Music, Poetry and the Trauma of War

As we approach our weekend marking the centenary of World War I (31 October –2 November), broadcaster and writer Stephen Johnson explores the connection between music and war - its healing and its galvanising properties - and the speakers that will be taking part in our Musical Brain Study Day on Sunday 2 November at LSO St Luke's.

Stephen Johnson

Article by Stephen Johnson

Music and warfare have long been closely connected. Some kind of music almost certainly accompanied the very first outbreaks of organised human conflict. The regular drumbeat, fusing a group of men into one destructive quasi-automaton, inspired the aggressors and terrifies their victims. Fused with poetry, music provided the thrilling national epics that stirred men to fight, the choral hymns praising God or gods for victory and the religious laments that focussed collective grief and attempted to offer consolation.

With time the relationship has grown more complex. In the late 18th century, amid the first stirrings of Romanticism, a questioning note began to be heard in art: startlingly in the work of the painter Goya, more tentatively at first but with growing momentum in music and poetry. This strain grew louder and more intense in the 20th century. In Britain in the works of the ‘War Poets’, in Germany in Remarque’s 'All Quiet on the Western Front', the human cost is registered with a new personal intensity. Shostakovich’s 'Leningrad' Symphony offers encouragement and release to a besieged city. As pacifism gains momentum after World War II we have masterpieces like Britten’s War Requiem and the rise of the Protest Song. Music galvanises anti-war marchers as intensely as it once urged soldiers onwards. At the same time, as psychology gained ground after World War I, leading to the identification and first attempts at treating post-traumatic stress, music and poetry are increasingly seen as helpful to the healing process, sometime profoundly so.

Many different aspects of this paradoxical relationship are explored in this Study Day, which features speakers representing a wide range of backgrounds and expertise. Some, like the former Poet Laureate Sir Andrew Motion ('War, Poetry and Music'), the composer Sally Beamish (creator of the LSO commission Equal Voices) and the present writer ('The Drums of War') have been fortunate enough to have been born and brought up in one of the longest periods of peace and stability in Western European history. 'The Drums of War' and 'War, Poetry and Music' offer a long-term historical rather than a specifically personal perspective. What does the development of the relationship between warfare and these two forms of human creativity tell us about how attitudes to war have changed over the years? And what part have music and poetic verse played in changing those attitudes? In the evening concert that follows the conference, Beamish’s choral-orchestral Equal Voices takes Motion’s own verse as the starting point for an intense musical reflection of themes arising from what was once called ‘The War to end all wars’.

Three other speakers bring insights from the front line itself, again in diverse ways. Director of the Scars of War Foundation Hugh McManners, in his talk 'The Cognitive Neuroscience of the Effects of War', offers insight into how the rapidly developing neurological sciences can help us understand what trauma is, particularly trauma sustained in battle, or inflicted on war’s innocent civilian victims. In 'Psychotherapy in Response to Conflict', Lord John Alderdice, founder of the Centre for Psychotherapy in Belfast, shows how the very different discipline of psychotherapy can bring understanding and relief both to individuals and to communities scarred by deep divides. And Lieutenant Colonel Bob Meldrum, the British Army’s former Principal Director of Music, talks about the varied, sometime surprising roles music can perform at the battlefront and in its aftermath in Military Music in Operational Theatres. And of course there will be plenty of opportunity for wider discussion during the say, culminating in the final Question and Answer session which, if previous Musical Brain events are any indication, should be lively and thought-provoking.

Study Day: Music, Poetry and the Trauma of War Sunday
2 November 2014 10am–6pm, LSO St Luke's
The full schedule and tickets are available on the LSO website

Top photo: IWM Q 47602