The Great War’s impact on English music

Guest article D1


Author: Julia E.T. Bailey, then BA in Music, Bristol University, now Dr. Julia at the V&A.

Edited by Dr George Bailey

The arrival of the twentieth century brought with it a new spirit of hope throughout the world, most notably in Europe. There was an overwhelming sentiment of arrogance in humankind – with the climax of the Industrial Revolution it seemed that man was omnipotent, a feeling heightened by such events as discovering his ability to fly, when Orville Wright first flew his airplane above the ground on the 17th December 1903 in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina. The new era seemed to be creating a fresh sense of equality, with the suffragette movement making a considerable impact on the Western world from 1906 onwards. Europe appeared for a time to be as one, with travel between different countries frequent and simple, and Great Britain was reveling in excess following the restrictive Victorian years. However, all too soon this carefree lifestyle was brought to a startling halt, for beneath this jovial exterior bubbled social unrest and international tension. On the 28th of June 1914, Archduke Francis Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary was assassinated by a Serbian terrorist in Sarajevo, the capital of Bosnia, at that time still a province of Austria. Austria-Hungary took this insult as a perfect reason to begin a long-awaited conflict with Serbia, declaring war on the 28th of July. Within a week the whole of Europe was at war. At first civilians did not consider these events as exceptionally disturbing. The English had concluded the Boer War (1899 – 1902) in South Africa a decade earlier and there was a general consensus that this new European war would be completed by Christmas. More than four years later the war was finally over, but eight million people lay dead and twenty-one million wounded as the result of a war caused by the hubris that had been so prevalent at the start of the century.

“The Great War, like all wars in all ages, presented the country with challenges from within, as well as dangers from without.” (Stradling and Hughes, 1993)

Great Britain also had to contend with the disintegration of its own nation, as the southern states of Ireland made a bid to break away from the United Kingdom resulting in the Easter Rebellion of 1916. Their ultimate independence was a strong blow to England, which had for so long been the principal state in the British Isles, especially as Scotland and Wales were beginning to rediscover their national identities. ‘Britishness’ as it had be defined for so long was at an end, and the English was keen to show their individuality not only from the rest of Europe but also from the remaining territories of Great Britain.

“In the period immediately following the First World War, a new spirit seized the imagination of the Western mind. A profound cultural paradigm shift, one that had been gathering momentum for many decades, finally achieved critical mass. This spirit of modernism made itself felt – for better and for worse – in all areas of society.” (Gilliam, 1994)

As has always been the case, social and music history were very strongly linked during this period. The feelings of restlessness and anxiety so evident within civilian life were mirrored in the concert hall, as composers challenged the principles of the Romantic period. Following extensive interaction between neighbouring countries, each nation adopted a much more introverted nature, neglecting foreign influences. England and Germany had social links reaching back centuries, but such was their mutual contempt following the declaration of war on 4th August 1914 that they dissolved all ties.

“…the defining moment in the new perception of things German came when, in July 1917, the Royal House itself – that of ‘Saxe-Coburg-Gotha’ – changed its name to the ‘House of Windsor’ … Voices warned against similarly symbolic change in the nation’s musical culture.” (Stradling and Hughes, 1993)

However, such warnings were ignored, and the musical establishments of England and Germany began to follow individual courses, although, as George Bernard Shaw remarked in a letter to a friend living in Vienna, for the general public such breaks in tradition were easier in theory than in practice.

“In London during August 1914 the usual cheap evening orchestral concerts, so-called Promenade Concerts, were announced in a patriotic manner, with the comment that no German musician would be represented on the program. Everybody applauded this announcement, but nobody attended the concert. A week later a program of Beethoven, Wagner and Richard Strauss was announced. Everybody was indignant and everybody went to hear it. It was a complete and decisive German victory without a single man being killed.” (Slonimsky, 1994)

For English music, the principle result of World War One was a retreat into the past. English composers were keen to distance themselves from musical styles adopted from their Teutonic cousins and instead returned to the only genre that they knew for sure to be solely English – folk music. Composers in this type became known as the ‘Pastoral School’. In many ways they were indebted to the war and also the Irish revolution, for without them there would not have been such a withdrawal into bygone English music and in all probability the country would never have reclaimed a separate identity from Germany. But inspired by intense patriotism and a desire to escape from the present political climate, English music underwent something of a Renaissance, in which “folk-song was to be the salvation”.(Stradling and Hughes, 1993) Also revived was the music of sixteenth-century English composers, such as Thomas Tallis, William Byrd and Thomas Weelkes. The twentieth-century composers did not directly duplicate their work, but rather combined music theory learnt since then and a particularly strong influence of modern music with the Renaissance style.

The most eminent of all composers belonging to the ‘Pastoral School’ was surely Ralph Vaughan Williams.

“Vaughan William’s music drew inspiration from national sources – English literature and traditional song, hymnody, and earlier English composers such as Purcell and Tallis – as well as the European traditions of Bach and Handel, Debussy and Ravel.” (Grout and Palisca, 1996)

Although almost forty-two years old and therefore over the military age, from 1914 onwards Vaughan Williams chose to participate in the war, working during the ensuing four years in France and Greece as a wagon orderly in the Royal Army Medical Corps and an artillery officer. Following the armistice he worked as director of music for the British Expeditionary Force, in charge of organizing music events for and by the troops. Four years of being surrounded by often appalling conditions and frequently staring death in the face obviously affected Vaughan Williams for the rest of his life, and subsequently influenced all the music he was to compose from then on.

“The impact of the war on his imagination was deep and lasting but did not express itself in an obvious protest or change of style; rather is it felt in a more intense inwardness.” (The New Grove, 1986)

Particularly in the decade following the war Vaughan Williams produced a collection of music evidently heavily influenced by the war. In the 1920s Vaughan Williams was generally considered the ‘national’ composer of England. His works was continuously successful, greeted by critical and public acclaim alike. Audiences were seeking outlets for feelings of patriotism, and, unfortunately, on many occasions jingoism, and Vaughan Williams provided them with the music they so coveted. Examples of such music are the Songs of Praise collection, published in 1925, which made use of much material written by English poets and musicians of earlier centuries. That the general public received his music so well is perhaps considerably due to the fact that Vaughan Williams rejected atonality, describing it as ‘ugly’, and he believed this style posed too many limitations in the development of English music.

The most notable war-influenced piece by Vaughan Williams must surely be his Pastoral Symphony, first performed in 1922 to an appreciative audience. This project, his third symphony, was initiated as early as 1916 whilst the composer was still posted in France as a member of the Royal Army Medical Corps, and is therefore one of the few pieces actually written by a soldier in the Great War whilst he was serving in the war. Many consider this to be the most beautiful of all Vaughan William’s symphonies, and it is certainly the most ‘English’, containing heavy folk-music influences and culminating in a wordless soprano finale. However, one must realize that “the composer intended it not as a celebration of his green and pleasant land but as a requiem for a rural society racked by war and unstoppable progress.”(Lebrecht, 1992)

In a period of such disillusionment and emotional turmoil many people turned to religion in an attempt to make sense of the appalling tragedy of the Great War. Vaughan Williams did not follow this trend consciously, but certainly after the war he began to write an increased amount of religious works, such as Sancta Civitas, an oratorio based on the Revelations chapter of the Bible and first performed in 1926. This piece was preceded by a quotation from Plato regarding the immortality of the soul. This is probably the most intimate and heartfelt of all Vaughan Williams’ compositions, as it “suggests a deep concern with reaching out towards a religious, though not necessarily Christian, view of reality” (The New Grove, 1986), yet it never achieved the degree of success of his other works. Following a revival of the music of Byrd and the English polyphonic school at Westminster Cathedral, Vaughan Williams was inspired in 1920 to compose his Mass in G minor for unaccompanied double choir. This piece was one of the pioneers in the rebirth of the a cappella music tradition.

A long friend of Vaughan Williams and another great English composer of the interwar period was Gustav Holst, who also shared his comrade’s passion for folk music. Also like Vaughan Williams, Holst was keen to participate in the war, but was deemed unsuitable for war service due to persisting ill health with neuritis and weak sight. However, he was able to become involved as a music organizer of the army education scheme of the YMCA and was posted to the Middle East during the autumn of 1918. Though not as heavily influenced by the Great War as Vaughan Williams, Holst certainly reacted in his music, writing two pieces of particular note, though neither referring directly to battle: Hymn of Jesus in 1917 and Ode to Death two years later. The first was a immense choral work using dissonance and bitonality in a completely novel way for this type of opus. The latter was a setting for chorus and orchestra of a Walt Whitman poem, the poet himself heavily influenced by the American Civil War.

The two other principle English pastoralists were Hubert Parry and Charles Stanford. Though both were close to the end of their lives by the time of the war, they were both heavily influenced by the Renaissance period brought about by the Great War. Also, they had lived through the period of strong links with Germany musical establishments and the betrayal they felt from that country was a recognizable theme within their compositions following the outbreak of war. Parry wrote several short works which clearly demonstrate wartime influences, such as A Hymn for Aviators in 1915 and Jerusalem in 1916, a setting of William Blake’s poem Milton, which became a national hymn. Parry’s most considerable work influenced by the war was From Death to Life, a symphonic poem written in 1914. As Parry died in 1918, right up until his death he was feeling the tragedy of the War and it affected his last music, Songs of Farewell, written from 1916 to 1918. The collection was made up of six unaccompanied secular motets, excellent examples of the a cappella genre, with text taken from the Bible and works of various English poets. Within these songs Parry “expressed a yearning to escape from a world which was destroying itself through nationalistic obsession” (Stradling and Hughes, 1993). Stanford had dual nationality – English and Irish – and was therefore greatly troubled by events in Ireland, climaxing in 1916 with the Easter Rebellion. Stanford was influenced by the ‘Pastoral School’ to explore Irish folk music, making many arrangements. He was such an notable musician in history not so much for any individual pieces but for his influence, through teaching, on so many important composers, his pupils including Vaughan Williams and Holst. He also wrote several books, expressing his ideas on national music, his most significant being A History of Music, co-written in 1916 with the performer and musicologist Cecil Forsyth.

“There are two classes of men…the nationalists and the denationalists. And the artistic health and productivity of any community increases exactly with its proportion of nationalists… It is a quarrel of the creative mind with the receptive…of the man who loves his country and the man who loves someone else’s.” (Stradling and Hughes, 1993)

However, not all composers of this period were to adhere to Stanford’s rules, one such man being Frank Bridge. He had strong pacifist beliefs and thus the First World War had a grave impact on his state of mind and therefore his subsequent compositions, encapsulated in this Piano Sonata of 1921 to 1924, which used a new, radical harmonic style, containing much more dissonance than before.

The war caused the deaths of many composers who, had they lived, had the potential to be great. George Butterworth had won renown for the music he composed for the song cycle ‘A Shropshire Lad’ for which A.E. Houseman wrote the lyrics. Lieutenant Butterworth joined the Durham Light Infantry and was awarded the Military Cross for bravery but was killed in 1916 during the Battle of the Somme. Having no known grave he is commemorated on the Anglo-French Memorial at Thiepval. George Butterworth was a friend of Vaughan Williams, sharing a mutual passion for national folk music. His short life meant that he left behind only a small number of compositions, but the evidence from his composition ‘A Shropshire Lad’ suggests that he may have achieved greatness, a belief supported by the fact that Vaughan Williams was to dedicate A London Symphony to his memory. Ernest Farrar was another composer who was killed in action, falling during the Battle of Epehy Ronssoy , the Somme Valley, on the 18th of September 1918 during the Advance to Victory. Again, many considered that he could have been a significant composer, and Bridge’s famous Piano Sonata was dedicated to his memory. Others were Frederick Kelly and Denis Browne, killed in 1915 in Achi Baba, during the Gallipoli campaign, Turkey. The war also left many casualties, including notable musicians. Stanford considered Ivor Gurney to be his most talented pupil, and he also had a great interest in music of the ‘Pastoral School’, writing many songs in this style and becoming a friend of Vaughan Williams. However, in 1917, he was gassed at Passchendaele and was never to recover, ending his days in an asylum. Another Stanford pupil, Ernest Moeran, sustained a serious head injury, but was fortunately still capable of having much involvement in the collection of folk-song and the expansion of pastoralism after the war.

Yet, there is still one composer not mentioned who is the most famous of all English composers during this period – Edward Elgar. As with his contemporaries, Parry and Stanford, the Great War was only an influence on his later works, especially since from the death of his wife in 1920 until his own demise in 1934 he wrote few new works. Elgar’s music was noticeably affected by the War, but he did not follow the theories of the ‘Pastoral School’ and there was a certain amount of tension amongst this group of folk-influenced composers and the most famous English composer of the day, especially by the more fundamental composers, such as Stanford.

“For members of the ‘Pastoral School’, Elgar’s “brand of ‘English progressivism’ was neither English nor progressive: rather, it was seen as sub-Teutonic and reactionary. The emphasis was not upon national music.” (Stradling and Hughes, 1993)

Elgar was much too old at the outbreak of the War to take part in active service, but he was determined to help the war effort by enlisting in the Hampstead Special Constabulary. Ever a favourite with the concert-going public, during the war years Elgar devoted most of his time to composing patriotic pieces of music. Many had considered Elgar to have effectively finished his composition years by the start of the new century, but the War gave him the inspiration to continue his composing. In 1914, he composed his tribute to Belgium and their brave resistance in the face of German invasion, a piece for reciting voice and orchestra called Carillon. The libretto was taken from the patriotic words by the Belgian poet, Emile Leon Cammaerts, and the work was premiered at the Promenade Concerts in London on 7th December. The words express the early belief in a short and uneventful war:

“Sing Belgians, sing!
Although our wounds may bleed,
Although our voices break,
Louder than the storm, louder than the guns…” Stradling and Hughes, 1993)

In the second year of the war Elgar wrote a piece dedicated to another brave country being destroyed by the German forces, Polonia, a symphonic prelude in aid of the Polish Relief Fund, which had its first performance in London on the 6th of July 1915. It was commissioned by the Conservative government minister, Charles Stuart-Wortley, an important figure in the fund, and was dedicated to Ignacy Jan Paderewski, the Polish pianist and composer who worked unceasingly for the Polish cause and was eventually elected Prime Minister in the first government of the new independent nation.

However, Elgar’s most acclaimed and enduring War-influenced work must surely be the The Spirit of War, a “choral triptych” (Slonimsky, 1994) set to three patriotic war poems by Laurence Binyon. The three movements were The Fourth of August, To Women and For the Fallen, and the full work was premiered, again in London, on the 24th November 1917, dedicated “to the memory of our glorious men, with a special thought to the Worcesters” (Stradling and Hughes, 1993). It was the culmination of all Elgar’s patriotic war works, but contained much deeper emotions than any of his earlier Romantic-style patriotic pieces. The work was critically acclaimed, with Binyon himself very eager for Elgar to set his poems to music, “perceiving the chance of a work of national importance” (Stradling and Hughes, 1993).

The last two movements (To Women and For the Fallen) had been entirely composed and achieved their first performance by May 1916, but such historical events as the great Battle of the Somme in 1916, the continuous devastation being caused by extensive submarine warfare, and the Russian Revolution in 1917 had all left Elgar with little inspiration or desire to compose, so perturbed was he by such events. Therefore it is unsurprising that the first movement, The Fourth of August, contained a new level of cynicism and unrepressed hatred towards the German empire with which he had once felt such a close connection.

The Great War of 1914 – 1918 affected the music history of all countries involved, and England certainly never recovered from this tragedy – after a few hedonistic years at the start of the century the War had a deep effect on the national character. In some ways it inspired a great sense of patriotism and national pride that had been missing as the divides between the countries of Europe had slowly disappeared, but there were few families left unscathed by the War and the mourning continued long after the War had ended, destroying the tranquility of the Romantic period and ensuring that composers could never return to that insouciant style. The ‘Pastoral School’, with its desire to revive long-forgotten musical heritage eventually relented to its polarization, the new fashion for Expressionism with the objective of destroying music tradition. Nowadays it is impossible to name a distinct contemporary English musical style, as such high levels of communication available cause the music of one European country to be very much the same as any other. It can be argued that pastoralism was the first and last English music, and once the cycle was fully completed there was nowhere left to turn except away from a national music altogether.


Gilliam, Bryan (1994) Music And Performance During The Weimar Republic, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press)
Grout, Donald Jay and Palisca, Claude V. (1996) A History Of Western Music, (London: W. W. Norton & Company)
Lebrecht, Norman (1992) The Companion To Twentieth Century Music, (London: Simon & Schuster Limited)
Slonimsky, Nicolas (1994) Music Since 1900 (Fifth Edition), (New York: Schirmer Books)
Stradling, Robert and Hughes, Merion (1993) The English Musical Renaissance 1860-1940: Construction And Deconstruction, (London: Routledge)
The New Grove (1986) Twentieth-Century English Masters, (London: Macmillan Publishers Ltd)


Levi, Erik (1994) Music In The Third Reich, (London: The Macmillan Press Limited)
Morgan, Robert P. (1993) Man And Music – Modern Times: From World War I To The Present, (London: The Macmillan Press Limited)
Morris, Mark (1996) A Guide To 20th Century Composers, (London: Methuen London)
Rickards, Guy (1995) Hindemith, Hartmann And Henze, (London: Phaidon Press Ltd)
Salzman, Eric (1988) Twentieth-Century Music: An Introduction (Third Edition), (New Jersey: Prentice Hall)
The New Grove (1983) Second Viennese School, (London: Macmillan London Ltd)

 JET Bailey (22/12/00)
This essay was first written for the Department of Music, the University of Bristol, in the Autumn term of 2000.