Five Notable Classical Musicians Who Served in World War I

For Veteran's Day, Remembering Artists Who Served

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A picture taken in the year 1916 shows French soldiers moving into attack from their trench during the Verdun battle, eastern France, during the first World War. (ARCHIVES/AFP/Getty)

On July 28, 1914, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia, throwing Europe into the start of World War I, and along with it a number of the era’s great composers and musicians. Several promising talents died at the front, others such as pianist Paul Wittgenstein suffered debilitating injuries, and many more were emotionally and mentally scarred by their experiences. Of the group that served, a number chronicled their memories and commemorated their lost friends in subsequent works. Here are five notable composers and performers.

1.  Maurice Ravel

On its surface, Maurice Ravel’s piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin appears to be an ode to the French baroque composer François Couperin. Though the piece does reference Baroque styles, each movement is a dedication to at least one of Ravel’s friends who died in the war. A slight man, Ravel didn’t weigh enough to serve in the French military, but he found a way around the regulations. He joined a medical unit and then became a truck driver, transporting supplies to the French lines in Verdun. He was discharged after suffering a series of illnesses. In 1929, another World War I veteran, Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm fighting for Austria, commissioned Ravel to write his Piano Concerto for the Left Hand.

2. Alban Berg

Alban Berg was first introduced to the play of Woyzeck in May 1914, and immediately began devising an opera based on this dehumanized soldier. However, Berg was interrupted when he was drafted into the Austro-Hungarian army in 1915. He would draw upon his military experience when he returned to his opera: "There is a bit of me in his character,” Berg wrote of the soldier Wozzeck, “since I have been spending these war years just as dependent on people I hate, have been in chains, sick, captive, resigned, in fact humiliated.” Berg finished the work in 1921 but had to wait another four years for its premiere.

3. Ralph Vaughan Williams

There are several accounts of how Ralph Vaughan Williams invented the bucolic melody his iconic work, The Lark Ascending, but all date to the eve of World War I. His wife said that he initially composed the piece, based on a George Meredith poem, while watching troops shipping off to France. However, a Guardian article traces its inspiration to the composer watching Naval exercises off the coastline in Kent. Regardless of its provenance, Vaughan Williams would abandon writing the piece to enlist in the British army at the end of 1914. He returned to it after the war had ended, adding what we can only imagine is a deeper sense of nostalgia for a simpler time.

Vaughan Williams served in France and Salonika during WWI
Vaughan Williams served in France and Salonika, Greece during WWI

4. Gustav Holst

In his masterpiece The Planets (1914–16), British composer Gustav Holst may have anticipated the oncoming horrors in the work’s first movement, “Mars, The Bringer of War.” However, Holst hadn’t actually seen battle at that point. He tried several times to enlist in the British services, but he was deemed unfit for active service. Eventually the YMCA tapped him in 1918 to be a music organizer in the Near East, and Holst set off to Salonika in northern Greece where he taught and arranged concerts for British soldiers. In 1919, he reflected on the Great War with his Ode to Death, an ethereal choral piece based on a Walt Whitman text.

5. Fritz Kreisler

A day after realizing that his former regiment was mobilizing, then 39-year-old violinist and composer Fritz Kreisler prepared to report for duty in the Austrian army’s Fourth Battalion. Kreisler’s keen musical ear proved an asset as he could detect the type and trajectory of missiles in midair. Sent to the Eastern Front, Kreisler was injured in battle in a skirmish against Russian forces and was sent home after barely one month. Despite his wounds, he recovered to the point where he could resume playing the violin. He left war-torn Europe for the United States at the end of 1914, and published his memoir Four Weeks in the Trenches a year later.


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Comments [25]

Les from Miami, Florida

Percy Grainger served in the U.S. Army in 1917 and 1918.

Nov. 13 2015 08:56 AM
David John Pike

Eh? George Butterworth, one his generations most promising young composers, was killed on the Somme on 5 August 1916. He was a great colleague of Ralph Vaughan Williams, to whom Vaughan Williams dedicated his London Symphony. He be perhaps best known for his settings of poems from A Shropshire Lad by A.E: Housman. Few other works capture the sense of grief and loss of that era. Here are a few of them, plus a movement from Canadian composer Andrew Ager's The Unknown Soldier / Le Soldat inconnu:

Nov. 11 2015 03:49 PM
Arthur Whelan from Palm Bay, Florida

Sir Arthur Bliss (1891-1975), an outstanding English composer, also served in WW-1. Thanks to WQXR, Bliss has been a favorite since my teenage days in the 1950’s. His choral symphony, “Morning Heroes,” is a powerful memorial of the First World War.

Nov. 11 2014 10:48 PM
Raymond Stoddard from United States

Yes, those composers so shown are notable; but of late it is the lesser known composers who also inspire. Recently, it was Finzi, and now IVOR GURNEY, 1990-1937. This man was shot and later gassed in WWI. I find his "Gloucestershire Rhapsody" most interesting, a pastoral charm combined with militaristic portions. His larger contribution was poetry. His final years were in a mental institution.

Nov. 11 2014 09:30 PM

Bob from Philadelphia, PA: Thanks for remembering the distinction. Yes, we should use today to remember and honor the living composers who were veterans. And each day we should honor the dead veterans.

Nov. 11 2014 04:37 PM
Tess from Oregon

I think some of you missed the point of the article, which simply was about some of the composers who SERVED during WWI. What possible difference can it make to distinguish between Veteran's Day and Memorial Day? Are not the people who served and died or served and survived but are now dead STILL veterans? The article wasn't celebrating WWI, just discussing an aspect of it. Perhaps if you stopped being such snarky control enthusiasts and just appreciated the article for its intent, you'd be happier people. Personally, I found it very interesting and appreciate the people in the comments section who added information. I like knowing about composers' lives because not only does it add dimension to what little I know about them, it also provides insight to what they may have been feeling when they wrote certain pieces. THESE sorts of "celebrities" are FAR more worthy of our attention because they HAVE contributed to society and art. Which is a heck of a lot more than I can say about most of today's celebutards who get exposure for doing absolutely nothing other than being idiots.

Nov. 11 2014 04:28 PM
Bob from Philadelphia, PA

All of this is fascinating, but today is Veterans Day, not Memorial Day. A Today we honor the living. Does anyone know any living veterans?

Nov. 11 2014 12:38 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha,l NJ from 5Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

FRANK LOESSER, the composer of nearly 900 selections, including GUYS AND DOLLS, MOST HAPPY FELLA, HANS CHRISTIAN ANDERSON and pop songs as PRAISE THE LORD ANFD PASS THE AMMUNITION and BABY IT'S COLD OUTSIDE served in WW2. I was rehearsed by him for the revival of his MOST HAPPY FELLA at the New York City Center. i am a Wagnerian heldentenor, an opera composer ["Shakespeare" and "The Political Shakespeare"], teacher of voice production and I train and coach big-voiced singers in the Wagner rep and actors in the Shakespeare oeuvre.

Nov. 11 2014 10:00 AM
Stephen from CT

Composer Frederick Septimus Kelly enlisted in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve. Kelly was wounded twice at Gallipoli, where he was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross and reached the rank of lieutenant-commander. Kelly survived the Gallipoli slaughter, only to die in one of the last great battles on the Somme in 1916. He lies in Martinsart’s British Cemetery not far from where he fell at the age of 35.

Ernest Bristow Farrar was an English composer, pianist and organist. He enlisted in the Grenadier Guards in 1915 and joined the regiment in August 1916. Farrar was killed on the Western front at the Battle of Epehy Ronssoy near Le Cateau in the Somme valley, within days of reaching France in 1918.

Cecil Frederick Coles was a Scottish composer. He joined the Queen's Victoria Rifles and became their bandmaster. While on active service, he sent manuscripts home to his friend Gustav Holst. He was killed by German sniper fire on the Western Front, while helping recover casualties.

William Charles Denis Browne was a British composer, pianist, organist and music critic. During the Third Battle of Krithia he took part in an attack on Turkish trenches on 4 June 1915 during which he was wounded first in the shoulder and then the stomach. It was not possible to evacuate him, but he passed his wallet to a petty officer, to be returned home. His body was never recovered.

Rudi Stephan was a German composer of great promise. He was killed by a bullet in the brain fired by a Russian sharpshooter, at Ghodazkow-Wielki near Tarnopol on the Galician Front.

Jul. 29 2014 10:27 AM
Gilbert J Wise from English Channel

In 1916 Enrique Granados Spanish composer was lost at sea following U boat sinking of his ship.

Jul. 29 2014 08:30 AM
Lee Lowry from Lincoln NE

Gordon Jacob was captured by the Germans and spent more than a year in a prison camp.

One of Ravel's pianist friends memorialized in Le Tombeau, who rearranged Mother Goose for I think single piano.

Jul. 29 2014 04:54 AM
Anziano from Brooklyn, NY

Why exactly are we focusing on the anniversary of the BEGINNING of this carnage? Is it a birthday celebration? Should we sing a little song? Wouldn't it have been better to just stick with the 100-year anniversary of the END of the war?

Jul. 28 2014 03:02 PM
Gregory Nigosian from Chicago

Somewhat obliquely, Wilfred Owen, by way of Britten's War Requiem.

Jul. 28 2014 12:37 PM

Do not forget about Arnold Schoenberg who wass enlisted in the Austrian army.I am not sure if he saw actual combat though.

Jul. 28 2014 12:36 PM

Edward Elgar was not militarily involved in WW1 himself, but he wrote a striking piece in 1914, called ”Carillon”. It is a recitation with orchestral accompaniment, his Op. 75. The words are by the Belgian poet Émile Cammaerts. There is a great recording with the British actor Simon Callow fiercefully reciting the poem in English.
For an extensive list of music related to WW1 see this site
It is in German, but it offers the largest overview on WW1 music I know. I am exploring the list and have already discovered and downloaded beautiful pieces that were unknown to me until now.

Jul. 28 2014 07:32 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

Although only a brief stint as a US Army bandsman, you can add Australian Percy Grainger to this list and in 1918, became a American citizen.

Jul. 28 2014 06:01 AM
BL from Canada from Illinois

Several Czech composers served in the First World War, notably Jaroslav Novotný (1886-1918) and Rudolf Karel (1880-1945). Both were captured on the Eastern Front and, together with several hundred of their compatriots, joined forces within Imperial Russia to become the famous Czechslovak Legion, which captured the Trans-Siberian Railway during the Russian Revolution, fought their way along it, and eventually were rescued in Vladivostok. Novotný, a composer whose work was probably the most avant-garde of his contemporaries, was killed in battle in the Southern Ural Mountains. Karel (always referred to as "Dvořák's final pupil") survived, returned to Prague, and as an elderly man, became involved in anti-Nazi resistance during the Occupation. He was tortured in Pankrác prison and eventually the Small Fortress of Terezín (Theresienstadt), where he actually sketched an opera on sheets of toilet paper using charcoal smuggled by sympathetic guards. He succumbed to his injuries in March 1945, two months short of liberation.

Jul. 27 2014 01:42 PM
Gev Sweeney from Ocean Grove, New Jersey

You forgot George Butterworth(The Banks of Green Willow). :(

Jul. 26 2014 10:03 PM
Henry from The Bronx

Some of you might find it interesting that Kreisler's mausoleum is in Woodlawn Cemetery in The Bronx.

Jul. 26 2014 12:00 PM
Stephen Plotkin from Port Washington, NY

Thanks for the link to Wozzeck within the Alban Berg paragraph. A wonderful full-length production of The Great 20th Century Opera.

Jul. 25 2014 03:48 PM
Keith Tillstrom from Portland, Oregon

Although he did not die during the hostilities, Ivor Gurney, a poet, art song composer and musician at Gloucester Cathedral, was certainly a casualty of the war. Twice wounded and gassed, he wrote a batch of poems published as "Severn and Somme," recalling his fondness for the great West Country river which was his home, and the French river, the scene of four years of tragedy and bloodshed. His years following the Armistice began with bursts of creativity, but his mental condition slowly deteriorated, and he spent his last 15 years in an asylum, where he continued to write, but died there in 1937.

Jul. 25 2014 12:32 AM
rick o'connell from NY NY

Two other composers come to mind as casualties of WW1. Enrique Granados (whose piano pieces are fairly often heard on QXR)was from neutral Spain,but he traveled to the US for the world premiere at the MET of his opera "Goyescas". His return trip to Spain was delayed by a request to perform a piano recital at the White House for President Wilson. His new return trip was on a ship bound for England which was torpedoed by a U-boat. Granados and his wife drowned, some reports say Granados was on a life boat but jumped in to try to save his wife.
The second composer is the more obscure Frenchman Alberic Magnard who wrote symphonies,operas and chamber works (his third and fourth symphonies are worth hearing). Magnard was killed in the first few weeks of the war in a bizarre shoot out he had with German troops who were approaching his estate. In both cases the insanity of war cut short the lives of talented musical artists.

Jul. 24 2014 10:58 PM
Rick O'Connell from NY NY

Don't forget George Butterworth an accomplished and
even more promising British composer
killed like so many other poor souls at the
Battle of the Somme. QXR regularly plays
his most famous few pieces

Jul. 24 2014 05:45 PM
GCL from Astoria Queens

Interesting. I did know about Ravel, and of course the pianist, Paul Wittgenstein as regards to Ravel of course. But I wasn't sure about the others of course.

You also have May 2014, but it should be May 1914.

I was also aware of what happened to Ravel during that time period.

Jul. 24 2014 05:41 PM
Ralph Cavaliere from No. Massapequa

Unfortunately, Fritz Kreisler, one of my favorite musicians, had a bad time of it here in the States while on tour. He was considered an enemy and humiliated by the press....Kreisler opened the door to violin music for me when I first started violin lessons in 1935 as a 10 year old. I still have his Mendelssohn's e Minor Violin Concerto, (unsurpassed) and a few of his own compositions.

Jul. 24 2014 05:41 PM

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