War, with its tumultuous and devastating impact on humanity, has been a recurring theme in art and literature throughout history
Classical music, as a powerful medium for expressing emotions and narratives, has also addressed the subject of war, capturing its complexities, tragedies, and moments of resilience.
By examining classical music about war, we can gain insights into the emotional and psychological impact of armed conflicts, as well as the power of music to serve as a means of remembrance, healing, and social commentary
Classical Music About War
1. War Requiem (Op.66) by Benjamin Britten
On a personal note, this is one of the most powerful anti-war statements that a composer has written. From the very first notes, we enter a somber difficult arena.
Britten’s treatment of this most awful of human catastrophes is monumentally brilliant. It is a large-scale work scored for a chamber orchestra and a full orchestra, three soloists (Baritone, Soprano, and Tenor), plus an organ and chorus with a boys’ choir.
The War Requiem was composed between 1961 and 62 with its first performance given in the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral that had been raised to the ground in World War Two. One of the most notable features of this work is that it is not simply a setting of the Latin Mass.
Ingeniously, Britten uses the poetry of Wilfred Owen, himself a victim of the First World War, and Latin texts. Britten then uses the more modest instrumental groupings for the Owen settings and the grander forces for the Latin text. The effect is immediate and lasting.
The overall structure of the War Requiem is as follows: Requiem aeternam; Dies Irae; Offertorium; Sanctus; Agnus Dei; Librae me. It is in this final section that one of the most haunting parts is heard.
Britten sets Owen’s poem Strange Meeting, in which the poet describes a soldier who escapes battle and finds himself in the underworld. Here he meets a soldier who he had killed the day before. This is such a poignant, pivotal moment in the work that seems to stand as Britten’s central message.
2. The 1812 Overture (Op.49) by Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky
This piece views war in a completely different light to the Britten War Requiem.
Debuted in Moscow in 1882, this epic overture was composed to commemorate Napoléon’s defeat by Russian forces as he tried to invade the country and force Russia back into the blockade of the United Kingdom. It was a monumental moment for Russia.
Even though Tchaikovsky claimed that this piece was composed “without warmth and love”, the work has become one of the most popular in his catalogue. Tchaikovsky composed the overture to be loud and proud.
This is blatantly obvious when you consider how the composer scored the work. There is a Brass Band, and full orchestra, with a generous battery of percussion and most notably some artillery.
The 1812 is a deeply patriotic composition threaded through with Russian folk music and the opening has the melody “O Lord, Save Thy People”. You will also hear the French represented by the Marseillaise that battles against the Russian folk songs.
In a little over twelve minutes Tchaikovsky successfully captures the celebratory spirit of the Russian people as Napoleon had to turn his army around and leave.
3. Morning Heroes (1930) by Arthur Bliss
Dedicated to the memory of Bliss’s brother who perished in the Battle of The Somme in 1916, this is another titanic-scale work. Bliss scores the piece in five large sections that together have a duration of around an hour.
Unusually, the instrumentation required by Bliss is for the narrator, chorus and orchestra. The work although highly deserving of performance, is rarely heard these days completely.
Understandably, this beautiful and touching work shows that even with the distance from the end of The First World War, he is processing the loss of his brother and the horrors of war. A little like the War Requiem, Morning Heroes uses texts from different sources.
Whilst the composition feels strongly symphonic, the texts bring the gravity needed to unite the work. Bliss sets poems by Walt Whitman, Wilfred Owen and Robert Nichols alongside sections for The Iliad.
There seems to be less rage in this piece than one might expect. Instead, the slower reflective outer movements contrast with the lightly military scherzos.
The order of movements is as follows: Hector’s Farewell to Andromache; The City Arming; Vigil; Achilles Goes Forth to Battle; The Heroes; Spring Offensive and Dawn on The Somme.
4. A World Requiem (Op.60) (1919-21) by John Foulds
The name of British composer John Foulds may not be a familiar one to you. It’s not surprising as following the limited success of this vast work, Foulds took to India to collect folk music.
Of all the compositions listed here, this one does call for forces that stretch the imagination. Foulds mirrors Mahler with his demands for his Eighth Symphony.
Foulds scores The World Requiem, for a large orchestra, soloists, and choirs including a children’s choir an organ and other off-stage performers too.
There are twenty sections to this enormous work and it is a requiem for the dead of all nations following the tragedy of The First World War.
Foulds sets parts of the Latin texts associated with the Mass plus Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, alongside Hindu poetry and text by the composer’s wife Maud McCarthy.
In tone, the music falls securely into the Romantic camp although Foulds introduces elements of Eastern cultures along with sections that could be heard as looking forward towards minimalism.
It is a work that deserves more performances than it has received and certainly reminds us all of the futility of war.
5. Lament (1915) by Frank Bridge
In 1915 a terrible event ended the lives of 1100 people. These unfortunate victims were travelling on the British liner RMS Lusitania when a torpedo fired from a German U-Boat struck the ship.
Amongst the lost were the Compton family who were journeying from their home in Philadelphia. Both parents were killed and all six of their children including Catherine who was nine years old.
Frank Bridge was an ardent pacifist. The news of this destructive event must have reached Bridge and had such a deep impact that he decided to dedicate this work to Catherine.
We do not know if Bridge had any connections with the Compton family or whether this for him, was just another avoidable tragedy of war. Bridge wrote the entire piece in a single day.
Lament is originally for a string orchestra but has also been arranged for solo piano. The overwhelming strength of emotion in this brief piece is unmistakable. It sighs deeply and is full of sorrow and loss.