Classical music to end all wars

Ralph Vaughn Williams

Ralph Vaughan Williams by Hoppé-1921
Ralph Vaughan Williams by Hoppé-1921

From a Zoom discussion meeting of the choir folk on a recent Thursday night, I discovered that quite a bit of classical music was written to commemorate the Great World War.

I knew about a number of pop tunes for “the war to end  all wars.” It’s A Long, Long Way to Tipperary; I Didn’t Raise My Son to Be A Soldier; Keep the Home Fires Burning; and of course, Over There, were all #1 charters in the United States. The latter was a #1 hit by three different artists in a row, American Quartet, Peerless Quartet, and Nora Bayes in the fourth quarter of 1917.

Here are nine classical compositions, with music links. I was familiar with Britten’s War Requiem. I have a recording of Gustav Holst’s The Planets, but I did not know of its WWI connection. Perhaps I should have. “In the opening section of the suite, ‘Mars, The Bringer of War,’ there’s a truly visceral sense of horror; what must have seemed like the end of the world to those who experienced The Great War.”

Ralph, pronounced Raif

This article from the British Library notes the number of young composers killed in the conflict. One noted composer who physically survived the conflict was  Ralph Vaughn Williams (12 October 1872 – 26 August 1958).

“He enlisted as a Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps… on New Year’s Eve 1914. At 42 he was old enough to have been excused service, but the medical corps were often chosen by older… men who wanted to serve.

“Maurice Ravel, who had tutored Vaughan Williams in orchestration in 1907-8 also became an ambulance driver. Becoming a medical orderly was not an easy posting, however.

Many of Vaughan Williams’ friends died. “Ralph wrote to Holst in 1916 about the loss of his contemporaries and his fear of returning to civilian life. ‘I sometimes dread coming back to normal life with so many gaps…out of those 7 who joined up together in August 1914 only 3 are left.'”


Symphony No. 3, “A Pastoral Symphony” (June 1921) Haitink conducting the London Philharmonic Orchestra

Dona Nobis Pacem cantata (1936) London Symphony Orchestra & Chorus, Conductor: Richard Hickox – Soloists: Bryn Terfel (baritone), Yvonne Kenny (soprano), Philip Langridge (tenor)

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