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Proms 2014: Remembering WWI with anthems for doomed youth

Disciplined it might be, but military music is awful. Luckily, there's greater depth to this season than a first glance suggests.

By Caroline Crampton

BBC Proms 2014
Royal Albert Hall, London SW7

Like many things now considered to be quintessentially English, what we think of as military music – ceremonial oompah-ing in red coats – didn’t come into being until the mid-19th century. During the Crimean war, a musical celebration of Queen Victoria’s birthday descended into chaos when about 20 different military bands, lacking any overall direction, all launched into “God Save the Queen” at a different pitch and tempo. The result was a distinctly unpatriotic cacophony: a cousin of the queen was so appalled that he went on to create a system of centralised training for military musicians so henceforth they would always march to the same tune.

Disciplined it might be, but there is no escaping that military music is awful. It’s no accident that the presenters on Classic FM regularly exhort housewives to use it as motivation to get the dusting done. The musicians are often outstanding – anyone who has been to a do at a barracks will have heard the tootling, crashing morass transform itself into a tight jazz ensemble as soon as the drinks are poured – and being in a military band is, unfortunately, one of the few ways left for a musician to make a reliable income. Ordinarily, with very little effort it’s possible to give military music a wide berth. This year, though, its unrelenting tedium is threatening to intrude, as it is the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War.

In poetry, the Great War has a well-known trajectory: from the initially patriotic pastorals of Rupert Brooke to Wilfred Owen’s blasted swamps. In classical music, the narrative is not so straightforward, partly because martial music yields so little of broader cultural value. The Proms are taking the war as one of the major themes this year and although the obvious stuff is there – music from War Horse and the Military Wives Choir (3 August) – there are some intriguing choices, too.

Favourites such as Britten’s War Requiem (21 August) and contemporary commissions from the likes of Sally Beamish (1 August) and the late John Tavener (4 August) sit alongside relatively unknown works by composers who went to war, some never to return. Three composers who lost their lives in the trenches – Rudi Stephan, Frederick Kelly and George Butterworth – are featured this season (17 August). When you know that Stephan, a young German from Hesse, died on the Eastern Front in 1915 aged just 28, it’s all too easy to find a doomed, elegiac quality in his Music for Orchestra. The slow tempo, the Mahler-esque flourishes, the achingly beautiful woodwind solos – although written in 1912, the piece seems to gesture towards the turmoil to come.

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Frederick Kelly’s offering is more overtly connected with the conflict: he is said to have begun composing his Elegy for Strings, in Memoriam Rupert Brooke on a hospital ship in 1915 as the poet lay dying nearby (Kelly died at the Somme the following year). But it is Butterworth’s 1912 piece Six Songs from “A Shropshire Lad” that typifies the music we associate with the war. By using these A E Housman poems, he was joining an English composing tradition – including Ralph Vaughan Williams and John Ireland – of harking back to a non-existent English Eden of folk music, rural pleasures and honest toil. Although Housman was writing in the aftermath of the Boer war, lines such as “The lads that will die in their glory and never be old” have a new resonance in this context.

The English pastoral is present in so much of this First World War music, both a reaction to and an evasion of the horrors of the conflict. Also featured in the season is A Pastoral Symphony (17 August) by Vaughan Williams, begun in 1916. One of his lesser-known works, it has now been re-evaluated as a “war requiem”. The shadow of death intrudes upon its idyllic landscape with subtle dissonances and a swelling sense of sorrow. The haunting trumpet cadenza in the second movement was inspired by a bugler the composer heard practising, who kept playing a seventh instead of a true octave. Even the pastoral can fall short of the ideal.

Englishness is a major topic for the Proms. One of the featured composers is the 20th century’s William Walton who, although he moved between styles and genres during his long career, has always remained resolutely English in the minds of critics. Indeed, just days before the post-imperial flag-waving of the Last Night, Walton’s Viola Concerto will be the centrepiece of a Prom devoted entirely to English music (10 September). Not all of the pieces that night are easy choices: Vaughan Williams’s Symphony No 4 in F Minor is notably severe. Yet the message is clear – in a year of martial commemorations, when Scotland is voting on independence and politicians are shying away from Englishness as something toxic, English music is still something worth listening to. 

The Proms run until 13 September