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Article: Can music heal the wounds of war?

By Joanna Wyld

As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Armistice which brought the First World War to an end, people from all over the world are reflecting on the conflict. Director Peter Jackson has recently made an astonishing film entitled, They Shall Not Grow Old, featuring archive footage of First World War soldiers, restored and refreshed in colour and in 3D. Suddenly, figures usually distanced from the present by sepia and the passage of time are visible in vivid colour, so clear that they might have been filmed yesterday. Yet, long before such innovations were even possible, Alfred Machin’s pacifist film of 1914, Maudite soit la guerre, led the way in using the medium of stencil colourised film for the dissemination of powerful, peace-driven messages, examining the impact of war on real relationships in a way that is strikingly modern and ahead of its time. 

Nearly a century later, in 2013, Austrian composer Olga Neuwirth composed a score to this silent film, which will be performed live by the London Sinfonietta on 1 November alongside a screening of Machin’s early masterpiece. For Neuwirth, music is the best response to human cruelty, the best lens through which to regard the past: “You always need to remember the past! That is the only way that we could learn something.”

Vivid colours were a key component of the music of French composer Olivier Messiaen, whose synaesthesia enabled him to experience music in psychedelic shades. The London Sinfonietta performed Messiaen’s Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum (1964) under the direction of Sir George Benjamin in July as part of a BBC Proms Roundhouse concert devoted to music written in response to war, with 14-18 NOW. Et exspecto was composed for those who lost their lives in the two World Wars, and Messiaen imagined it being performed in “large spaces: churches, cathedrals, and even out of doors and among high mountains”. It was premiered in the Sainte-Chapelle in Paris, where stained-glass windows reflected Messiaen’s soundworld: “The blues, the reds, the golds, the violets resounded in each window with the music... It was eleven in the morning, and the sun also played its part, bringing here and there new touches of colour”. The choice of “eleven in the morning” is significant: it was at the eleventh hour on the eleventh day of the eleventh month that the First World War ended.

Listen to Et exspecto resurrectionem mortuorum

Messiaen’s monumental work emphasises the hope of resurrection; trumpet-led chorales and ringing bells resound across this requiem in which death is drowned by an overwhelming, unshakeable faith. That faith had been tested when Messiaen was conscripted as a workman in 1939: “My grazed and blackened hands, using a pickaxe, the flies, carrying unbelievably heavy weights... prevent me from keeping on intimate terms with music”. Life in a Silesian concentration camp then produced an almost miraculous response from the composer: his Quartet for the End of Time, conceived and premiered in war-ravaged Görlitz: “Never was I listened to with such rapt attention and understanding.”

Messiaen’s older compatriots, Debussy and Ravel, were both changed irrevocably by the First World War. By spring 1916, Ravel was working as a truck-driver just behind the front lines. He saw the appalling consequences of the Battle of Verdun, writing: “I don’t believe I will ever experience a more profound and stranger emotion than this sort of mute terror.” Ravel’s piano suite, Le Tombeau de Couperin, is a memorial to friends who died in the conflict. Debussy wrote in 1914: “I should like to write a ‘Marche Héroïque’... but I must say, I regard it as ridiculous to indulge in heroism, in all tranquillity, well out of the reach of bullets.” Debussy never recovered from the impact of war: “I am just a little atom crushed in this terrible cataclysm. What I am doing seems so wretchedly small.” Across the channel, British composers were similarly affected. Elgar wrote, also in 1914: “I cannot do any real work with the awful shadow over us.” 

In dignifying the memories of those whose lives were affected by, or sacrificed during, war, music’s role is of immeasurable importance.

For these composers, and for many others, writing music felt almost futile in the face of the threat and devastation of war, a response which calls into question the role of the arts during times of suffering. It is natural even for artists themselves to wonder whether creativity is frivolous when contrasted with the machinations of conflict, with the terror of battle, with the strategic decisions that hold millions of lives on the brink between life and death. How can music possibly help with issues of such extreme seriousness? This is a question which remains as relevant today as it was during the World Wars: cuts to music education and to arts organisations are justified by the argument that the arts are inessential, a luxury, their benefits merely anecdotal, too difficult to quantify and therefore too nebulous to be protected. And while there are studies which demonstrate the benefits of music education in particular, in the context of war it is perhaps those other, less measurable responses to music which are most relevant. 

The scars left by war are not easily healed. In Mrs Dalloway (1925), Virginia Woolf used the character of Septimus Warren Smith, a veteran plagued by shell shock, to illustrate the psychological wounds inflicted during the First World War: “Septimus, lately taken from life to death... suffering for ever, the scapegoat, the eternal sufferer... that eternal suffering, that eternal loneliness.” It would be glib to suggest that this mental anguish can be straightforwardly remedied by the arts, but it would also be foolish to ignore the power of art to bring solace: to bring people together in community, to inspire, even briefly, feelings of hope and unity, to provide the psychologically critical opportunity for catharsis. Musical responses to war are as wide-ranging as these needs, from Messiaen’s defiantly concrete belief in resurrection, to Scottish composer Sir James MacMillan’s moving choral work, When you see the millions of the mouthless dead (2015), setting words by Charles Hamilton Sorley, who died in 1915 aged 20 at the Battle of Loos: “Their blind eyes see not your tears flow. / Nor honour. It is easy to be dead. / Say only this, ‘They are dead.’” 

Many wartime works focus, understandably, on the experiences of soldiers, but in choosing these texts Górecki emphasised the perspectives of women as they face death and bereavement.

Both Messiaen and MacMillan have been sustained by their faith  when wrestling with the questions raised by war and loss. Polish composer Henryk Górecki also drew on his Catholic background when composing his Third Symphony, for soprano and orchestra, the Symphony of Sorrowful Songs (1976), although he insisted that it is not a purely spiritual work, nor should it be attached to one political event. Nevertheless, the symphony was originally written in response to the horrors of Auschwitz, and Górecki’s choice of texts sets up inevitable associations: the first movement uses a 15th-century Polish lament in which Mary reflects on her son, Jesus; the second uses a prayer to Mary scratched on the wall of a Gestapo cell by 18-year-old Helena Wanda Blazusiak; and the third sets a Silesian folk song in which a mother seeks her son, killed by Germans during the Silesian uprisings of 1919-1921. Many wartime works focus, understandably, on the experiences of soldiers, but in choosing these texts Górecki emphasised the perspectives of women as they face death and bereavement. Symphony of Sorrowful Songs will be performed at the London Sinfonietta’s concert on Armistice Day, 11 November, commemorating 100 Years since the end of the First World War, and of Górecki’s native Poland’s Independence. 

Listen to Górecki’s Symphony of Sorrowful Songs

Music can provide a form of spiritual nourishment, regardless of faith, feeding a need that is hard to define but which nevertheless tugs away at human hearts, especially in periods of suffering. Shostakovich was not a religious man, but his responses to war offer visceral anger at injustice and scalding cries of anguish; both just as important as more soothing sentiments. Shostakovich’s Symphony No 7, ‘Leningrad’, was written towards the end of the Second World War, when Nazi forces were occupying Leningrad, and is both a protest against fascism and a tribute to the millions of Soviet lives lost. His Piano Trio No 2 also paid homage to those who died in the Holocaust, and indeed much of the composer’s music is bound up with this theme. In explaining this, Shostakovich also encapsulated why music is such a vital aspect of commemoration: 

     "The majority of my symphonies are tombstones. Too many of our people died and were buried in places unknown to anyone, not even their relatives. Where do you put the tombstones? Only music can do that for them. I’m willing to write a composition for each of the victims but that’s impossible, and that’s why I dedicate my music to them all."

In dignifying the memories of those whose lives were affected by, or sacrificed during, war, music’s role is of immeasurable importance. As Shostakovich said, music becomes a monument; not made of stone, to be looked at, but a living force performed and heard by living people who become active participants in remembering those who have suffered and died. The arts are at the core of our ongoing understanding and remembrance of the World Wars, from the War Poets, unflinching in their portrayal of loss and betrayal, to the Last Post’s solemn trumpet notes piercing still air, to the wealth of works composed since. Debussy never lived to see the Armistice, dying on 25 March 1918, but in 1914, with extraordinary prescience, he used imagery suggestive of what has become a memorial tradition, the Last Post – a single line of music breaking minutes of respectful silence – when he anticipated the rebirth of music itself, rising, Phoenix-like, from the ashes of battle:

    “Whilst Fate is turning over the pages, Music must meditate in patience, before she breaks the affecting silence which will ensue after the bursting of the last shell...”

Published: 15 Jan 2020