The LSO in World War I: musicians at war

As we approach the 100th anniversary of one of the bloodiest battles of World War I, the Battle of the Somme, the LSO's concert on 28 April includes music written by composers directly affected and influenced by the War.

In August 1914 the face of the nation was changed as a generation of young men went off to fight in World War I – over 1 million from the UK alone did not return. No family was unaffected and no profession was exempt from losing vast swathes of men to military service, and the music profession was no exception.

London's music scene was changing as able-bodied men aged 18–41 were conscripted to serve in the army after the introduction of the Military Service Bill in January 1916. During this period around 20% of the membership of the London Symphony Orchestra was called away to serve, including its Leader W H Reed, who served with the Grenadier Guards. Concert-giving was becoming risky, both financially and for public safety, and the LSO found itself hanging onto its existence by a thread.

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From the minutes of the LSO AGM, 27 July 1917: "Sympathetic reference was made in regard to those members of the Orchestra whom had joined His Majesty's Forces, viz: Messrs WH Reed, Philip Lewis, E Carwardine, H Ralph, T Peatfield, ER Wilby, R Carrodus, B Reillie, S Freedman, J Meacham, A Tibbetts, A Ives, C Woodhouse, CB Jones, F Hawkins, Roy Robertson, E Yonge, C Dorling, P Kilburn, R Garnet, CA Crabbe, A Maney, C Blackford, RV Tabb, JH Silvester, R Murchie, F Almgill, E J Augarde, H Thornton, A Penn, H Jackson, E Hall, S Moxon, ET Garvin. Deep regret was expressed at the untimely death of Sydney Moxon, killed in action in France, whilst conveying a wounded man to a place of safety."

Composers too found themselves caught up in the conflict, with lasting effects on the lives and music. Many, like Elgar who was in his late 50s when War broke out, were too old to serve in the army, but contributed with works to console, uplift or, in the case of Carillon and The Spirit of England, to raise funds for war charities. But the younger generation of British composers – such as Butterworth, Moeran, Gurney, Bliss, Farrer, Coles and Vaughan Williams – enlisted.

George Butterworth

The first piece in our concert on 28 April, Rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad, was written by George Butterworth. One of the most promising composers of his generation, Butterworth had been an friend and confidant of Ralph Vaughan Williams and was part of the folk music and dance scene of the early 20th century along with Vaughan Williams and Cecil Sharp. Rhapsody, A Shropshire Lad was written as a 'postlude' to his famous settings of A E Hausman's poems, and was premiered by the LSO and Arthur Nikisch at the Leeds Festival on 2 October 1913.

Cecil Sharp, George Butterworth, and Maud and Helen Karpeles in a 1912 Kinora film.

Sadly it is one of the very few works of his that remain. Butterworth joined the army in August 1914, becoming a Second Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry. Based near Contalmaison on The Somme, Butterworth enjoyed the camraderie of the army and led his men with distinction. He was award the Military Cross in July 1916 for 'an act or acts of exemplary gallantry'. On 5 August 1916 Butterworth was shot by a sniper while leading an attack on a German communications trench. Hastily buried by his men, his body was subsequently lost in the fierce fighting of the Battle of the Somme and is remembered on the Thiepval Memorial, the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme.

George Butterworth with the Durham Light Infantry
George Butterworth (circled) with his men of the 13th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry, May 1915 (DLI Museum)

The promise shown by Butterworth's early works makes his a great loss for music. As his Brigadier put it in his message home to his family, 'A brilliant musician in times of peace, and an equally brilliant soldier in times of stress'.

> Read Butterworth's digital memorial on Lives of the First World War

Ralph Vaughan Williams

The second of the works in the concert on 28 April is Vaughan Williams' Pastoral Symphony, his Symphony No 3. RVW was a little older than some of the other composers who enlisted, with an already-successful composition career underway – many of which had received first performances by the LSO, including Fantasia on a Theme of Thomas Tallis, the First Symphony ('Sea Symphony') and Five Mystical Songs. At age 42 at the outbreak of war he was of an age which could be excused service, but wanted to sign up to do his bit.

Ralph Vaughan Williams in uniformRalph Vaughan Williams in uniform

Enlisting as a medical orderly with the Royal Army Medical Corps, it was Vaughan Williams' job as stretcher-bearer to recover wounded and dying soldiers from the battlefield, often in complete darkness and under heavy fire. It was a dangerous job; one which killed fellow composer Cecil Coles in 1918. Serving in Salonika and the French Western Front in 1916, Vaughan Williams saw sights which were unforgettably awful and stayed with him for the rest of his life: 'I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps...out of those seven who joined up together in August 1914 only three are left  I sometimes think now that it is wrong to have made friends with people younger than oneself.' This of course included his friend George Butterworth, to whom Vaugham Williams dedicated his reconstructed Second Symphony, premiered in 1920.

Vaughan Williams disliked people trying to place 'programmes' onto his works, but he himself described his Third Symphony to his wife Ursula, after he composer Peter Warlock described it as a 'cow staring over the fence', as 'wartime music': 'a great deal of it incubated when I used to go up night after night with the ambulance wagon at Ecoivres and we went up a steep hill and there was a wonderful Corot-like landscape in the sunset – it's not really lambkins frisking at all as most people take for granted.'

> Read Vaughan Williams' digital memorial on Lives of the First World War

Maurice Ravel

Our third piece in the concert on 28 April is Ravel's Concerto for the Left Hand. Like his British composer colleagues, Ravel had also volunteered to serve in the French Army at the outbreak of war, despite being nearly too old to serve at the age of 39. Rejected from both the infantry and air force for health reasons, he spent time caring for wounded soldiers and as a truck driver in the military supplies department, including driving petrol and essential supplies to the front line during the Battle of Verdun in 1916.

His health suffered as a result of his experiences in the War, and clearly affected his work – seen most obviously in Le tombeau de Couperin, written during the war years with six movements dedicated to six friends who had died fighting. Yet despite his failing health some of his greatest work was produced in the period afterwards, including his two piano concertos.

Paul wittgensteinPaul Wittgenstein (Bernard Fleischer Moving Images/CC by 3.0 NL)

The first of these was the Concerto for the Left Hand. Ravel was commissioned in 1929 by the pianist Paul Wittgenstein, who had had his right arm amputated after being shot in the elbow while serving in the Austrian 6th regiment of the 5th Squadron of Dragoons during the War. And this left handed concerto was not the first.

Having only just launched his career in 1913, the wounded ex-soldier was determined to rise above his disability: 'It was like climbing a mountain. If you can’t get up one way, you try another', he wrote. Whilst recovering in a prisoner of war camp in Russia, Wittgenstein set about arranging some of the great piano works (from memory!) for the left hand only, marking out a keyboard on a crate in charcoal in order to practise his technique.

Within a few years of the end of the War, Wittgenstein had not only recovered and relaunched his career, but had commissioned a body of 17 works for the left hand from some of the greatest names of the 20th century including Korngold, Hindemith, Strauss, Ravel, Prokofiev and Britten. He single-handedly (no pun intended!) enriched the repertoire and inspired countless injured musicians by commissioning original works that rise above the insinuation that one-handed arrangements of well-known masterworks could not compete with the originals.



These works by Butterworth, Vaughan Williams and Ravel will be performed alongside Debussy's La mer, conducted by Sir Mark Elder with Louise Alder (soprano) and Cédric Tiberghien (piano), on Thursday 28 April 2016 7.30pm at the Barbican Hall.