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On November 11, 1998, the 80th anniversary of the armistice that ended the First World War, I was in Paris. Along with thousands of others, I witnessed a grand and somber parade on Champs Elysées in the presence of Queen Elizabeth, Jacques Chirac, and government officials from Germany, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Italy, Austria, Belgium and the United States. There may well have been Turks and Russians there, but I did not see them.

At the time, media reports said this would likely be the last large observance of the catastrophic war that buried the good and bad elements of 19th-century Europe and planted the seeds for new, more insidious disasters to come in the 20th Century. On that day in 1998, there were a few soldiers well into their nineties who marched stiffly or were transported in vehicles down the grand boulevard. There were speeches, a flyover of military aircraft and the resolve to make this a safer world. By now, it seems that almost every veteran of the war has died and it has passed from being part of the fabric of memory to the province of historians.

The Armistice came at 11 am on November 11, 1918 and the popular refrain was that it was the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month. The numbers of military casualties were appalling. Germany had 1,935,000 deaths, followed by Russia (1,700,000); France (1,368,000); Austria-Hungary (1,200,000); British Empire (942,135); Italy (680,000); and the Ottoman Empire (725,000). The United States had 116,516 casualties, many of whom were called to battle by songs such as George M. Cohan’s “Over There."

In addition to the deaths in battle, millions more died from hunger and disease. The so-called Spanish flu of 1918 killed between 20 and 40 million people worldwide, including 675,000 Americans. The virus reached the US on a ship in Boston in September 1918. Two-hundred thousand people died in October and then the virus spread radically on November 11 during the celebrations for the war’s end. An aunt of mine who died last year at age 103 had strong memories of 1918 but, for her and many New Yorkers, the great fear was disease and not war. Her husband, born in Budapest in 1908 and emigrated to New York in 1920, had some direct memories of the war but he too remembered disease as the greater threat. Gustav Klimt and Egon Schiele were among the thousands of artists who died of the flu.

Claude Debussy died on March 25, 1918, not of flu but of cancer. While the disease may have claimed him had there not been war and flu, the lack of sufficient medical care compounded his problem. His death occurred as Paris was being bombed by the Germans. His funeral procession occurred on deserted streets; he was quickly buried in Père Lachaise cemetery and mourners scattered for cover.

'The War to End All Wars'

This was known, ironically, as The War to End All Wars. The Treaty of Versailles in June, 1919, failed to anticipate and address many of the consequences of the war and the resultant economic and social distress led to the rise of Nazism. The 1920s was also a decade of great artistic achievement in almost all the nations that were protagonists in the war. 

The fall of the Russian monarchy in 1917 and the birth of the Soviet Union led to the departure of certain artists such as Stravinsky and Chagall to France and Prokofiev to the United States. Other figures, such as Shostakovich, remained and became part of the creative expression in the new nation. Stravinsky’s L’Histoire du Soldat (The Soldier’s Tale) from 1918 is a remarkable work, certainly worth 75 minutes to watch this excellent performance.

Many writers and poets saw the gruesome bloodshed up close and expressed it in their work. Two of the most famous were the British poets. One was Wilfred Owen (1893-1918), who died a week before the hostilities ceased. Siegfried Sassoon (1886-1967) lived on and recorded many of his poems. Here is “The Dug-out” (1919) read by the author. The works of World War One poets are making their way into song repertory.

Music and World War One

Maurice Ravel composed his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand (1930) for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein (1887-1961), who lost his right arm during the war. Other composers, including Britten, Hindemith, Korngold, Prokofiev and Richard Strauss, wrote works for Wittgenstein, though he did not perform them all. This repertory has found a second life in recent years when pianists such as Leon Fleischer performed them after suffering intractable problems with their right hands.

Ralph Vaughan Williams, a student of Ravel, wrote Symphony No. 3 in 1922. To listen to it and know that it is called a Pastoral Symphony, you might not know that it was inspired by the devastation on the battlefields of northern France and Belgium. Commenters have speculated that this work is more about peace than a depiction of war.

Sir Edward Elgar (1857-1934), whose work is much undervalued, is thought of primarily for his sentimentally British compositions although his output is much more eclectic. His famous 1919 cello concerto, though, is certainly a very expressive cri de couer about what the war had wrought. Here is a classic performance of the first movement with Jacqueline du Pre and Daniel Barenboim.

Francis Poulenc (1899-1963), from a wealthy French family, saw action in the First World War, but his foremost musical expressions about war came later. Les Mamelles de Tiresias (1947) drolly encouraged producing lots of new babies. Here is “Non, Monsieur, Mon Mari” sung by Denise Duval, accompanied by Poulenc. That composer’s masterpiece, Les Dialogues des Carmélites (1959), deals with war profoundly yet indirectly as a group of Carmelite nuns contend with the consequences of the French Revolution just outside the door of their convent. I believe that these two great works were informed by Poulenc’s experiences in the first war.

Finally, in the realm of opera, Alban Berg’s Wozzeck premiered in Berlin in 1925. Though based on a play from 1837, it was, for all intents and purposes, a mirror of the current Germany and Austria dealing with the convulsions and consequences of the First World War.

If Puccini (1858-1924) had strong feelings about the war, they are not well-documented. He knew Vienna and, during the war, wrote an Italian language work, La Rondine that had the flavor of Viennese operetta but premiered in 1917 in Monte Carlo. It is now well-regarded but, at the time, seemed completely out of step with the times. He also spent this period completing his tryptich of Il Tabarro, Suor Angelica and Gianni Schicchi, all of which premiered at the Met on December 14, 1918.

Richard Strauss (1864-1949) reflected his times in different ways. Der Rosenkavalier (1913) is a gorgeous and nostalgic last gasp of old Vienna and pointed the way toward the fall of the Austro-Hungarian Empire in 1914. His next work, Ariadne auf Naxos, is a delightful comedy that is nostalgic and otherworldly. First drafted in 1912 and revised in 1916, it also stakes the claim for the glory of music in troubled times.

His Die Frau ohne Schatten (The Woman Without a Shadow, 1919) contains some of his most sublime music. It is about many things, but one of them is fertility and the lack thereof. In the shadow of war, this issue is about the resolve and optimism to start anew, creating a world suitable for children. Strauss, along with Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Max Reinhardt, created the Salzburg Festival in 1920 in a successful effort to restore culture to its centrality in European life.

This is but a brief survey of the extraordinary artistic legacy of World War One. It is, of course, tragic that such horrors be a catalyst for art. But as scholars now attempt to explain a war that has passed into history, they should look to the artists at least as much as the politicians to understand what it was about. And may we resolve to find artistic inspiration from sources that are peaceful.