Friday, 11 November 2011

Music for Remembrance Day

Although - as I pointed out earlier - I won't wear a poppy for a host of reasons, I'm not opposed to publicly remembering the victims of war, which I see as very different to the triumphalist, self-deceiving jingoism of the armchair generals and politicians who go on about freedom, sacrifice and the Glorious Dead.

War for many combatants was not voluntary, heroic or admirable. It was savage, vicious and a mark of social failure. Harry Partch, the WW1 veteran who died recently aged 111 described it as 'organised murder'. I'm no pacifist - I'm proud of my ancestors who fought against the British in the Boer War and the Easter Rising, for instance, and those who opposed Nazism, but I'm deeply suspicious of those who romanticise military service, and use it as cover to justify war. We forget that millions of soldiers came home determined to create a better, peaceful world rather than boast about their deeds.

One of my final-year students is writing her dissertation on poetic responses to the First World War (hopefully not the overly-familiar texts we all know too well), so my thoughts drifted to Ralph Vaughan Williams, the composer who volunteered for service even though he was 41. Perhaps he was caught up in the patriotic fervour of the moment - though in many ways he was a critical thinker - but the effect didn't last. He survived the war and responded to the horror by composing music which expressed disquiet about the myths of the 'Great' war, especially in his Pastoral Symphony, which uses a military bugler's false note as a key motif through which to explore the nature of war and the hoped-for peace, under the deceptive prettiness of the work's other themes.

His 'Dirge for Veterans' refuses to glorify war either - it's a serious-minded elegy for the victims of those comfortably sitting far behind the lines sending men out to die.

The other war-related piece VW produced was his 1946 Symphony No. 6: a surprise from a man popularly associated with contemplative nostalgia: it's often interpreted as a vision of the horrors of the 1939-45 conflict, and dread at what seemed to be the imminent nuclear war.

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