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Lest We Forget: World War I Composers

November 9, 2015

Out of the darkness can come greatness. So it was that the First World War served as somber inspiration for three composers. Cecil Coles, Ivor Gurney, and George Butterworth emerged as heroes of another kind from the war in which they served; not only for service to their country, but the immortal beauty of their music.

Though the greats Wagner, Brahms, Beethoven and Bach were popular during the early 1900s, and rightly so, German music was banned during WWI. Coupled with limited resources–and dwindling audiences–to stage concerts, several efforts were made to salvage the art form. The Hallé Orchestra employed female musicians while their male counterparts served on the frontlines, while English composer, teacher, and music historian Sir Charles Hubert Parry helped found the Music in Wartime Committee, a fund for musicians who’d fallen on hard times due to the war.

But it was Coles, Gurney and Butterworth who will always be remembered for their sacrifices. Coles became the bandmaster for the Queen Victoria’s Rifles when war broke out. The 29-year-old Scottish composer, who had acted as assistant conductor to the Stuttgart Royal Opera, was killed by a German sniper on the Western Front while recovering casualties.

English composer and poet Ivor Gurney outlived the war, and was even regarded as one of the most promising men of his generation; but its lasting effects on his mental health and physical stability plagued him until death. Yet it is this influence both on Gurney’s published and vast collection of unpublished works, that made him the influential composer and poet that he was; best known for his Five Elizabethan Songs.

The most well-known of the three, George Butterworth served as Lieutenant in the Durham Light Infantry and was killed during the Battle of Somme in 1916. Thus becoming one of the “lads that will die in their glory and never be old” of the great AE Housman’s 1911 poem, The Lads in Their Hundreds, to which Butterworth wrote the music. He was awarded the Military Cross posthumously.

We share in the minute of silence.

Photo courtesy of photographer: Paul van de Velde