Our lecture-concert ‘Till the Boys Come Home’ with the Invicta Band 3 weeks ago was an enormous success on so many levels. Never before have I spoken in front of a concert hall full with 300 people who were at times weeping, laughing and singing – in all the appropriate places. The floor shook because so many audience members were tapping (stamping) their feet along to the music, particularly the military marches. Everyone involved on the night was staggered at the response to the music. The Royal British Legion collected over £500 in donations and that was a wonderful bonus to a fabulous event.
The Invicta Concert Band performing at the lecture-concert 'Till the Boys Come Home at the Colyer-Fergusson Concert Hall.
The whole experience proved that music is an incredibly powerful force. Moreover, it is a central wartime subject which must be studied and researched in context, and that while people love the usual popular music tunes such as ‘Tipperary’ and ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’ there is an appetite to go beyond these and engage with the rich musical landscape of wartime Britain. This is exciting because music is so tangible. Where cinema film has recorded images from the past, thanks to musical notation we can recreate much of the exact same music which was played and heard during the war. Where songs have been sung on the fighting fronts, where gramophones have played various tunes, they were embedded into the wartime culture we all seek to know more about today. Spines were straightened by Elgar’s ‘Imperial March’, tears were shed to ‘Home Fires’, laughter broke out to ‘Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts for Soldiers’ and faces lit up singing ‘Pack Up Your Troubles’. Music and emotion are inextricably linked: we hear but we also feel.
Music is central to any commemorative activity. This year is going to be particularly busy with the centenaries of Jutland and the Somme, and I have recently been involved in projects including the Somme 100 commemorations in Manchester this July, coordinated by the Department of Media, Culture and Sport. As part of the two-day event and the ‘Experience Field’ in Heaton Park, there will be a concert on the evening of Friday 1st July where the Hallé Children’s Choir will sing a programme of wartime music. Unusually, however, they are also looking to perform songs from other combatant nations, including France and Germany. This is an exciting and refreshing approach which I hope will widen our contemporary musical palette of 1914-18. As the poetry of the wartime period dominates Britain’s contemporary memory of the war – no other nation is as obsessed with its wartime poets as the British, and on top of that this is incorrectly assumed to be dominated by Siegfried Sassoon and Wilfred Owen - the prevalence of ‘Tipperary’ similarly pervades the aural memory of British music 1914-18. In discussion on this subject a German colleague told me that popular music from the wartime era has not entered the German collective memory in the same way as it has in Britain. He was amazed that at a school sing-a-long in London in the summer of 2014 everybody seemed to know the words and the tunes. He said that sort of thing would be unthinkable in Germany today.
The German War Graves Commission (Volksbund Deutsche Kriegsgräberfürsorge - VDK) is currently organizing a number of commemorative events, many of which – for example at Verdun in May - will feature music. The song ‘Bald, Allzubalde’ is likely to feature in this. It was composed by Ernst Brockmann in the trenches of Verdun in April 2016 just a few months before the composer was killed in action. While the majority of German wartime songs are very militaristic this softer ballad-style is unusual and incredibly moving. The French sang a lot of really wordy ballads that tell of specific battles. However, their most popular tune is ‘Quand Madelon’, a slightly bawdy march from 1913. It was tremendously popular during the war, possibly the most famous French song of the conflict. The song tells a story about soldiers flirting with a young waitress in a country tavern and may owe its long term popularity to the fact that the lyrics were clean at a time when soldiers' songs were mostly bawdy and rude. It became a patriotic song as the war wore on and it remains a well-known song in France to this day. Both ‘Bald, Allzubalde’ and ‘Quand Madelon’ can be heard on a CD recorded recently by the mezzo-soprano Patricia Hammond.
Music is also important in the context of local history. A concert takes place in Faversham on 13th April by a British a cappella trio called Coope Boyes & Simpson who have featured heavily in the musical commemoration of Western Front in Flanders with concerts at Passchendaele Church and Ypres Cathedral. The concert commemorates 100 years since 109 men and boys were killed by an explosion at the Explosives Loading Company factory at Uplees, near Faversham on 2nd April, 1916 – a disaster which at the time couldn’t be reported in the press for reasons of national security, and which contributed to the civilian death toll of approximately 17,000 people on Britain’s home front during the First World War.
In addition to professional musical activity I have just heard of a Hertfordshire school who are staging their own First World War concert using instruments they have made themselves. This repeats what sources at the RAF archives in the RAF Museum at Colindale tell us about soldiers making up for the lack of proper instruments by making their own. On 30th December 1916, a member of the ground crew serving with the BEF in France in Number 25 Squadron wrote to his parents about ‘a marvellous mess orchestra consisting of all sorts of weird instruments, a tin kettle drum, a pair of cymbals, one string fiddles etc, and one or two tin whistles or flutes and such like. I do so wish you could hear it.’
Indeed, music must be heard, so that brings me back to the lecture-concert and our work with the Invicta Band. During the planning for that event I showed Chris and Jim, the Band organisers, a couple of pieces of music I have unearthed in various archives – one from the YMCA collection at the University of Birmingham and another from the Royal Engineers at Brompton. I don’t think either piece had been played since the war so Chris very kindly took them away with him and recorded them for me. He was the first person to play them in 100 years, and it was moving to hear them played. However, I decided against incorporating those pieces in the concert on 22nd March. We had so much we wanted to include around the theme of music and morale, so I am keeping them for a future event which may be based on music which hasn’t been played since the war years. After a visit to the RAF archives last week, where I found lots more wartime music, I am already thinking of more events to put on.
The success of the lecture-concert has shown us that audiences really want to learn about - and hear more of - the music of 1914-18 in all its forms and contexts. The amount of people who have signed up for all or part of our forthcoming conference ‘Pack Up Your Troubles: Performance Cultures in the First World War’ is also proof of this. We will be showcasing some of the latest research on music as well as theatre and cinema, with two excellent keynote performances by Neil Brand and Kate Kennedy. What I am learning by working on these events is that I don’t want to just talk about music, it’s essential to hear it as well. The context of the music enhances everyone’s experience enormously, and I feel that’s what true public engagement at Gateways is all about.
The Pack Up Your Troubles conference takes place from 27th - 29th April 2016 and tickets are available to book here until Sunday 17th April. Concessionary rates and discounts for community project groups are available - please contact firstname.lastname@example.org for details.
Buglers of 5th (London) Brigade, Royal Field Artillery at Kennington Park, 1915. © IWM (Q 53975)