June 28, 1914, the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the heir to the throne of Austria-Hungary, was assassinated by Gavrilo Princip, a Yugoslav nationalist. This incident quickly escalated into one of the bloodiest conflicts in human history. The Great War, or World War I, saw the rise of revolutions and the death of 9 million soldiers and 7 million civilians. The philosophy, technology and geography of the world were forever altered. The world of music was also affected as composers served in battle and sought to express their patriotism and also the true human cost of the conflict.
There were great composers on both sides of the trenches in World War I. The Allies had French composer, Maurice Ravel, who served briefly and wrote works commemorating lost friends and fellow soldiers who died in battle. British composer, George Butterworth died at the “Battle of Somme". His remains were never found, but his pre-war work The Banks of Green Willow has become an anthem for unknown soldiers.
The Central Powers of the German and Austrio-Hungarian empires saw many of the composers of the 2nd Viennese School serve. Alban Berg began his opera Wozzeck while in service. For his teacher, Arnold Schoenberg, the battle was not just about a physical conflict but an ideological and artistic struggle. He saw French composers Ravel, Bizet and even Stravinsky as the true enemy. He wrote to Alma Mahler saying, “Now comes the reckoning! Now we will throw the mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God.”
After years of trench warfare, chemical weaponry and genocide the “War to end all Wars” finally ended in armistice on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of 1918. It took another five years before the final treaties were signed. In the aftermath, the German, Austro-Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian empires were gone. New nations arose from the ashes and the world counted their dead and began to assess the cost.
One of the positive outcomes of the war is that thanks to the artistic expressions of painters, poets and composers, we see not only the strategies of Kaisers and generals when looking at the conflict but also the experiences and sufferings of countless, nameless soldiers who bore the true cost of war. A renaissance of British music was triggered as composers like John Foulds, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Edward Elgar and Gustav Holst expressed their mourning through works of commemoration and remembrance.