Proof through the Night: Music and the Great War

Proof through the Night: Music and the Great War

Proof through the Night: Music and the Great War

Proof through the Night: Music and the Great War


Carols floating across no-man's-land on Christmas Eve 1914; solemn choruses, marches, and popular songs responding to the call of propaganda ministries and war charities; opera, keyboard suites, ragtime, and concertos for the left hand--all provided testimony to the unique power of music to chronicle the Great War and to memorialize its battles and fallen heroes in the first post-Armistice decade. In this striking book, Glenn Watkins investigates these variable roles of music primarily from the angle of the Entente nations' perceived threat of German hegemony in matters of intellectual and artistic accomplishment--a principal concern not only for Europe but also for the United States, whose late entrance into the fray prompted a renewed interest in defining America as an emergent world power as well as a fledgling musical culture. He shows that each nation gave "proof through the night"--ringing evidence during the dark hours of the war--not only of its nationalist resolve in the singing of national airs but also of its power to recall home and hearth on distant battlefields and to reflect upon loss long after the guns had been silenced.

Watkins's eloquent narrative argues that twentieth-century Modernism was not launched full force with the advent of the Great War but rather was challenged by a new set of alternatives to the prewar avant-garde. His central focus on music as a cultural marker during the First World War of necessity exposes its relationship to the other arts, national institutions, and international politics. From wartime scores by Debussy and Stravinsky to telling retrospective works by Berg, Ravel, and Britten; from "La Marseillaise" to "The Star-Spangled Banner," from "It's a Long Way to Tipperary" to "Over There," music reflected society's profoundest doubts and aspirations. By turns it challenged or supported the legitimacy of war, chronicled misgivings in miniature and grandiose formats alike, and inevitably expressed its sorrow at the final price exacted by the Great War. Proof through the Night concludes with a consideration of the post-Armistice period when, on the classical music front, memory and distance forged a musical response that was frequently more powerful than in wartime.


Historians are to nationalism what poppy-growers in Pakistan are
to heroin-addicts: we supply the essential raw material for the

E. J. Hobsbawm, lecture to the American Anthropological
Association, February 1992

Musicians, in their most idealistic moments, argue that their art is
an international language. But when nationalism is asserted, music
is rarely far behind.

Allan Kozinn, The New York Times, 23 December 1997

War is a terrible thing. Yet the cadence of troops marching through the streets, the ringing sound of national airs, the flapping of proudly hoisted flags, and, in more modern times, the swoosh of aircraft racing overhead typically send hearts pounding and aspirations soaring. Inevitably, it is in the period following the cessation of hostilities, in times of so-called peace, that the initially envisioned mission becomes increasingly difficult to identify. An awareness of the cohorts of war surfaces even more gradually, and only in recent decades has the study of the Great War of 1914–1918 moved beyond political and military tactics to a consideration of cultural issues. This shift has in turn helped to illuminate the factors behind the call to arms and has simultaneously driven the debate concerning the Great War’s role in the birth of modernism.

These are large questions that have necessarily been addressed piecemeal. Paul Fussell has defined the Great War as a world calamity that undermined traditional cultural sensibilities and promoted a language of disillusionment and ironic skepticism. More recent studies have focused on urban culture, the role of memory, and postwar commemorative rituals; considered the religious imagination and the sometimes conflicting roles of church and state in wartime; traced humankind’s encounter with age-old dreams of flight viewed in light of the conquest of the air on the eve of world war; given sympathetic accounts of the child as symbolic participant and unwitting victim; discussed the role of masculinity and the fallen soldier in the reshaping of memory of the Great War; argued the functions . . .

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