composer; Stanford declared that Gurney was potentially “the biggest of them all”. It is likely that Gurney had a mental illness from early in his life, but there is no doubt that his experiences in the war – he is widely considered to have suffered considerably from shell shock – exacerbated his problems, and he spent the last 15 years of his life in psychiatric institutions. He wrote music even when in the trenches, including his song “By a bierside”. Both his poetry and his music range across the contrasting themes of war and memories of a pre-war English Idyll – witness his largest orchestral works “War Elegy” and “Gloucestershire Rhapsody”.

Arthur Bliss found himself strongly rejecting German influences in music – he was furious on returning wounded from the Somme to find “a public vociferously applauding a German soloist”. Rejecting much of his prewar music, written in the Germanic tradition of Brahms, he set out on new paths. Later in life he admitted being troubled by frequent nightmares – dreaming of being stuck in the trenches and doomed to fight on even knowing the armistice had been signed”. His large choral work, “Morning Heroes”, presaged Benjamin Britten’s great masterpiece, the “War Requiem”, in its use of war poetry, including Whitman and Owen, interlaced with classical texts.

No discussion of the music of this time can be complete without mention of the earlier generation of Gustav Holst and Ralph Vaughan Williams. Whether or not Holst’s famous, asymmetric march “Mars, the bringer of war” is a conscious representation of the new mechanical warfare, its violent and relentless rhythms stand in sharp contrast to the simple folk-oriented harmonies of much contemporary English music. Holst was frustrated that he was rejected as unsuitable for military service. By contrast, Vaughan Williams, then 42, and already a highly successful composer, signed up with the Medical Corps. Although he rarely spoke of his war-time activities, his music was undoubtedly affected. Of his “Pastoral Symphony”, completed in 1921, he wrote, “it’s really wartime music - a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset - it’s not really lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted”. “Dona nobis Pacem”, written in 1936, echoes Bliss in using Christian texts alongside poems by Walt Whitman. There is no doubt that in this work, Vaughan Williams was cautioning against future conflict.

The Great War was a tragedy for British artists, no doubt, but there were similar losses on all sides of the conflict. The German composer, Rudi Stephan is worthy of particular mention. At his death on the Eastern Front he left behind a range of works, including orchestral pieces and operas. He was the rising star of the informal Jungdeutsch movement, moving on from the late Romanticism of Strauss, and combining influences from Debussy to Berg and Stravinsky. It is a double tragedy that the majority of his manuscripts and works in progress were themselves destroyed in Allied bombing of Worms in 1945.

Others whose early deaths robbed later generations included André Caplet, to whom Debussy had entrusted the orchestration of some of his most popular piano works, including “Clair de Lune”, and the Belgian composer, Georges Antoine. But there were further musicians who lived through the conflict and went on to have great influence on the art. Vaughan Williams had travelled to France in 1908 to study with Maurice Ravel. Now they both found themselves deep in the conflict. Ravel was a keen conscript, driving cargo trucks to the Battle of Verdun. His health deteriorated through the war, and he was discharged in 1917. He wrote his piano work “Le tombeau de Couperin” through the period of war, completing it in 1919. Each of the movements is dedicated to friends who had not survived. On listening, it is a surprisingly uplifting work – Ravel explained that “the dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence”.

Mention should also be made of Paul Hindemith. He was an enthusiastic supporter of the war, sure that “the German people are fighting for a just cause”. He was amused by the thought of musicians becoming soldiers. “Bach as a Staff-Sergeant (handing over a pair of oversized boots), that would be OK, but Beethoven practicing rifle drill, Mozart throwing hand-grenades or standing guard in front of a barracks; Schubert as an air force lieutenant and Mendelssohn as an NCO at a vehicle fleet convoy? They are inconceivable.” As the war moved on, including the death in action of his father, he came ever closer to the front and its horrors. In 1918, he wrote with joy, “Shuddering, we heard that the Emperor abdicated, that Ebert will become Chancellor and – oh greatest bliss – that there will be cease-fire in the coming days.”

Maybe we should end where we started, with Parry. In the words of the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: “During the war he watched a life's work of progress and education being wiped away as the male population, particularly the new fertile generation of composing talent of the Royal College, dwindled.” But Parry urged confidence in the belief that, even in greatest trauma, the “finest results in art” would profit, and that “those who can extract something true and inspiring out of such a welter of wild realities are likeliest to reinvigorate the things that tend to become stale and unprofitable”. “If you want to stupefy a genius, the surest way to do it is to keep him in cotton wool”. And, despite the knowledge that not all would return, he saluted those who volunteered: “There are a vast number of our best and most gifted ones offering themselves to the same fate. All honour to them, and all anxiety to us!”

Further reading is available at

Pin It