The LSO in World War I: Elgar's Carillon and how the repertoire changed

Our series of blogs about the LSO during World War I has so far concentrated on the musicians of the Orchestra that were called to active service and how the war affected them. But for those left behind - either too old to serve or physically unable to fight - and still trying to make a living from music, the war would make its mark just as indelibly.

Culture was of course not immune from the changes wrought upon the population, and artists of all kinds responded - the poetry of Wilfred Owen and the paintings of John Singer Sargent are well-known. In the music world, composers also responded to the new situation. Edward Elgar, who had been the LSO's Principal Conductor during 1911 and 1912, was living in London at the outbreak of war, and was enjoying the success he had finally found. The war was to change Elgar's music, with later compositions having a more introspective and wistful tone, but in 1914, like the rest of the population, Elgar believed the conflict would be short lived and over by Christmas. When he was asked by the Daily Telegraph in the November whether he would contribute to an anthology called King Albert's Book, to be sold to raise money for Belgian charities assisting people affected by German occupation, he agreed immediately.

Elgar selected 'Carillon: Sing, Belgians, Sing' by the Belgian poet Emile Cammaerts (with a translation by the poet's wife Tita Brand), and set it to an orchestral accompaniment. Naturally Elgar asked his former orchestra, the LSO, to perform at the premiere, an invitation which was unanimously accepted by the LSO Board at their next board meeting.

Board minutes detailing Elgar's invitation to the LSO to premiere Carillon

The premiere of Carillon was set for 7 December 1914 at the Queen's Hall, and Elgar himself conducted and Tita Brand, the poet's wife, recited the poem. Contemporary reports describe how she had been half hidden from view by a stand of roses to disguise the fact that she was pregnant!

Programme note for Carillon, 1914

The new piece captured the mood of the moment - best described as 'heated fervour' - with its rousing, noble and exuberant spirit, and was an instant success.'Its effect was like the brandishing of a sword' writes Basil Maine in his biography of Elgar; 'No poet or dramatist or preacher of the moment could catch that note as unerringly or sound it as forcibly.' Elgar donated his fee and all proceeds of the piece to the charity, and continued to do so when in March 1915 he and the LSO took the piece on an eight-date tour of British cities, again with Tita Brand as the reciter. A 1915 recording of the work, with the actor Henry Ainley, would also contribute.

The tour dates for Carillon, 1915

Elgar composed two further works on the poetry of Emile Cammaerts, Une voix dans le désert (1915) and Le drapeau belge (1916), but they were unable to repeat the impact made on the public by Carillon. The work gradually fell out of favour, but was revived during World War II for similar purposes, with a new text by Laurence Binyon. At our concert on Sunday 2 November 2014 we're delighted to be performing the original version of both the music and the text (narrated by Malcolm Sinclair) almost 100 years to the day that Elgar finished writing it.

The LSO's archive records many other first performances of works by British composers during World War I - Montague Phillips' Heroic Overture (1915), Cyril Scott's Piano Concerto (1915), Elgar's The Spirit of England (1916), Granville Bantock's Hebridean Symphony (1917), David Piggott's Pavane and Morris Dance (1918) - some of which had more staying power than others. It perhaps reveals a patriotic leaning in commissioning and performing works by British composers, and indeed in 1916 this was proven by a series of articles in The Pall Mall Gazette in September 1916. The paper began a crusade against the LSO, which had successfully promoted a festival called 'The Three Bs' in 1915 - Bach, Beethoven and Brahms. The proposed repeat in 1916 however was considered a step too far. 'Nothing less than a German festival... those in London who have felt war in their skins are not to be drugged with sound, however sweet.'

It seems that it was the music of Brahms that caused the most objections - not so long having passed on (1897), the royalties from performances would have been, in the Gazette's eyes, helping the enemy in Germany. A series of letters in subsequent newspapers (from the books recording the minutes of LSO Board meetings at the time we see that the directors considered taking legal action for libel), and indeed pickets at concerts led to the substitution of Brahms' Second Symphony for Granville Bantock's Hebridean Overture. 'A mere bore' was the opinion of composer, pianist and musicologist Donald Tovey, and led to one observer quipping that the substitution had done more for the cause of German music than simply playing the Brahms would have!

Pall Mall Gazette

The LSO will perform Elgar's Carillon on Sunday 2 November 2014 at the Barbican in London, in a programme that marks the centenary of World War I. The concert also includes a new work by Sally Beamish, Equal Voices, on the poetry of Sir Andrew Motion. Tickets available from £10 from the LSO website.