The Great War At 100: Music Of Conflict And Remembrance

Jul 28, 2014
Originally published on December 8, 2016 12:17 pm

One hundred years ago today, the Austro-Hungarian Empire declared war on Serbia. The conflict drew in country after country and grew to an unprecedented scale. An estimated 9 million combatants lost their lives and more than 21 million were wounded in what came to be known as The Great War and, eventually, World War I.

Among the dead and the survivors were musicians. We've been listening to some of their creations. The extraordinary level of destruction inspired them in myriad ways. Some composers captured the war's violence while others seemed to counteract it by writing music that soothed. Still others came back wounded yet persevered. And all these years later, the war continues to resonate in works like the 2012 Pulitzer Prize-winning opera Silent Night by Kevin Puts.

Have a favorite piece of music inspired by World War I? Let us know in the comments section or on Twitter or Facebook.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit


It was 100 years ago today Austria-Hungary the empire declared war on Serbia, and the conflict quickly spread to include much of the globe in what became World War I. Some 9 million soldiers and sailors lost their lives and among the dead and the survivors were musicians. NPR's Tom Huizenga has been listening to some of the musical responses to the Great War, both classical and popular and he joined us to talk about that music. Good morning.

TOM HUIZENGA, BYLINE: Nice to see you, Renee.

MONTAGNE: Let's begin with a composer who went to war, actually went to war and knew exactly what it felt like.

HUIZENGA: All right, there's no better place to start than Frenchman Maurice Ravel.


HUIZENGA: Ravel was itching to serve in the war and in March of 1915 he wrote a letter to a friend and he said, I wait to be posted as a bombardier on a plane. Well, Ravel never got his wish.

MONTAGNE: And why not?

HUIZENGA: Because of his slight build, Ravel never made it into combat but instead he ended up driving a supply truck, he supported the troops near Verdun and during that time he remained very creative and this piano Suite "Le Tombeau de Couperin" he dedicated each movement to a friend who was killed in the war. We're hearing the sprightly "Rigaudon," which doesn't sound very sad but it does commemorate the pair of brothers who were killed by the very same shell on their very first day at the front.


MONTAGNE: What about the popular songs of the time?

HUIZENGA: Well, here's one that might ring a bell.


ENRICO CARUSO: (Singing) Johnny, get your gun, get your gun, get your gun. Take it on the run, on the run, on the run.

HUIZENGA: That'll get you marching right? It's an example of an American composer's reaction to the war and in a moment you'll recognize it as "Over There." George M. Cohan who wrote the song was very big on Broadway. He had already written songs like "Give My Regards To Broadway." Just two days after President Wilson declared war on Germany, Cohan responded by writing this song. And if you read the accounts from his children he introduced it first to his family using a tin pan from the kitchen as a helmet and a broomstick for a gun and reportedly he scared his kids.


CARUSO: (Singing) Over there, over there, send the word, send the word over there. That the boys are coming, the boys are coming. The drums rum tumming everywhere.

HUIZENGA: "Over There" was an immediate hit, and everyone was clamoring to perform it and record it. Even the biggest opera star of the day, and that's Italian tenor Enrico Caruso who made this recording in 1918.

MONTAGNE: All right, we're listening to some music in response to World War I on the 100th anniversary of the start of that war. Tom what's next?

HUIZENGA: Well, we have some music from Gustav Holst, the guy who gave us "The Planets." But unlike that gigantic symphonic suite, we're going to hear is "Ode To Death" from 1918. Very opposite music, very gentle and ethereal.


HUIZENGA: You know Holst was just about 40 years old when the war broke out and he was prevented from enlisting because he was in poor health. But as the war dragged on he did end up finding a way to serve the YMCA by bringing musical comfort to troops in both Greece and Turkey in 1918 and that's the year that he wrote this music we're listening to "Ode To Death" a 12 minute meditation for chorus and orchestra and for his text Holst chose the poem "When Lilacs Last In The Dooryard Bloom'd" that's form "Leaves of Grass" by Walt Whitman, who you might know wrote very movingly of his time nursing the wounded in a very different war, the Civil War. And as this piece opens, the music slowly spins out and the chorus sings Whitman's comforting lines, Come lovely and soothing death, Undulate round the world, serenely arriving, arriving."


MONTAGNE: And, Tom, this war turned out to be so deadly that it effected an entire generation of people who survived it. And of course many did others though, among the musicians came back wounded.

HUIZENGA: Right, and I'm thinking of the pianist Paul Wittgenstein who made his piano debut in 1913 just before the war. He went in the war, 1914, shot in the right elbow, his right arm had to be amputated.

MONTAGNE: Something that very well could have ruined his entire life.

HUIZENGA: It certainly could have but he instead was determined to continue performing. And he developed these extraordinary techniques to overcome his disability and he commissioned many composers to write pieces for the left hand only. Maurice Ravel, Benjamin Britten and Paul Hindemith each wrote works for Wittgenstein, as did Sergei Prokofiev. His piano Concerto No.4.


MONTAGNE: Played by the left hand only.

HUIZENGA: Left hand only. And it's too bad Renee because Wittgenstein never really understood this concerto by Prokofiev. And ultimately Wittgenstein never played it. It's still pretty neglected today but it contains really some fascinating music.

MONTAGNE: Indeed. Tom, let's hear one more piece of music inspired by World War I.

HUIZENGA: OK, Renee, one of the great tragedies of the world was the sinking of the Lusitania.

MONTAGNE: Which was the British ocean liner torpedoed by a German submarine.

HUIZENGA: Right, I was May 7, 1915, to be exact. Almost 1,200 passengers and crew lost their lives and now just one day later American composer Charles Ives was waiting to board the L train home at Hanover Square in lower Manhattan and on the platform he was surrounded by all the talk of the disaster and even strains of an organ grinder and this scene inspired Ives to compose an extraordinary piece that he called "From Hanover Square North At The End Of A Tragic Day The Voice Of The People Again Arose." The music unfolds like that scene, very cinematically. You can hear the chugging of the train, this kind of the cacophonous hubbub of the station and the snippets of that organ grinder popping up all over the place kind of coming to a big crescendo near the end.


HUIZENGA: Just a combination of all kinds of emotion and things coming together in a big...

MONTAGNE: Smashing together.

HUIZENGA: ...Mess in a way. Yes. And it's worthy of the war itself.

MONTAGNE: Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR music, talking to us about music written in response to World War I. You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.


And I'm Linda Wertheimer. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.