Music in Time of War

Music in Time of War

Lloyd Arriola, March 2003

With the terrible events that have unfolded over the past one-and-a-half years,beginning with the attacks on the World Trade Center, the citizens of our country have been witness to a state of war. As musicians who live in the United States, all composers are now writing within a timeof military action. A few works, such as John Adams’s “On the Transmigration of Souls”, premiered by the New York Philharmonic and their new music director Lorin Maazel, are direct reactions to the attack on the United States. (It received its world premiere in September of 2002, fully one year after the twin towers’ collapse.)

Dr. Hulin suggested I write an annotated list of works written by some of John Adams’s great predecessors who wrote music influenced by war or written during wartime. I have also included works I know that were written as an anti-war response.

Dimitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) wrote a number of works during World War II, principally the Symphony No. 7 in C Major, the “Leningrad”. This composition, with its depiction of encroaching armies and subsequent battles, became a rallying cry at concerts; and it was heartily espoused–albeit for a brief time- -by Arturo Toscanini, Serge Koussevitzky, and Leopold Stokowski. Subsequently, interpreters like Leonard Bernstein and Mstislav Rostropovich have revived the piece, to great acclaim, in the process removing some of the ephemeral quality of the war-spirit, reminding us that Shostakovich was a composer and not merely a patriot.

In the 1940s, Serge Prokofieff (1891-1953) wrote three piano sonatas, Opp. 82, 83, and 84, in A Major, B-flat major, and B-flat Major. These are commonly known as the “War” Sonatas, partially because they were written during the war, and because of a rather powerfully evident bellicose nature to the music. Vladimir Horowitz championed these works early in his career and made a recording of the Seventh Sonata.

Benjamin Britten (1913-1976) wrote a number of pacifist works, principally the “War Requiem”, based on poetry by Wilfred Owen, an Englishman who served and died on the front. Britten also wrote a work entitled “Owen Wingrave”, an opera about a pacifist who dies as a martyr. The latter work has received few performances, but the former is a staple among the more ambitious choral societies.

Leon Kirchner (born 1918), the doyen of American composers writing in a style of post-Sessions chromaticism, wrote a work called “Why Are We in Vietnam?” in the late 1960s.

Joseph Haydn (1732-1809) wrote the fine “Mass in the Time of War”, which has been recorded many times, most notably in the 1970s by Leonard Bernstein, a known liberal activist who recorded this as a pointed statement for CBS records when Walter Cronkite–also of CBS–was being targeted by government officials and by certain conservative groups as a subversive.

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1927) wrote, on the lighter side (somehow), a “Wellington’s Victory” Symphony that includes some cannon-fire. This Opus 91, written during wartime Vienna, is considered a potboiler that also represents the nadir of Beethoven’s compositional output.

Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893) wrote the well-known “1812 Overture”, with its famous cannon-fire.

The American Ernest Henry Schelling (1876-1940) wrote “A Victory Ball”, a long symphonic poem that echoes Ravel’s La Valse in its decadent atmosphere, but goes further by referring to ghosts of dead soldiers dancing. This work was considered important, but is now totally forgotten. Fortunately
for posterity, Willem Mengelberg and the New York Philharmonic-Symphony Orchestra, recorded it so that future generations can consider its real musical merits as well.

Another American, Louis Moreau Gottschalk (1829-1869), wrote the marvelous piano work “L’Union” in 1862 or 1863, which states “The Star Spangled Banner”, “Yankee Doodle Dandy”, then “Hail Columbia.” It concludes by combining the “Yankee Doodle Dandy” and “Hail Columbia” in an ingenious contrapuntal fantasy worthy of Leopold Godowsky later on in the 1900s.

If only now someone would think of how to write a paean to peace which combines music of the Arab world with the American one, to symbolize the possibility of international cooperation, perhaps we can stop writing exegeses on works written in the time of war.

God bless us all.

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