July 28, 1914 was the start of The Great War, World War I. For the soldiers it was an emotional and terrifying time. Tens of thousands of men were dying every day from machine gun fire, shells, or gas. The soldiers could not get away from the death as it was all around them, everywhere, every minute. One of the ways they could cope with it, however, was by singing. Singing raised their spirits, let them voice their frustration, and pushed their fear from their minds, even if only for a short time. Many of the songwriters were also soldiers, and most of them never came home. The people at home sang the songs as well. They sang of pride in their country, fear of losing their fathers, husbands, and sons, patriotism, and even propaganda. Music affected the war and the war affected music.
Prior to the Great War, classical music symphonies and operas from the works of Beethoven, Brahms, Bach, Mozart, and Wagner were very popular, especially in Germany. Germans considered the music of these great composers sacred. “Music making and music listening were cherished as inherently wholesome activities.” (Horowitz 34) The war changed this. When Germany declared war, they used the music from these composers in their Imperial Marches and as propaganda.
War was declared and there were attempts to ban the music of the German composers. “Sir Henry Wood, first conductor at the Proms which began in 1895, insisted that 'the greatest examples of Music and Art are world possessions and unassailable even by the prejudices of the hour'”. (Horowitz 34)
In England, at the beginning of the war, young British composers attending The Royal College of Music enlisted in the war. Many of them never returned home. One particular composer, Ivor Gurney, a signaler in the war, wrote five songs while stationed at the front. Another composer, Vaughan Williams, was in the medical corps. His harrowing experiences greatly influenced his compositions. (Kennedy 380)
While the young composers fought and died in the war, the older composers at home wrote music for the people of Britain. They needed music to help them deal with the deaths of their loved ones and helped raise the country’s morale to continue their support for those still fighting. As the war progressed, the tone of the music changed to one of memorializing the fallen soldiers. John Foulds wrote one such piece, “A World Requiem”, as a tribute to the dead of all the nations fighting in the war. Arthur Bliss wrote a symphony called “Morning Heroes” to help him deal with his traumatic war experiences and to honor his brother whose last battle was at the Somme. (Kennedy 385-386)
The McMaster Collection consisted of 125 war songs, 80 of which were from World War I. There were only a few songs written for the troops, but most of them were for the home front, where morale was not good. They were not receiving the good news they anticipated when they so excitedly entered the war. The tone of the music changed as the war dragged on. Hopelessness replaced enthusiasm and patriotism. (Brooks)
As the war continued, there were many songs written that described the lives of the soldiers in the trenches. These songs were not like the earlier songs that seemed upbeat and patriotic. They were from tunes that were popular before the war and the words substituted were from the soldiers about what they were living through and depicted how discouraged and cynical they were becoming. There weren’t as many songs about hating the Germans they fought as there were about their commanding officers and the deplorable conditions in which they lived. One example of this sentiment was a song entitled, “Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire”. The song asked where various members of the army are. “The quarter master is ‘…miles and miles behind the line’, the sergeant is ‘…stealing the private’s rum’, and the commissioned officer is ‘…down in a deep dugout’. It is obvious that the men are not happy that the officers