You’ve probably heard of the old cliche, “Make love, not war.” However, the idea of making music instead of war might be a little less familiar. Yet, music is actually one of the common responses to war throughout history. There are countless examples of composers from different periods whose provocative music has been inspired by the atrocities of war.
One of the most devastating wars in recent history was the Second World War. It has one of the highest list of casualties on both sides and resulted in the slaughter of millions of Jews. Unfortunately, this tragedy was also the inspiration for some of the time’s most complicated and moving pieces of music.
What beautiful music emerged during this dark time? And why should men and women still care about these tunes today? Here are all the facts, stories and tunes every historically-aware musician should know.
This quartet was written by Oliver Messiaen after he was imprisoned in the Stalag VIIA War Camp in Germany. Drawing from his own fears and doubts, Messiaen took quotes from the Book of Revelations and set music to the scenes described on Judgement Day – despite his scant resources. In fact, he first performed the tune in front of German officers at the prison camp on a rainy day in January 1941. The show featured a slightly dilapidated clarinet, violin, cello and Messiaen at the piano.
Despite this modest premier, Messiaen’s piece is still being performed today. As Alex Ross, reviewer at the New Yorker, explains, the quartet can still move listeners to tears. The apocalyptic roots of “The End of Time” are obvious, yet Messiaen made the “seven trumpets” and foreboding instruments sound eloquent and tender. The questions of fear and faith that Messiaen asks through the music are also far too relevant to the modern man and woman.
“Threnody” was composed in 1960 and is famous for the shrill scream of stringed instruments at the beginning of the song. Although “Threnody” is dedicated to the victims of Hiroshima, Penderecki actually found inspiration from his own experience in Nazi-occupied Poland. As a result, “Threnody” is as much a personal autobiography as it is a universal acknowledgment of war victims’ struggles.
Penderecki originally named this piece “8’37,” a nod to John Cage, but changed the name after listening to its premiere. This song is also known for its sheer instrumental scope; it was designed for 52 string instruments.
Perhaps Penderecki’s most impressive accomplishment, however, is how influential “Threnody” still is today. His song marked an important turning point in Polish music, starting a compositional style known as “sonorism” (which emphasizes tone and sound as well as an unconventional structure). “Threnody” was even included in the 2012 critically-acclaimed album formed through collaborations between Pendercki and Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood.
When Hitler began his invasion of Russia and lay siege to Leningrad, Shostakovich wrote a massive symphony in defiance of Nazi forces. He even premiered the 78-minute symphony while the city was still under siege, breaking up the sounds of gunfire with the notes of an orchestra. The performers, starved nearly to death and freezing cold, reportedly moved spectators to tears through the melodic form of psychological warfare.
Compared to other songs on this list, “Leningrad” stumps critics because it is performed very often today. Some blame the fact that the symphony is too long or loud for today’s modern listeners while others blame its ties to communism or even the inability for critics to settle on one interpretation. Yet Shostakovich’s piece still transformed the history of the Soviet Union by, as he later wrote in his memoirs, “be[ing] with the people. I wanted to create the image of our country at war, capture it in music.”
Michael Tippett started writing this oratorio the day that Britain declared war on Germany: September 3, 1939. As a dedicated pacifist, he wanted to comment on the division and fascism within Europe at the time – and he didn’t pull any punches, including lines like “Away with them! Curse them! They infect the state!” Tippett also structured the piece around five traditional African spirituals, and although the combining these with Tippett’s modern language might seem jarring, the contrast emphasizes “we are all fundamentally equal,” according to Mark Wigglesworth The Guardian.
READ MORE: 5 Powerful Songs About Peace
Although over 75 years have passed, “A Child of Our Time” is still fundamentally relevant. As Wigglesworth explains, today’s society is largely divided despite the technology that allows people to be more connected than ever. People live in their own bubbles with their own opinions and avoid being confronted with ideas that contradict their own. As a result, “A Child of Our Time” still speaks to modern listeners when it encourages “us to feel empathy for everyone and expresses the need for us to try and understand humankind’s ability to be selfish, prejudiced and mean, without losing faith in our limitless potential to be considerate, compassionate and loving.”
When you think about war, music probably isn’t the first topic to enter your mind. However, as these musicians have shown, even the ugliest of events can trigger beautiful art that continues to impact listeners decades after it was written.
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