SIMON HEFFER HINTERLAND
The Great War inspired some magnificent music – but the piece that best captures the shock is little known
The Great War affected our culture deeply, and still makes an impact today, at the centenary of the Armistice. It has resounded with me since childhood. I had a relatively old father who joined up nearly three years under age, did more than three years in the trenches, and talked lucidly and calmly about an experience impossible for others to imagine.
Listening recently to David Elstein’s superb plays Countdown to War and Countdown to Peace (available on audible.co.uk, a sort of Netflix for radio plays and talking books – the BBC, insanely, was not interested), I was reminded of the war’s lasting effect on creativity.
Yet the greatest works came decades ago – think of Sassoon, Graves and Blunden, the memorial architecture of Lutyens, and paintings by war artists such as Wyndham Lewis and William
Above all, the conflict inspired some magnificent music, four pieces especially. Three are by Englishmen: Arthur Bliss’s Morning Heroes, a choral work with a narrator commemorating Bliss’s brother Kennard, killed on the Somme; Ralph Vaughan Williams’s A Pastoral Symphony, drawing on the composer’s memories of driving an ambulance on the Western Front; and a setting by Cyril Rootham of Laurence Binyon’s “For the Fallen”, from which it takes its name. The fourth, and probably best known, is by a Frenchman; Maurice Ravel’s six-movement piano masterpiece Le tombeau de Couperin, each dedicated to a friend killed in action, about which I wrote here last year.
It is interesting how detached, by comparison, Ravel is from the majestic grief that permeates the three English works. His tribute to his friends recalls happier times, and notes, perhaps, the joy tinged with sadness of the deliverance of his country from an existential threat. The English works, by contrast, focus on the pain of losing a generation. Morning Heroes, which Bliss completed in 1930, was very much a cathartic exercise. Ever since the war, in which Bliss lost his brother and was himself badly wounded, he had suffered recurring nightmares. Writing Morning Heroes helped to reduce them.
Almost an hour long, it has been performed in this centenary year, and has lost none of its power. Bliss’s idea was to combine words about warfare in the ancient world with poetry about modern combat. As with all works including a narrator, the spoken words can sound arch, and recognition of the greatness of the piece has been handicapped by its form.
Bliss did justice to the fine words he chose: from the Iliad; from Walt Whitman; from Wilfred Owen’s “Spring Offensive”; and from a now little-known poem by Robert Nichols, “Dawn on the Somme”. The Nichols provides Bliss’s title – “O is it mist or are these companies/ Of morning heroes
Rootham conveys the grief at the carnage already apparent in the war’s opening months
who arise, arise/ With thrusting arms…” – while the Owen contains some of the greatest English poetry: “Of them who running on that last high place/ Leapt to swift unseen bullets, or went up/ On the hot blast and fury of hell’s upsurge, or plunged and fell away past this world’s verge,/ Some say God caught them even before they fell.” As the bells of Shrewsbury rang to announce the Armistice, 100 years ago tomorrow, Owen’s mother opened the telegram telling her that he had been killed in action a week earlier.
Hugh Allen, Hubert Parry’s successor as director of the Royal College of Music, ignorantly dismissed A Pastoral Symphony as “VW rolling over and over in a ploughed field on a wet day”. Like
The author’s father, James Heffer, aged 16, Sept 1914