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The Great War and Music

Within the Arts, the First World War is perhaps best known for the major poems and poets of the time, much of the horror and desolation conveyed through the most moving and evocative works, sometimes written within the War itself, and by those who were tragically killed. For various reasons, the effect on composers and composition is less clear, arguably it is a work written far beyond the War that had the greatest effect, Britten’s War Requiem, which was completed in 1962 and, incidentally, uses the poems of the War poet, Wilfred Owen.

But undoubtedly, composers were involved and affected by the War. John Francis, Vice-Chairman of the Ralph Vaughan Williams Society will introduce the composer’s contribution in a separate talk during our Centenary Concert in Pimlico on the 30th. The courage of Vaughan Williams was monumental during this conflict. But pride of place in these few words should go to those killed: George Butterworth, who was shot and killed by a sniper in 1916; Rudi Stefan, one of the most promising German composers; Frederick Septimus Kelly, an Australian Olympic gold medal rower whose work, In Memoriam is one of the rare works written at the front, he was killed at the Somme; Cecil Coles, a band leader with the Queen’s Victoria Rifles and hugely promising musician, also killed near the Somme; and finally William Denis Brown, who was killed at Gallipoli. Many other composers took part in the War and survived: Sir Arthur Bliss, Arnold Schoenberg, Alban Berg, and Ivor Gurney amongst others, their music often strongly influential after the war - Bliss’s Choral Symphony Morning Heroes, the Pastoral Symphony of Vaughan Williams, and Gustav Holst’s Ode to Death for example. Other composers died in tragic circumstances: Enrique Granados, whose work is played in this concert, died while trying to rescue his wife after their cross channel ferry was torpedoed. And finally, others like Sibelius, Elgar, and Debussy, again represented in tonight’s concert, were affected by the times, not least influenced by funding, commissions, and the reduction and appetite for concerts.

The new work in this Memorial Concert, Variations on Papaver Rhoeas, is a much broader tribute, not just to this 100th anniversary of the end of World War One. Papaver Rhoeas is the Latin name for the Remembrance poppy, a flower with four petals which surround the central black core. The four variations, movements 1,2, 4, and 5 surround the substantial third movement which represents the central core of the flower and is much closer to this anniversary of the end of the First World War. While I had in mind for the variations youth, anger, sadness, and exhilaration, not least the relief of surviving, in the main third movement I had in mind a closer connection with war, the rattle of a gun, the stillness of a halt in conflict, the rush to everywhere and nowhere.

I began with this central movement on the day of the 100th anniversary of the beginning of World War one. It had a working title of The Hypocrisy of War, I was struck that day by many dignitaries and representatives of Institutions which played a role in World War One standing at the Cenotaph - that evening on the news, a major new Arms contract was announced in the UK. But much later on in the writing I wanted to broaden the work, into a tribute beyond my own anger, and beyond this one terrible conflict. Thus I settled on the Remembrance poppy, it’s shape and the delicate balance between respectful memory and hope for the future.

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