Battle Songs

By Whittall, Arnold | Musical Times, Autumn 2003 | Go to article overview

Battle Songs

Whittall, Arnold, Musical Times

Battle songs ARNOLD WHITTALL appraises some musical and musicological responses to World War 1

MUSICALLY, WHAT mattered most about the years 1914-18? The completion of Die Frau ohne Schatten, Debussy's three sonatas, the first version of Les noces, The planets? Or, if we must bring the war into it, the fact that several enlisted composers, from Schoenberg to Vaughan Williams, managed to survive?

The tone of those sentences will be widely derided today, for hinting that a narrative of masters and masterworks, which says as little as possible about 'extra-musical' context, might still have some validity. Musicology is as prodigal with opinions and judgements as it ever was, but the notion of greatness is something else, and the question of whether Die Frau ohne Schatten is a great work or not is commonly felt to be difficult if not impossible to separate from the historical, cultural circumstances in which it came into existence. Either that or the question is of no interest, attempted answers simply reflecting back on the prejudices and limitations of the uninteresting answerer. So the best kind of music history is that which traces connections between world and works without discriminating in favour of high art or big names; and if the result requires actual aesthetic judgements to be shunned, so much the better.

Glenn Watkins's previous book Pyramids at the Louvre: music, culture and collage from Stravinsky to the postmodernists (Harvard University Press, 1994) was a skilful exercise in discursiveness, whose primary focus on Stravinsky helped it to avoid the wholesale marginalisation of aesthetic evaluation. Now, in Proof through the night, he certainly doesn't pin the entire enterprise on claims that popular songs of the period, like Tack up your troubles in your old kitbag' or 'Keep the home fire burning', are 'better' than Les noces or The planets. Rather, they and the dozens of other ditties covered in this text emerge as more immediately relevant to the War, and more immediately significant, in ways which suit Watkins's narrative purpose. That narrative is vivid and enthralling, as it could hardly fail to be, and I suspect that even seasoned cultural historians specialising in this period will learn new things from Watkins's supremely well-managed synthesis. His background research and reading have reached into the furthest corners: very little of any possible relevance is missed (though Jeremy Dibble's biography of Parry seems to have slipped through) and - even more importantly - this wealth of material is used with unfailing percipience. Nevertheless, there is a price to be paid for this type of history, and that price is a certain reluctance to consider any works of any kind in any sort of depth.

The marginalisation of Great Works is one symptom of this condition. For example, Watkins admits that 'the mixing of high art with contemporary war politics was generally considered inappropriate in the world of opera, and when touched upon such topics were introduced only obliquely'. Puccini 'remained mute on the topic, as did the composer of Ein Heldenleben - his purported plea for peace in Die Frau ohne Schatten notwithstanding' (p.47). Watkins's other reference to Strauss's (in my judgement) finest opera claims that it 'spoke not only of social trauma relatable to the collapse of Hapsburg Austria of World War I but also of social regeneration linked to the promise of childbirth'. Nevertheless, 'during the war it was Strauss's Alpensinfonie that provided the most vivid backdrop to a nation's aspiration', as

an allegory of humankind perpetually in search of some glorious and transcendental destination, stumbling down the wrong path to perilous encounters, followed by moments of calm before beginning the next, circular journey towards a calamitous rendezvous (pp.228-29).

These severely reductive summaries are, fortunately, few and far between; with some justification, given Watkins's agenda, and its association with a telling quote from an American writer in 1918 claiming that Our nation is being stirred fundamentally at this moment, and the primitive and elemental rather than the subtle and cultured emotions and impulses [are] ready to react to the reductions of sentiment, written, spoke, or sung - especially sung' (p. …

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