an essay by Leo Samama

written for 14-18 : From Poetry to Music
a project of Tenso Network Europe

One hundred years on, anyone studying choir music concerned with the Great War, as this devastating event originally and fittingly was called, will note a distinct lack of music written for chamber choirs, or for that matter for choirs in general. The most important European composers of the time chose to express their emotions, fears and frustrations in orchestral works and chamber or piano music.
It is telling that the most compelling work about the First World War, the War Requiem by the English composer Benjamin Britten, was written forty years after the outbreak of the Great War. It was composed for the consecration of Coventry Cathedral, which was destroyed in the Second World War. Particularly significant is the War Requiem’s setting: a large choir and orchestra with solo soprano together with a chamber orchestra with solo tenor. The former underlines the universality of grief through the Latin requiem text; the latter portrays the devastating scenes at the front through poems from there.
Of course works were written for large and small a cappella choirs in the first decades of the twentieth century. However the majority of these works were arrangements of folk songs, formed part of the liturgy or were intended for the very popular choirs from such sections of the community as diamond workers, tram personnel or the police.
These choirs – in the main fairly sizable men’s choirs – had strong socialist leanings and were remarkably active up until the 1950s. Liturgical choral works largely sprung from the renewed interest in Renaissance polyphony, particularly that of Lassus and Palestrina. The revival of a capella chamber choirs in the second half of the nineteenth century comes from the same source. Arrangements and imitations of folk songs (together with folk dance) are partly related to outings of national identity and partly allied to music in the domestic sphere.
We can safely say that around 1900 a cappella music for chamber choir scarcely received the wide attention that it would enjoy in the second half of the twentieth century. There are of course some notable exceptions, such as the works of the French masters Debussy and Ravel. There is one work that we are tempted to link directly to the menace of war: the impressive Friede auf Erde, written in 1907 by the Austrian Arnold Schönberg. However this composition, like the great a cappella choral works of Richard Strauss, is actually meant for a symphonic choir rather than a chamber choir.
Still, it is such a work that makes us aware of the dearth of works about the Great War for chamber choir. We realise then how important it is for future generations that one hundred years on we still sing about the all-encompassing First World War in all the languages of that war.
While Pro Gallia or Pro Germania dominated the political and ethical debate in Western Europe, the peoples of Eastern Europe were also at war. The Poles wanted to break free of the Russians, as did the Estonians, Latvians and Lithuanians. The Hungarians, Czechs, Croatians and Serbians struggled to extricate themselves from the clutches of the Austrian Habsburgers. Just as importantly, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat were intent on the dismantling of traditional hierarchical power structures and of the Romanov, Hohenzollern and Habsburg empires.
There was fighting almost everywhere in Europe. Those who didn’t take part and sought to be politically neutral were nevertheless always emotionally, economically and politically involved in the battle for life and death in the trenches. They took part in public debate about good and evil, the bombing of cultural treasures or the defence of national identity. From all over Europe – in novels, poems and diaries, in magazines, newspapers and private correspondence – came reports on the horrors of the war, the millions of victims and the ravaged countries and cities.
Many artists fought at the front or served in myriad other ways. The horrors they witnessed, sometimes from a great distance, sometimes at close hand, found expression in music, paintings and drawings, novels and poetry. Charles Ives wrote several war songs in the United States; Alphons Diepenbrock did the same in the neutral Netherlands. Ravel’s piano suite Le tombeau de Couperin is a homage to fallen friends and colleagues.
A significant change took place in musical life after the First World War. The Roaring Twenties were characterized by celebratory and ironic music, sometimes manic and sometimes emphasising craft above emotion. Jazz and music hall entered into art music, while at the same time many harked back to pre-Romantic music. People regularly looked back to the 1914-1918 war, but seldom wrote music ‘about’ that event.
However the Great War indirectly plays an important role in the musical expression of the bitterness, disappointment and spiritual uprooting caused by such an inhuman war and the collapse of old ideals. Examples include the Cello Concerto (1919) by the British composer Edward Elgar or the Third Symphony (1921) by his countryman Ralph Vaughan Williams, the Berliner Requiem (1928) by the German Kurt Weill, the Fifth Symphony (1915/1919) by Jean Sibelius, the Fifth Symphony (1920/22) by Carl Nielsen, the “Kantata O posledních věcech člověka” (The Last Things of Man) (1921) by the Czech Ladislav Vycpalek and the Ceska Rhapsody (1918) by his countryman Bohuslav Martinů, or the Third Symphony (1916) by the Rumanian George Enescu.
The First World War was quickly overtaken by the Second. For many, the horrors of that war caused the memories of the first to fade into the background. Britten’s War Requiem remains unique in its linking of both wars.
In 2014 more texts from the war are available than ever before, and we continue to tap into new, previously unknown sources. However there is still scarcely any vocal music or choir music written as a direct reaction to the slaughter, destruction and disruption of the war. Now that we are commemorating the centennial of the 1914-1918 period, it is not only relevant, but also a matter of urgency that we shine a contemporary and international light on the Great War, especially in choir music, and preferably for young and old, professionals and amateurs. New music, with the power of Schönberg’s Friede auf Erde, employing today’s music possibilities and supported by the best chamber choirs of Europe, will give the remembrance of the suffering and destruction of that time a renewed place in the collective memories of generations to come.

© Leo Samama 2014
© translation Carolyn Muntz 2014
© Tenso Network Europe