Impressions of war

Philip Clark Mon 4th August 2014

From Vaughan Williams to Schoenberg, the composers whose music was shaped by the horrors of war

Gramophone, July 2014

Gramophone, July 2014

Buoyed by the unlikely success of Pierrot lunaire, Arnold Schoenberg was at home in Vienna working on a new 12-note symphony when Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria was assassinated while on an official visit to Sarajevo in June 1914. And just as it was the end of the road for the unfortunate archduke, the progress of Schoenberg’s symphony was also stopped dead in its tracks. The archduke’s murder would catapult Europe towards conflict and Schoenberg found himself sucked inside the ensuing breakdown of order, unable to finish anything to his satisfaction until long after the Great War had ended.

That opening paragraph, which probably leaves you feeling slightly queasy, was designed with your discomfort in mind. The callous juxtaposition of a composer’s abandoned symphony against the personal tragedy of a murder – albeit of a public figure carrying out official duties during an era when political assassinations were far from rare – does indeed sit uneasily. But how better to underline the idea that the certain world in which composers, and other artists, had hitherto existed was about to crumble? Marrying the inner world of their intellectual lives – a world over which they had complete control – with relentless and stark reports of extreme tragedy presented them with a disorientating and uncomfortable new reality.

Or perhaps not. The first time we encounter Schoenberg in 1913: The Year before the Storm, by German writer and historian Florian Illies, the composer is having palpitations about the forthcoming premiere of his blockbuster cantata Gurrelieder as Thomas Mann, reeling from the critical monstering his first play received in the Vienna press, is concerned that the new rug he purchased in all good faith to insulate his study might be of substandard quality. Alma Mahler, widow of Gustav, is having an affair with the painter Oskar Kokoschka, as fellow painter Gustav Klimt is trying to cross various erotic lines with his nude models. Meanwhile, James Joyce is teaching English to the Italian writer Italo Svevo, who in turn would become the model for Ulysses’s Leopold Bloom. The underlying message of Illies’s book: Europe’s intellectual elite were pursuing their carefree lifestyles as though it were business as usual, apparently indifferent to the mounting political unrest.

But who wouldn’t be narked by below-par carpeting or find Alma Mahler attractive? Illies’s thesis, his narrative about the sickly calm before the breakdown, is fatally undermined because blurring boundaries between artists’ everyday momentary obsessions and the totality of their world view looks suspiciously like a deliberate attempt at setting them up to fail. Two other recent books – Australian-born historian Charles Emmerson’s 1913: The World before the Great War and Florence Nightingale biographer Mark Bostridge’s The Fateful Year: England 1914 – paint broader pictures of a world in extreme flux. London is developing into a financial centre. Berlin is a nascent metropolis. The suffragette movement is working to right an inexplicable wrong. Industrial unrest is endemic. And to take the emotional and technical temperature of Schoenberg’s pre-war Pierrot lunaire as something distinct from the music he would write after the war; to appreciate how Vaughan Williams’s post-war Flos campi necessarily viewed the world differently from The Lark Ascending (1914); or to comprehend how the opulence of Ravel’s 1912 Daphnis et Chloé differs from the fury of La valse – all this requires us to think ourselves back into the mindset of 1913.

‘By the end of the war, a paradigm shift had taken place within the collective psyche’

This is no simple task. By the end of the war, a paradigm shift had taken place within the collective psyche. Every subsequent generation would live in a heightened state of unease which has now, almost a hundred years on (two world wars later and with visions of September 11 rewinding through our imaginations), become ingrained within the way we think. But in 1913 no such universal fears existed. Can external events transform hopeful C sharps into tragic D flats? Do we really expect composers to write pieces that are also prophetic visions? Or could the truth be that we project retrospective emotions over the music written during periods of crisis? Had there been no war, might the music of Schoenberg, Vaughan Williams, Ravel et al have anyway renewed its stylistic and technical basis?

As composers, Schoenberg and Vaughan Williams had precisely nothing in common, but their experiences during the war shared a certain fearful symmetry. Illies has fun at the expense of Schoenberg’s triskaidekaphobia, his deeply ingrained phobia of the number 13. To short-circuit the unimaginable horror of ‘Moses und Aaron’ – an opera title consisting of 13 letters – many years later, he might have taken the liberty of transforming the biblical ‘Aaron’ into the decidedly Schoenbergian ‘Aron’; but here he is, in 1913, about to face an unthinkable calamity, waking up in cold sweats about his 100-minute cantata – worrying about whether it could ever realistically get off the ground, and about what his supporters, who only a year earlier were cheering his freely atonal Pierrot lunaire, might think of his apparent return to bulbous, muscular Wagnerian tonality.

‘Are you that notorious Schoenberg the composer?’ his officer asked. ‘Someone had to be, so it might as well have been me,’ came the retort

The truth is, though, that the war years crippled Schoenberg emotionally and creatively. Although he was initially deemed unfit for military service, like Vaughan Williams he did serve time in the military, where he found his reputation preceded him. ‘Are you that notorious Schoenberg the composer?’ his officer asked. ‘Someone had to be, so it might as well have been me,’ came the retort. His chronic asthma ensured an early discharge after a year in which Schoenberg and the army realised how incompatible they were. But withWebern and Berg both serving in the war, and with food and fuel supplies at a premium in Vienna, the imperative to compose drained away. And then, in 1917, a double trauma: Schoenberg’s finances became so strained that his family were evicted from their home; then he was recalled to active military service.

Vaughan Williams enlisted in the army on New Year’s Eve 1914, opting to join the field ambulance corps, where his duties were unspeakably grim. Evacuating wounded soldiers from the field meant working around the bodies of those who had not been so fortunate. After the war, Vaughan Williams would become a professor of composition at the Royal College of Music in London, but the scars endured: the emotional temperament of his music changed instantly, and his close proximity to persistent gunfire left him with a legacy of hearing problems.

Flos campi, Vaughan Williams’s suite for viola solo, small choir and chamber orchestra (first performed by Lionel Tertis and the Queen’s Hall Orchestra under Henry Wood in October 1925) can’t – and how could it? – bring itself to recapture the picturesque purity of The Lark Ascending. The caliginous, unlit textures Vaughan Williams exhibits during the opening of his piece – the tenebrous viola pressed against sour double reeds, textures that unmistakably anticipate Harrison Birtwistle’s dark pastoralism – could hardly be further removed from the happy-go-lucky, airborne buoyancy of the earlier work.

Vaughan Williams’s wordless chorus shimmers and undoubtedly charms, especially in the folksy second movement; but however beguiling its sound, a chorus that sings without articulating words has a curious psychological side effect. Voices convey verbal meaning; but voices that speak without verbal utterance have had part of their humanity blotted out, like the alienated sensation caused by talking to someone who insists on hiding their eyes behind sunglasses. Eyes and words are the windows to our souls. Flos campi – translated literally as ‘Flowers of the Fields’ – puts you in mind of Paul Nash, the painter whose blissful, halcyon view of landscape was torn apart by the war. In his 1918 painting We Are Making a New World, once opulent, fertile fields are scarred by the deep imprint of trenches as trees stripped of their foliage hang lifeless like ghosts of dismembered body parts.

In the final months of the war, Schoenberg moved out of central Vienna to the nearby town of Mödling, where he hoped a new teaching post in a school would help to stabilise his perilous financial position. And with the war now over, rather than pick up the pieces of his compositional career, he chose to bide his time and think. He established the Verein für musikalische Privataufführungen (Society for Private Musical Performances), which aimed to bring a broad cross-section of new music, often in chamber arrangements, to a subscription audience devoted to the ideals of modern composition. Schoenberg was striving to make a new world.

But what of his own music? In 1915, Schoenberg attempted to pick over the sketches of that same large 12-note symphony he had begun before the war, devising a text based around the biblical story of Jacob’s ladder to set as a choral finale. Die Jakobsleiter would subsequently emerge as a stand-alone oratorio, but one that would never be completed – he worked on it intensively during 1926 and was still tinkering with the orchestration during the Second World War when other compositional projects intervened. During his time in the army he attempted to begin a Rilke setting (to be accompanied by violin, viola, cello and harmonium), a string septet and a new piano piece. But his next major work, the Op 24 Serenade for male voice and small ensemble, would not appear until 1923.

‘With his life disintegrating around him, Schoenberg was attempting to renew the whole basis of his compositional language’

Die Jakobsleiter was destined never to be finished. With his life disintegrating around him, Schoenberg was attempting to renew the whole basis of his compositional language by inching towards the systemisation of the free atonal language typified by Pierrot lunaire into the compositional technique that would eventually be termed ‘serialism’ – but external pressures derailed the thought processes. Serenade contained Schoenberg’s first fully fledged serial work and chose not to dwell on the recent past; it was in fact positively easy-going and breezy, certainly compared with the Schoenberg of the pre-war expressionist Erwartung and Die glückliche Hand. The light-on-its-feet mandolin- and guitar-led texture supported a form that unapologetically referenced Classical masters, and when Janáček heard the piece in 1925 he described it as ‘Viennese strumming’. The taut serial construction of the central song, ‘Petrarch Sonnet’, is offset by the simple Ländler of the ‘Dance Scene’ section. Recapitulated material reappears in distorted (dis)guises, as though Schoenberg were testing his innovations against tradition.

‘Schoenberg was waging a personal war against what he termed the bourgeois tendencies of musical reactionaries such as Stravinsky, Ravel and, bizarrely, Bizet’

Serenade was no allegory in the manner of Flos campi; it feels as if it were written by a composer who, liberated from the agonies of the previous few years, was now running with ideas he had been hitherto forced to repress. Schoenberg’s relationship with Classical form was questioning, critical and unsettled, and he was waging a personal war against what he termed the bourgeois tendencies of musical reactionaries such as Stravinsky, Ravel and, bizarrely, Bizet, all of whom he complained about in a letter to Alma Mahler: ‘Now comes the reckoning!’ he thundered. ‘Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God.’

Paradoxically, Ravel’s La valse (1920) is usually considered a complaint against exactly the sort of bourgeois tendencies that so pained Schoenberg. During the war, Ravel was rejected from the French army and air force because of his fragile health and he worked as a military truck driver delivering fuel to the front. But whereas the war largely shut Schoenberg and Vaughan Williams down artistically, during time off from his duties Ravel composed his solo piano masterwork Le tombeau de Couperin, each movement paying tribute to fallen friends killed during hostilities.

But what seems palpably clear from the surface, and indeed the depth, of Ravel’s music about his response to the war met with blank denials from the composer himself. The message of La valse seems obvious enough: Ravel borrows the archetypical Viennese dance form, from which he builds a new waltz that reflects on the authentic thing itself – which is then made to implode from the inside. But Ravel, in a 1922 letter to the composer Maurice Emmanuel, flatly denied the connection between his piece and the war: ‘One should only see in it what the music expresses – a progression of sonority, to which the stage comes along to add light and movement.’

But just because Ravel claimed that doesn’t mean it’s true – as we know, composers are famously unreliable witnesses to their own music; and that the archetype of a waltz didn’t have any extramusical meaning seems, frankly, implausible. Ravel complained about his piece being mistaken for a parody – but what else is his G major Piano Concerto if not a parody of jazz? The metaphor behind Ravel’s Concerto for the Left Hand, commissioned by Paul Wittgenstein, the Austrian pianist whose right arm had been shot during the war, is explicit; and you wonder if the extreme language of Boléro was Ravel’s retort to the reception of La valse. The side-drum rhythm that underpins Boléro might be Spanish in origin, but it’s grinding and quasi-militaristic nevertheless. But, to avoid confusion, Ravel simply took traditional musical rhetoric out of Boléro. It’s a piece about the ‘body’ orchestra that has no reference beyond the internal workings-out of its own material. The war turned Ravel into a composer whose music held inscrutable secrets. What to make of those embedded references to jazz and ragtime in his Violin Sonata? And why would a composer write a piece, like Boléro, that’s all orchestration and no music? His music became more difficult to read.

‘The list of British composers – including George Butterworth, Cecil Coles, Ernest Farrar, Frederick Kelly – who didn’t survive remains shocking’

But all these composers – Schoenberg, Ravel, Vaughan Williams (and also Elgar, Strauss and Stravinsky) – were the lucky ones who emerged from the war relatively unscathed. The list of British composers – including George Butterworth, Cecil Coles, Ernest Farrar, Frederick Kelly – who didn’t survive remains shocking. Of those who did survive, Ivor Gurney suffered declining mental health, while EJ Moeran and Arthur Bliss would remain forever marked by their experiences. ‘Although the war had been over for more than 10 years, I was still troubled by frequent nightmares,’ Bliss wrote. ‘I was still there in the trenches with a few men; we knew the armistice had been signed, but we had been forgotten; so had a section of the Germans opposite. It was as though we were both doomed to fight on till extinction. I used to wake with horror.’

As I write, Butterworth’s 1913 orchestral piece The Banks of Green Willow is playing in the background and the emotional connotations of the work are clear: this composer is evoking exactly the sort of landscape in which, three years later during the Battle of the Somme, he would be killed. The understated innocence of the music is heartbreaking – Butterworth even describes his piece as an ‘idyll’. But imbuing it with a coating of after-the-event sentiment is, I think, misrepresenting this music and its place in time.

Moeran’s Symphony in G minor provides us with an enigma familiar from Ravel. Moeran opted to say nothing explicit about the war during his lifetime, and wrote about his Symphony only in abstract musical terms. He painstakingly worked on the piece over the course of 10 years, finally completing it in 1937, and the sense of unease about a disrupted peace is profound. What to make of the nervy, jittery harmonies that open the symphony? Or the second movement, where the woodwind feel suffocated and the brass outline contours reminiscent of the Dies irae? A vision of the apocalypse? Or purely musical obsessions being worked through compositionally? Perhaps Moeran’s Symphony, distanced from the events themselves, manages to do both – the inner intellectual world of this composer grasping for an abstract response to very real tragedy.

This article originally appeared in the July 2014 issue of Gramophone.

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