Words and music from around Europe at the start of World War I read by Emma Fielding and Harry Hadden-Paton. With words by Edward Thomas, Stefan Zweig, Edmund Blunden, Winston Churchill, Katherine Mansfield, Anna Akhmatova and Rupert Brooke and music by Vaughan Willliams, Berg, Debussy, Zemlinsky, Koechlin, Elgar and the recruiting songs which encouraged men to join up for the Front.
Part of Radio 3's WWI season, Music in the Great War.
As Radio 3 begins its Music in the Great War season, we’re devoting three editions of Words and Music to the First World War. Today, Harry Hadden-Paton and Emma Fielding read poetry and prose inspired by the outbreak of war.
The programme begins with Elgar’s ‘Sospiri’. Elgar composed the bleak Adagio in the months leading up to the outbreak of the First World War: it was first performed in August 1914, just days after the start of the war. It’s heard with Winston Churchill’s description of the scene in London in the final hours leading up to the announcement of war.
Jessie Pope’s jingoistic call to arms, ‘The Call’ is an example of the kind of poem written before the horror of war became apparent. In a passage from Edmund Blunden’s memoir, ‘Undertones of War’ he is seen off by his mother at the railway station as he heads to the front. There he meets two older soldiers who are visibly and audibly moved by the sight of the boy heading off to war. The composer Frank Bridge was a pacifist and didn’t enlist for service. His ‘Oration for cello and orchestra’ is an elegy for those who died and a pacifist’s warning against future conflict.
The writer Edward Thomas only became a poet on the eve of WW1 after meeting and becoming friends with Robert Frost. He died in 1917 in the first hour of the Battle of Arras. Although his work has become increasingly well known over recent years his wife, Helen Thomas’ intimate and controversial memoir, ‘World without End’ deserves to be far more widely read. Edward Thomas’ ‘Lights Out’ and a passage from Helen’s memoir are heard alongside Vaughan Williams’ ‘The Lark Ascending’, written in 1914 and seen by some as expressing a fear of the loss of England’s culture and countryside.
Debussy’s ‘Berceuse Heroique’ was written in the first year of the war and intended as a tribute to King Albert and the Belgians. Its gloomy atmosphere and strange fanfares are heard with a passage from the nurse Mary Borden’s ‘The Forbidden Zone’ which tells the story of her time in a muddy wasteland in Belgium as part of an evacuation hospital unit.
A letter from a young man to his father warning him that his company is about to attack and assuring his father that he is happy contrasts with a letter from a Scottish nurse questioning the madness of sending boys to war. Al Piantadosi’s ‘I Didn’t Raise my Son to be a Soldier’ is an American anti-war song influential in the pacifist movement and which was performed in Britain during the war.
The programme ends with Rupert Brooke’s sonnet ‘Peace’, written on the outbreak of war and a declaration of determination and moral purpose with Frederick Kelly’s ‘Elegy for Strings’, inspired by the death of Brooke, his close friend and fellow officer. Kelly himself, having won the DSC at Gallipoli in January 1916, was killed in battle on the Somme at the age of thirty five years old.