The difference a war makes

How do you distil the experiences of war into music? A concert series featuring the work of First World War composers such as Arthur Bliss and Ralph Vaughan Williams has the answers.
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Truth may often be pronounced as the first casualty of war, but a more obvious victim is reality. Writing from the safety of his study in the late Sixties, the composer Sir Arthur Bliss looked back at his experiences of the First World War with disbelief: "Did I really crawl on my belly in the mud at night towards the German trenches, patrolling with Mills bombs in my pockets and a revolver in my hand?" he asked. "This picture is now as unreal as a scene from an old film."

When Chamber Domaine was planning its concert series on composers who had fought in or lived through the First World War, it little imagined how timely its decision would prove to be. A little too timely, in fact – Radio 3 cancelled the group's broadcast promoting the season, thereby adding it to the occasionally bizarre list of music deemed unfit for public consumption following the World Trade Centre disaster. By the time the series began at the Wigmore Hall on 19 September, the whole world was on fire with images that – like Bliss's memories – swung between the believable and unbelievable. Suddenly, music reflecting the complex emotions of war – albeit a different kind of war – became a much desired anchor to reality rather than an exercise in emotional archaeology.

The work included in this chamber series represents both composers who lived through WWI to become giants in British classical music, and those whose talent was annihilated in the trenches. Bliss survived the fighting in France, as did Vaughan Williams, who was a wagon-orderly because he had flat feet. Elgar and Delius were much affected and influenced by the war, although far too old to fight; the triumphal swagger that characterised works like Pomp and Circumstance evaporated entirely from Elgar's oeuvre, to be replaced by an elegiac introspection that led to the 1919 Cello Concerto.

The most poignant items in the programme, however, are the works of George Butterworth and Ernest Farrar. Butterworth, in particular, was seen as a leading light of his musical generation, but a sniper's bullet put paid to that.

How do you paint the experiences of war in a score? Each composer had different answers, ranging from mournful anger to distilled poetic tenderness. From the writings of Bliss and the biography of Vaughan Williams, written by his second wife Ursula, it becomes obvious that while war as a distant concept evokes epic images of inhumanity, the wanton loss of life, and the clashing of giant political forces, as a day-to-day reality it also has its banalities, absurdities, and comic interludes, as well as moments of poignant, unexpected beauty.

I go to the elegant Camden house where Ursula Vaughan Williams lives, to talk to her about how the war changed her husband. Vaughan Williams himself may have been dead since 1958, but in the books, the pictures, the bust glowering in the drawing-room, he is still overwhelmingly present. Now in her nineties, and as elegant as her surroundings, Ursula has an erratic grasp of words, even though the rhythms, delivery, and tone of voice indicate where a story starts, ends, and where the punchline is. But, having read her book beforehand, it is not difficult to understand her – and when I return to the chapters on Vaughan Williams' war, it becomes obvious that while language is now doing her few favours, key words that connect to her earlier writing demonstrate that her memory of him is crystal clear.

One of her stories, although comic, is a reminder that the paranoia about "the enemy in our midst" currently gripping Britain is one of the first major shifts in mentality to characterise any war. Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, Vaughan Williams was walking along the cliffs overlooking the Channel, and "sat down to write a tune he had thought of, and grew absorbed in his music notebook. He was recalled to time and place by a Boy Scout who gazed at him fiercely and told him he was under arrest. 'Why?' asked Ralph, puzzled. 'Maps,' said the Scout. 'Information for the enemy.'" Vaughan Williams was escorted to the police station, where the manuscript was scrutinised for signs that it may be relaying topographical as well as melodic information.

Chamber Domaine has chosen to perform Vaughan Williams's Three Rondels for Soprano, Two Violins and Piano at its concert on 6 November. The series specialises in unearthing composers' lesser-known works. A more familiar example of Vaughan Williams's war-influenced music would be his Pastoral Symphony. It was inspired by his time at Ecoivres in 1916, where for the first time he was on the front line, taking men back from the trenches in an ambulance. Although surrounded by horrors, and devastated by the almost daily loss of friends and relatives, it says much about the man that the pain did not block out his sense of beauty: "A great deal of [the symphony] incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance waggon at Ecoivres, and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset."

Such poetic observations may sound fey, but Bliss, in his autobiography As I Remember, backs up the idea that a heightened aesthetic sensibility accompanied the horrors of war: "I found in France, as so many others did, that the appreciation of a moment's beauty had been greatly intensified by the sordid contrast around: one's senses were so much more sharply on the alert for sights and sounds that went unnoticed in peacetime because taken so for granted. But a butterfly alighting on a trench parapet, a thrush's songs at 'stand-to', a sudden rainbow, became infinitely precious phenomena, and indeed the sheer joy of being alive was the more relished for there being the continual possibility of sudden death." Lady Bliss met her husband in the US five years after the war ended. She herself is American, as she repeats proudly when I meet her, and remembers that his war experiences had left him with an "infinite sympathy for suffering of any kind". The man who became Master of the Queen's Music in 1953, wrote two chamber works in 1916, which he then suppressed because they did not reflect his rapidly maturing style. Chamber Domaine plans to demonstrate that this was over-critical – and the string quartet will be performed for the first time since 1916 at the Imperial War Museum.

As 21st-century Britain awaits the unknown, Bliss's words still resonate: "The ever-deepening horrors of war have made the very word the most hideous in our language." Hopefully, this series will demonstrate what can be salvaged from an embattled world.

Chamber Domaine is at St John's Smith Square on 6 November (020-7222 1061), and at the Imperial War Museum on 7 November (020-7416 5439)