The Well-Tempered Ear

Classical music: As we mark the centennial of World War I, what classical music should we think of and listen to? Plus, check up on the last day of WYSO’s 10-day tour to Argentina | August 2, 2014

ALERT: The Youth Orchestra (below), under the baton of University of Wisconsin-Madison conductor James Smith and part of the Wisconsin Youth Symphony Orchestras (WYSO), is into the final day of its 10-day tour to Argentina. Here is a link to the live blog:

WYSO Youth  Orchestra

By Jacob Stockinger

When did World War I start?

World War I trenches

Some might argue it started with the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand in Sarajevo on June 28, 1914. And the media had many features on that day a little over one month ago.

Archduke Franz Ferdinand

Then on July 28, 1914, the first shots were fired. That too received media coverage last week.

But the best I can find out, the actual and formal beginning of the “War To End All Wars” was Aug. 1, 1914 -– with the 100th anniversary falling yesterday.

World War I

See for yourself:

Quite a number of media stories -– on-line, in print, on TV and radio –- have focused on World War I. They usually take the tack of how it changed the world and its cultural politics and economics for many years after, and so directly set up the circumstances that led to World War II.

world war1 somme

But NPR also ran a series of stories on what would have happened if World War I had never taken place. The consequences ranged from a much later discovery of antibiotics, technology and space travel to a completely different map of the Middle East that might have allowed us to escape some of the current turmoil.

And what was the effect of World War I on music?

You can Google the question and find a lot of entries.

Here are some of the more interesting ones that The Ear found:

The outstanding “Deceptive Cadence” blog on NPR (National Public Radio) by Tom Huizenga used audio samples to explore how the composers Maurice Ravel (below) and Gustav Holst responded to the war, as did the famed tenor Enrico Caruso:


From the BBC, here is a list of poets and composers. It asks the question: Why do we remember the poets more than the composers? When he wrote his “War” Requiem, British composer Benjamin Britten (below) used great texts from World War I poets to commemorate World Wart II and dedicate the reconstruction of the Coventry Cathedral. (You can hear the opening in a YouTube video at the bottom. Be sure to read the lyrics.)

Benjamin Britten

Here is another British website that discusses British music, perhaps because that country’s composers responded more than other nations’  composers did, certainly more than American but also French, German and Russian composers:

Here is a story from The Wall Street Journal:

And here is a list of some important music composed during World War I:

What classic music and composers do you identify with World War I?

The Ear wants to hear.


  1. I’ve recently recorded settings of two war poems, Siegfried Sassoon’s “Suicide in the Trenches” and Edtih Sitwell’s “Still Falls the Rain”
    The recordings/charts are on YouTube

    Still Falls the Rain:

    Soldier Boy:

    I hope you’ll take the time to give a listen, the poems are both magnificent, and I hope I’ve done them at least a modicum of justice.

    John Milne


    Comment by John Milne — November 22, 2014 @ 10:36 am

  2. Jake, there are three compositions that come to mind for me:

    1 Igor Stravinsky “L’Histoire du Soldat” — for me, the story that is told is pretty clearly intended as an allegory to the events of WWI, and the music in that context provides a perfect backdrop — stripped-down, angular, deliberately ugly when needed. Oh, and by the way, the Devil wins!

    2 Maurice Ravel “Le Tombeau de Couperin” — each of the movements in this evocation of the ancient suite form is dedicated to a friend (in one case, friends) of Ravel’s, killed in wartime action. Like his Piano Trio, it is such a wonderful blend of romantic passion wedded to classical form.

    3 Claude Debussy “Berceuse Heroique” — a truly poignant solo piano piece, written for the fallen French soldiers, probably during the time that Debussy was dying of cancer himself.


    Comment by Tim Adrianson — August 2, 2014 @ 8:46 am

    • Hi Tim,
      Thanks for reading and replying.
      All are great suggestions.
      I love the Ravel work too, and it is included in the NPR story to which I link.
      I wish I could play it, but it is technically quite difficult.
      But it is sooooo beautiful.
      I like the Stravinsky but have to check out the Debussy.


      Comment by welltemperedear — August 2, 2014 @ 6:06 pm

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