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8.578293-94 - BATTLES IN MUSIC

Battles in Music


When we think of battle music, it is more than likely that one’s first impressions were formed either through the medium of film or through military brass music. Both have generated a considerable depth of repertoire and both have produced from composers strong, often visceral music. Hollywood was the centre of film activity and the raft of composers there—including luminaries such as Franz Waxman, Max Steiner, Erich Wolfgang Korngold and Alfred Newman—wrote some of the most concise, colourful and gripping music in the genre. The films for which they wrote spanned historic nautical adventure, terse battles in the Wild West, and contemporary thrillers. Here the battle—a set-piece on land or sea, or a duel—allowed for a full range of sonic colour and rhythmic charge. Composers had but a brief time to distil the sense of action into immediately arresting form, and their scores of the 1930s and 40s, in particular, were the heyday of the genre.

But superb though these scores were, the depiction of battles in music had a far longer history. Though Roman armies had been led into battle by brass instruments, they were obviously not there to comment on the battle; they were purely functional. The cornu (Latin for horn) was used to communicate orders to soldiers in the field during the battle. It was not truly until the Renaissance that composers sought ways to depict, in music, that which writers and painters had long been able to represent in books and in the plastic arts: the tumult and excitement of battle. Tielman Susato (c.1510/15–after 1570) wrote his La Bataille pavan in 1551 and it remains one of the earliest representations of battle in music. Solo instrumentalists, such as the English lutenist and composer John Dowland, also contributed to the genre, and his Round Battle galliard was followed by his contemporary William Byrd’s full-scale nine-part The Battell, an almost choreographic series of harpsichord pieces, tracing events from Summons to Retreat.

Soon the genre was visited by hyper-virtuosos such as the German violinist Heinrich Biber (1644–1704), whose The Battle (c.1683) for chamber orchestra was a programmatic battle piece of astonishing difficulty, which anticipated technical developments in his instrument by decades. Beethoven, too, wrote his famous ‘Battle’ Symphony, written to mark and celebrate Wellington’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Vitoria. It is almost cinematic in its depiction of the onrushing opposing military regiments and it includes snatches of popular and patriotic songs and long passages depicting scenes of battle. As a work it used to be classed purely as a ‘battle’ piece rather like Tchaikovsky’s thunderous 1812 Overture (complete with cannon) and Liszt’s Battle of the Huns (or Hunnenschlacht, S105/R422).

Composers in the twentieth century have long been active in depicting battles or in bringing out, more savagely than ever before, the full horror of war. The First World War was an obvious catalyst, and in the works of the following decade composers sought to convey in music, often including poetry and text (notably Arthur Bliss in his choral symphony Morning Heroes), a facing-up to and elegy for the War that had claimed so many lives. Leonardo Balada’s Guernica is a response by a living composer to the horror of the attack on that city. And one of the century’s greatest symphonists, Dmitry Shostakovich, explored in his Symphonies Nos. 7 and 11 the Siege of Leningrad and the 1905 Revolution in Russia respectively. In these and other works he brought to the task all the resources of contemporary symphonism and his depictions are both expansive and intense.

Whether in film music or piano sonata, Renaissance dance suite or vast symphonic canvas, the battle has, for different reasons, exerted a particular pull on successive generations of composers. The novelty of battle depiction soon gave way to opportunities for technical challenges, such as Biber provided. Celebratory depictions—by Beethoven and by Haydn in his Masses—expanded the genre still further into symphonism and choral music. And in the twentieth century, tone poems, film music, and charged patriotic cries of defiance have fed into the genre still further.

This selection of music has been chosen to evoke the idea of Battle in music. The focus is its depiction in music of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in orchestral—but not in instrumental or choral—music.

Jonathan Woolf

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