The Gallery Series
Music in WW1 and WW2
“When the guns talk, the muses falls silent” is an old Russian saying which perfectly sums up music during World War I. Between 1914 and 1918 barely one lasting opera was written, the symphony was almost abandoned, and literature went unwritten. The miseries of mass mobilisation, trench warfare and millions of fatalities left artist bereft of creativity. But what music was written during this time reflected the changing attitudes of society and a new vulnerability which came about from the tragedies of war.
World War II was the first conflict to take place in the age of mass electronically distributed music. Radios were bought en mass throughout America, England and Europe. Never before could a single song, sung by a single performer be listened to by so many; across countries and on different sides of the war. Music was seen as part of the propaganda machine to encourage those fighting and reassure those at home. Music was also used in concentration camps by inmates as a way to try and normalise their lives and express their suffering but also as a form of humiliation by the Nazis.
The Courtship of Art and Music
On the face of it there would seem to be little in common between music and painting; music being for the ears, while painting is for the eyes. But in actual fact artists have often portrayed music-making in their works – think Picasso’s Three Musicians – and have been inspired by musical sounds or musical concepts. Composers are often inspired by visual stimuli, to landscapes, buildings or works of art – adding another dimension to their music.
The Marriage of Literature and Music
Music and words have always been entwined in both religious and secular music. Beautiful words are made more poignant by sweeping melodies while text gives music added dimensions.
This relationship between literature and music has been treated differently by composers throughout the centuries. Initially there were single line vocal melodies where the words were all important, to great operas where the words often take the back seat to beautiful melodies.
How has this relationship developed and changed over time and how has the relationship between the writer of words and the composer of music changed?
Claude Debussy and His Influence
Debussy died in 1918 at the age of 55, leaving a huge legacy. He was the father of musical modernism, often being labelled an ‘impressionist’ composer which he hated, preferring the term ‘symbolism’ from the literature in which he found inspiration. His investigation into harmony, texture, colour, form and feeling led the way for other composers to head into the 20th century with a new way of looking at the musical world.
The Planets, the Devil and a Fiddle
In the final year of World War 1, three composers premiered works of enormous power in three very different parts of the Western World. Gustav Holst’s The Planets was performed at Queen’s Hall London; Igor Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat in Lausanne and Bela Bartok’s String Quartet no. 2 in Budapest. Each of these pieces had aspects which were novel to the composer’s usual style and were all publicly praised. By looking at these compositions, how and why they were written, we can understand the musical direction in which theses composers were heading.
Music in the Dutch Golden Age
At the beginning of the 17th century, the Dutch Republic became a world power with a flourishing maritime and a wealthy merchant class which fostered the visual arts, literature and science. But what about Music?. While the rest of Europe was embracing the new musical ideas of the Baroque; the simple song, still in the Renaissance style, gave sheer delight to people of all classes. This was reinforced by the Calvinists whose only music during services was unaccompanied communal singing. Although musicians could not rely on the Church for employment, there were many other opportunities. Organ recitals were given outside religious services, city councils hired town musicians and Collegia Musica, supported by wealthy bourgeoisie, gave travelling foreign musicians performance opportunities. This may not have been a Golden Age of Music but the differences between the Dutch Republic and the rest of Europe at this time make for a very interesting study.
Composers often find inspiration for their music in the natural world, including the ‘Land’ in which we inhabit, although many interpret it in different ways. Some see it as the ‘Earth’, some as a specific land mass, while others find inspiration from the myriad of Flora and Fauna that inhabits the ‘Land”.
Interestingly, music inspired by the ‘Air’, or the world above the Earth, was mostly written in the 20th and 21st centuries. In this period there are many pieces written about the cosmos, the planets and space. Earlier compositions we associate with these elements like Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata are not the official titles but nicknames coming about often after the composer’s death.
The classical music world is full of compositions inspired by oceans, lakes and streams both specific and general. Many of these pieces have wonderful stories behind their titles. It is interesting to explore the different techniques composers use to evoke water in their music and discover how this has changed over the centuries.