Music allows us to transcend time. Music can paint a picture of how life once was and still is in times of war. Some pieces reflect the social aspect of wartime like music played in pubs or at dances, or music soldiers listened to in the trenches to remind them of home. Other pieces were written to inspire bravery and valour in men and women fighting for their country. While times have changed since the World Wars, music helps us decipher some essence of what it meant to fight for freedom within our country, military and families.
Many artists were among the brave individuals who fought at the front lines, including classical composers. Here are five WWI soldiers who were also composers that channeled their experiences through music.
A composer who was already writing an opera about a traumatized soldier, Wozzeck, Berg experienced the topic of his opera first hand when he became a conscripted solider in the Austro-Hungarian army in 1915. When Berg returned from the war to complete his work, he used a lot of his personal experience from the front to develop his character.
He didn’t weight enough to meet the requirements of the French army, but that didn’t stop Ravel from enlisting. He joined the medical team and became a truck driver who delivered supplies to the French lines in Verdun. Each movement of his piece, Le Tombeau de Couperin, is dedicated to his friends who died in the war.
Originally dubbed “unfit for active service,” Holst taught and composed music as he watched his loved ones, including his wife, sent to war. Specifically, he worked on his masterpiece The Planets using the first movement Mars, Bringer of War to illustrate what he thought were the horrors of war. Finally recruited by the YMCA to become a music organizer for the British soldiers, he was deployed to Greece in 1918.
This violinist and composer fought with the Austrian army’s Fourth Battalion during the start of WWI. He used his musical abilities in a rather beneficial and unorthodox way – he was able to detect the type and trajectory of missiles while they were still in mid-air. Kreisler only saw four weeks of action however, as he was injured by Russian forces and subsequently sent home at the end of 1914. Despite his injuries, he was able to continue playing his violin.
Ralph Vaughan Williams –
Another composer whose work was interrupted by a call to duty, Vaughan Williams enlisted in the British army in 1914. Vaughan Williams was inspired to join British forces after witnessing troops being deployed to France and seeing naval exercises taking place in his hometown. His masterpiece, The Lark Ascending, was finished after his return from the war.