WWI: Remaking Music

How did composers react to the violence of The First World War? In the last show in our series on the war, we’re listening to the sounds that came out of the ashes. It’s a twenty-year-long journey that begins in Paris in 1914, as bombs began to fall and mass media began to rise, with composer Maurice Ravel’s Le Tombeau, a swirling piano suite dedicated to friends of Ravel who died in the war. We’ll hear George Antheil’s bombastic Ballet Mécanique, which brought an army of plane propellers, sirens, and player pianos into the concert hall. Finally, we’re making the great transatlantic jazz connection: how Josephine Baker, Duke Ellington, and others found a new way out of the destruction.

Music from the Program

Reading List

Two essential book-length treatments of that beautiful, movable-feast-in-music moment: Albert Murray’s Stomping the Blues and Alfred Appel, Jr.’s Jazz Modernism: From Ellington and Armstrong to Matisse and Joyce.

    • The war took the lives of notable composers across Europe, including Albéric Magnard, Enrique Granados, and George Butterworth. German broadcasting company Deutsche Welle compiled a list of the many injured;
    • “Deceptive Cadence”, the NPR classical music blog, collected musical responses to the war from Ravel, Ives, Holst, and others;
    • New Yorker music critic Alex Ross details composers of the era—Stravinsky, Satie, Milhaud, and others—in a chapter in his primer to twentieth-century music, The Rest is Noise (a rich audio guide to that chapter is online);
    • CBC took on popular and classical music during The First World War, in an exceptional episode of Ideas, with Paul Kennedy;
    • If you didn’t catch it last year, WNYC broadcast a special about art in 1913, a “mad, Modernist moment” before the war, with a focus on Stravinsky and Schoenberg;
    • Finally, hear BBC’s “World War One: Cradle of Jazz,” a special on the musical evolution of ragtime into jazz during the war.

Related Content

  • A. David Wunsch

    An interesting comparison, toward the end, involving Ellington and James Joyce . But there is a profound difference that should have been stressed. Both wrote of the culture they were born into — but Joyce turned in anger and contempt on his. Dubliners is a portrait of a “society in paralysis” (Joyce’s words) but Ellington loved, embraced and spread the warmth, strength and creativity of the African American. Joyce and Ellington both educated us but their goals were very different.

  • Another way to apprehend history is as a wave moving toward a distant shore. As it passes under each generation, the beacon buoys rise to the crest of the wave where we see them radiating out – Joyce, Ellington, and etc.

    Eskin and Schoenberg express the concept:

    Schoenberg said mass communication allowed everyone to know about everyone else.
    Eskin said “… composers want to have their own sound …..but what happens between the wars…. they aren’t bothered defining that any more.”

    They weren’t exclusively defining themselves, but expressing an awareness of the wave; thus, defining the wave for their generation. Their internal differences are part of the external differences inherent to the generational wave.

    Goethe’s fascination with the power of mass communication has come to pass. Unforeseen by Goethe is that we would all become beacon buoys rising on the crest- all connected in an instant. The waters are not flat, however, the wave is still moving toward that distant shore….a shore “chaotic to our distinctions and perhaps to all distinctions, but there nevertheless.”*

    *A.C. Danto: Nietzsche as Philosopher

  • Ken Ronkowitz

    Small Correction: George Antheil was born and grew up in Trenton, New Jersey (not Paterson)

  • Marilyn Richardson

    Just wonderful. Happened in just before Eskin/ Satie discussion. First heard, and moved to, Satie at Mme. Jaeger’s dance classes in Paris in ’60s. SO unlike anything else that it led to reading and connections of his time and place. Stopped in tracks for rest of that segment with smiles and bit of lump in throat.

    And then on to that great in-gathering look at so much that has influenced our world and our minds. Always dazzled and inspired by what happens when you have all your flags flying in that way. Many thanks.

  • Cambridge Forecast

    This wonderful ROS history and musicology discussion
    mentioned Stravinsky’s “Soldier’s tale” in passing.
    It’s interesting to see Theodor Adorno’s comment on this
    work in his “Minima Moralia”.

    Remember that Adorno was the music critic and music aficionado among the Frankfurt School constellation of left-theoreticians which included Herbert Marcuse, Erich Fromm, and so on.

    Adorno writes:

    “Pro Domo Nostra”

    When during the last war,—-which like all others, seems peaceful in comparison to its successor—-the symphony orchestras of many
    countries had their vociferous mouths stopped, Stravinsky wrote the “Histoire
    du Soldat” for a sparse, shock-maimed chamber ensemble. It turned out to be his best score, the only convincing surrealist manifesto, its convulsive, dreamlike convulsion imparting to music an inkling of negative truth. The pre-condition of the piece was poverty: it dismantled official culture so drastically because, denied access to the latter’s material goods, it also escaped the ostentation that is inimical to culture.
    (“Minima Moralia”, Adorno, Verso, 1985, page 50)
    On Satie:
    “….in Satie’s pert and puerile piano pieces there are
    flashed of experience undreamed of by the school of Schoenberg,
    with all its rigor and all the pathos of musical development behind it….(page
    151, “Minima Moralia”, Verso, 1985)

    Musical Footnote:
    In the frothy bauble of a movie “Impromptu”, 1991, there’s a scene where Julian Sands (“Liszt”) tries to do an exercise with “chromatic glissando” in front of Chopin and this seems to be “le dernier cri” (the new, new thing) for its day.
    Richard Melson

  • Potter

    The audio ( acoustics) is extraordinary..especially the piano, but also the recordings. Bravo to your piano and technical crew. This show is a gem, from banging my head with iron frying pans of the “Ballet Mechanique” to the melting sounds of Miles Davis’ version of “My Ship” by Kurt Weill- and all the selections you played, this was a thoughtful interpretation and a pleasure to hear. I like the comparison of Ellington and Joyce.

    It’s hard from this side to hear how different Satie’s or Ellington’s music were at the time. Stravinsky is, in some of his works, still difficult for me– as is Joyce’s Ulysses, but not “The Dubliners” or “Portrait of the Artist”. I am still at it though first working my way, too, through the controversy about the different versions of Ulysses.

    It was said by my art history prof. so many years ago, that it takes at least 50 years for the “shock of the new” to become normalized, for people to get used to it. In some cases longer. How people just love impressionism and post-impressionism now. If a museum or symphony orchestra wants to get the crowds it’s Ravel, Debussy, Van Gogh and Gauguin…and Picasso

    The guests were wonderful too- beautiful program!