In recent days, I have been focusing on writers who we all have come to know and love, whose literary works were shaped by their experiences in WWI. This piece is about one of my favorite 20th Century composers, Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose life and works were deeply affected by his experiences during the Great War, WWI.
Vaughan Williams was already a highly acclaimed composer before the war broke out. He had two very successful symphonies already under his belt, along with a considerable body of orchestral pieces and songs. He had played an important role in the revival of the tradition of old English folk songs and had composed a number of hymnological pieces. His second symphony, “the London Symphony,” was first performed in London in early 1914, just before the war broke out. He had also begun sketching out the elements of a piece that would be called, “The Lark Ascending”, which is my favorite work of his.
When war was declared on Aug. 4, 1914, he stopped all composing efforts for the duration of the war.
Vaughan Williams was 42 years old when war was declared. He was old enough to have been able to avoid service in the conflict, but he chose to enter as a Private in the Royal Army Medical Corps on New Year’s Eve of 1914. Being a medical orderly was no easy position. As an FMF Corpsman and combat veteran, I know what this part of his wartime experience was like. He had to rescue the wounded and retrieve the dead on the battlefield, often under fire.
In WWI, they often had to go out to collect the dead after dark, in pitch blackness, stumbling over the debris of war, including the bodies of the dead. One of his fellow composers and friends, Cecil Coles, was killed performing these duties on the front. Vaughan Williams served in this capacity both in the Salonika Campaign in 1915 and on the French Western Front in 1916.
But this was not his only battlefield experience during the war. In 1917, at the age of 45, he was given a battlefield commission to 2nd Lt. in the Royal Garrison Artillery. This unit deployed the 60-pound “big guns,” and was engaged in heavy artillery missions against the Germans.
Because of this experience with the big guns, Vaughan Williams would become deaf later in his life.
Vaughan Williams would write a letter to a fellow English composer, Gustav Holst (composer of the famous series of works called “The Planets”), explaining that he had been put in charge of moving 200 of the horses that were used to move the artillery during a retreat. It is clear that Vaughan Williams’ wartime experiences were on the front lines. He knew intimately the intensities of noise and destruction, and was quite familiar with what bullets and shells can do to once vital human bodies. Such things have a profound way of changing a person.
Vaughan Williams lost most of his friends during the war. Seven of them had signed up and gone into the fight together. He wrote to his wife toward the end of the war: “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—I sometimes think now that it was wrong to have made friends with people younger than oneself.”
This statement, in one form or another, rings all too true and too familiarly for most of us who share this experience.
Like war veterans in every age, Vaughan Williams did not talk much about his experiences, but the stress and strain on the psyche, all the memories of the sounds, sights and smells of the battlefield and its aftermath, do take a toll. Over time, most of us find ways of dealing with these psychological, soul deep wounds, but they remain with us like old scars. In some cases, these memories, these old scars, find new forms of expression, forms that turn the darkest experiences of war into works of great genius and great beauty. This is the case for Vaughan Williams.
He completed his work, “The Lark Ascending” after the war and some have interpreted it as a war piece. If it is, for me, it is a statement of the recovery of beauty, or the rediscovery of beauty after the long dark night of war. It represents a triumph of the human soul, arising from the ashes of the nightmare of war and seeing release, even redemption, in the simple flight of a meadowlark over a serenely quiet, sunlight meadow in the early morning light. The violin creates in the mind the image of the lark. It musically “describes” the arc and fall, the joyous freedom of the flight of a single lark lifting the mind and the heart with it. My favorite rendition of it is done by the violinist Janine Jansen. I have included a video of this rendition here.
Two pieces of music done by Vaughan Williams are clear statements concerning the war. They are his “Pastoral Symphony,” which is a quiet, but unsettling work with soft strings and woodwind instruments that includes a ghostly solo female voice and a mistuned rendition of the “Last Post” (The English military equivalent to our “Taps”). This symphony saw its first performance in 1921. But his “Dona Nobis Pacem” (Give us Peace), is more overtly a memorial using Christian texts interposed with the poetry of Walt Whitman. This piece was performed for the first time in the year 1936 and it may have been designed to act as a warning against another impending conflict (WWII) that was looming on the horizon.
Out of great trauma can come great beauty. Like the myth of the Phoenix, war makes ashes out of what was once beautiful. But often, out of the ashes of war, the surprise of beauty comes to us again and rises up like the Phoenix to overwhelm the darkness of human failure, and, with the expressions of human creativity, an even greater beauty arises and pushes back the darkness… at least for a time.
Let me end by paraphrasing the Russian author, Fyodor Dostoevsky in his book, “The Idiot,” In the end, “Beauty will save the world.”