Great composers who fought in World War 1

Sir Arthur Bliss portraitAlthough the war had been over for more than ten years, I was still troubled by frequent nightmares; they all took the same form. I was still there in the trenches with a few men; we knew the armistice had been signed, but we had been forgotten; so had a section of the Germans opposite. It was as though we were both doomed to fight on till extinction. I used to wake with horror.’

Sir Arthur Bliss in his autobiography, As I Remember

A whole generation of British composers fought in World War 1 and a disproportionate number were lost in that conflict. Many were junior officers leading from the front, meaning that their reputations now rest on the promise shown by a handful of juvenile works.1916 took a particularly appalling toll on musicians.

The composers who survived the war often had their musical canvases stained by their experiences, many choosing to commemorate the war in their works, although often not for many years after the armistice. This article looks at three distinct groups of composer friends, and how they fared, both during and after the war.

The Hood Battalion composers

The first British composer casualty of the war is a name whose reputation has been rising in recent years: William Denis Browne (1885-1915), whose To Gratiania Dancing and Singing is considered a high watermark of English art song. He joined the Royal Naval Division as a sub-lieutenant in the Hood Battalion, alongside his close friend, the poet Rupert Brooke, and another composer, Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881-1916) (Gazette supplement 28906). Kelly was an Australian 1908 Olympic gold medal-winning rower.

Browne and Kelly formed a close bond on their voyage to Gallipoli aboard the HMT Grantully Castle, playing songs and arranging music. The shock of losing Brooke to an infected mosquito bite, and his picturesque burial en route, is well recorded. Kelly's 1916 Elegy, In Memoriam Rupert Brooke, a rare work composed at the front, commemorates both the mood and the moment.

Browne died in less tranquil circumstances in the heavy fighting at Gallipoli in June 1915. Kelly survived Gallipoli, being awarded a Distinguished Service Cross (Gazette supplement 29736), only to perish at the Somme in November 1916.

The folk song collectors

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872-1958) was 42 when war broke out, and could have been excused service. He volunteered out of a sense of duty, shunning a guaranteed officer commission for a man of his class to serve as a medical orderly. In 1917, Vaughan Williams was commissioned into the Royal Artillery (Gazette supplement 30455), where his role supervising the 'big guns' led to his later deafness. His haunting Pastoral Symphony of 1922, far from the idyllic work that critics assumed it to be, is a portrait of the shattered battlefields of France. He was appointed Order of Merit in 1935 (Gazette supplement 34166).

George Butterworth (1885-1916) was a great friend of Vaughan Williams, helping the older composer to reconstruct his London Symphony of 1914 after the score was lost in Germany at the start of the war.

Of the composers killed in WW1, Butterworth is the only one to remain in the regular repertoire. Performances at WW1 commemorations, on Classic FM and the Last Night of the Proms in 2016, have cemented his reputation as the war composer, with his orchestral rhapsodies and A E Housman settings (the only the poet tacitly approved of) have a yearning folk song-inspired modality, which perfectly evokes that poet's ‘land of lost content’.

From Vaughan Williams he gained a love of folk song, travelling around the country, collecting songs that would have otherwise become extinct. Butterworth was a keen Morris dancer, collecting tunes and their steps, and performing them in public exhibitions in a team which included another composer lost at the Somme, George Jerrard Wilkinson (1895-1916).

Joining the military when war was declared in 1914, Butterworth was a lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry. He was posthumously awarded the Military Medal for bravery for his actions on 5 August 1916, when leading his men at the Somme (Gazette supplement 29724).

The Royal College of Music

The Royal College of Music (RCM) has a long list of casualties on its war memorial, including Butterworth and Ernest Bristow Farrar (1885-1918), best known as Gerald Finzi's composition teacher. Farrar's works including a haunting Heroic Elegy for soldiers, premiered in 1918, shortly after gaining his commission (Gazette supplement 30582). He died two months later at Ephey Ronssoy. 

The mixed fortunes of RCM students during the war are perhaps best summed up by the four friends portrayed by Herbert Howells in his 1914 orchestral work, The Bs, all of whom saw active service:

‘Bartholemew’ was Howells' nickname for Ivor Gurney (1890-1937), the composer and poet who served with the Gloucestershire Regiment, including at Passchendaele in 1917. While chiefly remembered as the author of poetry collections such as Severn and Somme, Gurney was a prolific songwriter, only turning to poetry as a result of the impracticality of composing music at the front. His subsequent descent into mental illness and early death is sometimes credited to his experiences there.

'Blissy' is a portrait of Arthur Bliss, later knighted (Gazette supplement 38929) and made master of the Queen's music (Gazette supplement 40019). He survived the war, but found the experience so traumatic that it was only in 1930 that he felt ready to write his cantata, Morning Heroes, in memory of his brother Kennard, who was killed in September 1916.

Francis Purcell 'Bunny' Warren (1895-1916) was a talented viola player who left a handful of works. He served as 2nd lieutenant in the infantry (Gazette supplement 29113), and his death in the first days of the Somme deeply affected Howells, who commemorated him in his Elegy for Viola, String Quartet and Strings of 1917.

Finally, ‘Benjee' was a portrait of Arthur Benjamin, an Australian composer who transferred from the Royal Fusiliers into the fledgling Royal Flying Corps, where in 1918 his plane was shot down by Hermann Göring. He spent the rest of the war in a German internment camp.

By the time of the armistice in November 1918, a whole generation of composers had fought and, in some cases, died in the war. However, echoes of the war resound in the music of those who survived, notably in a way that doesn't glorify the conflict, but resonates as music of commemoration and, in many cases, mourning.

About the author

Robert Weedon writes the website War Composers, a resource about classical composers who fought in World War 1.

Image: Sir Arthur Bliss, Chronicle/Alamy

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