The Great War in­spired some mag­nif­i­cent mu­sic – but the piece that best cap­tures the shock is lit­tle known

The Daily Telegraph - Review - - FILM -

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 au­di­, 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

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