Dark horizons

1913 saw the births of a number of composers, whose anniversaries are being celebrated in articles and concerts this year, among them Benjamin Britten and Witold Lutosławski.

willow3That same year, however, found the world on the cusp of a world war that was about to throttle the development of the arts in an unprecedented way. Testing the musical pulse of the time, however, none would have guessed that dark clouds were gathering by listening to a piece such as George Butterworth’s The Banks of Green Willow (Naxos Classical Archives 9.80222), steeped in British folksong and pastorally becalming; maybe the proverbial calm before the storm.somme

Fellow Briton Ralph Vaughan Williams completed his Symphony No. 2 in the same year; dedicating it to Butterworth, who had encouraged his friend to write a purely orchestral symphony (his previous Sea Symphony was for chorus and orchestra). Subtitled A London Symphony, both the score and its dedicatee were lost: Butterworth to a sniper’s bullet in the Battle of the Somme in 1916; the manuscript going astray after the symphony’s first performance in 1914 amid the disruptions of the outbreak of war, ironically while it was being perused by the conductor Fritz Busch in Germany.

It was in 1913 that Ivor Gurney, another British composer and colourful eccentric, first began to show signs of the mental instability that was to plague him till the end of his life. He nevertheless served on the front lines, remarkably producing the song By a bierside (Naxos 8.572151) during a break from engagement with the Germans in 1916.

Across the English Channel, Claude Debussy was to see the war through to its final scenes, despite the onset of colon cancer. The composer of so much luminescent music, his Berceuse héroïque (Naxos 8.553294) written in 1914 is suffused with the war that had already taken a grip, with its sinister harmonies and bugle calls.Stravinsky-Nijinsky

Coincidentally, both Debussy and Maurice Ravel set three poems by Stéphane Mallarmé to music in 1913. Ravel dedicated the first song in his set, Soupir, to Stravinsky who was brewing up his own storm at the time in the form of his music for the ballet, The Rite of Spring (Naxos 8.553217). In retrospect, the violent reaction of some members of the audience to the music’s barbaric edge provided a pre-echo of what was to hit the outskirts of Paris shortly afterwards.Emily-davison

Back across the English Channel, the suffragette movement recorded a less artistic moment of historical impact when Emily Wilding Davison threw herself under a horse during a race meeting of the 1913 Derby to highlight her cause. The horse was from the stable of King George V. Davison took four days to die from her injuries; it took a further 15 years for all women over the age of 21 to enjoy voting rights; and a full century before a female would be invited to conduct at the BBC’s Last Night of the Proms.

Once the hostilities of the Great War had taken their grip, it’s sometimes difficult to comprehend how new works were written and performed, not least those with a pleasant exterior, such as Vaughan Williams’ The Lark Ascending (Naxos 8.553955). Full of the dancing spirit, and intended for performance by school students, Gustav Holst penned his St Paul’s Suite for strings (Naxos 8.570339) in 1913; Mars The Bringer of War, the opening movement of his The Planets (Naxos 8.555776) written in 1916 provides a significant contrast and sign of the times.Arnold-Schoenberg2

The Austrian composer Arnold Schoenberg had his artistic flow severely stemmed by the war. Having begun his Four Orchestral Songs (Naxos 8.557523) in 1913, he finished the short work only in 1916, when he was sent to the front line as part of his military service. It was several years before entries to his catalogue resumed.

Immersing oneself in these songs by Schoenberg is probably a good barometer of the troubled times:

“I sense the winds which come and must endure them,” is how the first song opens, ending with the lines:

“I can already sense the storm, and surge like the sea.
And spread myself out and into myself downfall
And hurtle away and am all alone in the great storm.”

Immersing oneself in Marin Alsop’s latest release of BrahmsA German Requiem (Naxos 8.572996) and its message of universal hope is probably the best antidote to the picture of despair that dark period of history engendered.

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