Musicians in the Great War

Contrary to popular belief, musical life
did not grind to a halt in France between
1914 and 1918: it adapted with remarkable
creativity to the vicissitudes of the period
and contributed, in its own way, to displays
of patriotic fervour.

Whether it was waged on French territory or spilled over its borders, war left its mark on all generations of French citizens from the revolutionary period to World War Two. Despite rarely including music directly composed for combat in their programmes, the most prestigious institutions in musical life nonetheless echoed warlike preoccupations. Although musical activity slowed considerably in 1914 and early 1915, it picked up again with renewed vigour to show the artistic world’s support for the French Republican armies. This newfound French patriotic feeling even influenced aesthetic quarrels: after the defeat at the Battle of Sedan (1870), the recently founded Société Nationale de Musique had called for a French style of music (Ars gallica was its motto) good enough to compete with works by German composers. The debate started up again after 1914 as the end of Romanticism was heralded by composers like Ravel, Schmitt, Cras, Magnard, and others…

I believe that the triumph of certain ideas
is well worth the loss of our tranquillity
and even our life. Albéric Magnard, Lettres, 1914

Keeping a distance

Through political prudence or a need for artistic distance, the nineteenth-century works written for the opera stage or the salons did not directly tackle the wars being fought at the same time: they drew on ancient texts or described long-finished conflicts. The great advantage of this practice was that it allowed valuable lessons to be drawn. In the early 20th century, the creation of an ‘anti-Bayreuth’ in the amphitheatres of Béziers, Orange or Arles witnessed the spread of a patriotic repertoire, which was much less prone to conceal its political commitment by distancing it chronologically: Les Barbares by Camille Saint-Saëns is one such example. The Great War of 1914 marked a genuine watershed with regard to this position: the music written at this time no longer shied away from depicting current events (La Cathédrale blessée by Mel Bonis or Évocation 1915 ! by Dubois, linked to the bombing of Reims) or to pay homage to people who had died (Vierne’s Piano Quintet, dedicated to his son who had died for his country). These ‘patriotic concerts’ included not only hymns, choruses and cantatas composed for the occasion on their programmes, but also various monumental works of French music, which were enthusiastically given another hearing. The promotion of ancient music was not overlooked either, with excerpts from Rameau and Lully, regarded as the fathers of the national repertoire. The debate continued to rage with regard to the ban on programming Beethoven, Weber, Mendelssohn, Schumann and, of course, Wagnerohn, Schumann and, of course, Wagner.


What role did music play during the war?

All musical activity ground to a halt in the first months of the conflict: the orchestras were decimated by the call-up of men for military service and audiences were no longer in any mood for entertainment. As far as composers were concerned, the act of writing had become meaningless, as illustrated by Théodore Dubois – ‘Compose? What? About what? One wonders what would be the point!’ (Journal, 1914) – or Paul Dukas – ‘I have thought less about music in the last ten months than anything else in the world’ (Le Cri de Paris, 1915). However, towards the end of 1914, concerts again began to be scheduled in and around Paris. An edict of 23 November authorised entertainment venues to be reopened under certain conditions (establishments had to obtain prior authorisation, submit the programme for approval by the prefecture of Police, and give some of the profits to charity). As well as the usual musical events, there was a plethora of patriotic initiatives like the ‘Matinées musicales’ inaugurated on 29 November in the huge amphitheatre at the Sorbonne, with the orchestra of the Société des Concerts du Conservatoire. A week later, on 6 December, the Orchestres Colonne and Lamoureux merged for lack of musicians and resumed their concerts at the Salle Gaveau. On the same date, the Opéra-Comique began a series of matinée performances. However, January 1915 was the month that marked the true resurgence of musical entertainment in Paris, particularly in respect of the ‘highbrow’ repertoire. Music was definitely alive and kicking during the Great War!

Resumption of musical life in 1914-1915


Beyond a certain desire for revenge on the enemy, a number of elderly composers – living relics of a Romanticism under attack by the new School – cultivated the idea that, as explained by musicologist Charlotte Second-Genovesi, the experience of war might, through the glorification of patriotic values, heroism and grandeur, have the happy effect of cleaning up morals. Théodore Dubois wrote: ‘I believe that French attitudes will be modified under the influence of the tragic events that have us in their grip!’ This remark echoes the position of Madame de Saint-Marceaux, a leading patroness of the arts, who noted several months earlier: ‘We must believe that we need this hard lesson to regenerate our country […] War is monstrous and sublime, it glorifies feelings, it makes heroes of lesser people.’ And Dubois went on: ‘I would like to see our theatre become less dependent on foreign countries […] The post-war period may deliver us from this servitude, regenerate us and set us back on our feet.’ These last comments draw attention to the issue, highly sensitive at the time, of the way France felt about foreign repertoires and foreign influences and, more particularly, of the vogue for Wagner.
In the autumn of 1915, Germany was the forum for a discussion that made a moral distinction between the supporters of Zivilisation, linked to material progress from abroad, and the champions of Kultur, focusing on the country’s ethical, aesthetic and spiritual values. Many artists participated in this debate at the time.
‘If it cannot be a question of rejecting, for us and the younger generations, ‘classical music’ which forms one of the immortal monuments of humanity, it is important to silence modern Pan-Germanic Germany.’ (Charles Tenroc).

Focus on Jean Cras

One of the key figures featured in the spring festival, Jean Cras (1879-1932) will occupy a place of particular importance. The composer, who was born and died in Brest, was inextricably bound up with the sea, even more than Rimsky-Korsakov and Roussel. Although Cras revealed a gift for music quite early on, he continued the family tradition by entering the Naval Academy in 1896. During a stay in Paris in 1900, he met Duparc who, impressed by his talent, gave him almost daily lessons for three months (in actual fact, the only formal training in composition he was to have). Nonetheless, he continued his military career, showing great bravery, which led to him being decorated during World War One. He became Rear Admiral in 1931, then Major-General of the port of Brest. Cras drew his inspiration from the sea for many works, like Journal de bord and Soirs sur la mer (orchestral pieces of 1927 and 1929), or the drame lyrique Polyphème (1912-1918). This opera – the only one Cras wrote – was awarded first prize in the ‘Concours Musical de la Ville de Paris’ in 1921, which led to its production at the Opéra-Comique the following year. It also won the composer the recognition that he had been lacking. Despite his dual career, Cras followed the artistic developments of his time, while maintaining his independence. Initially influenced deeply by Franckism, his music gradually became more Impressionist in colour, incorporating references to Celtic culture and his Catholic faith. It also contained elements of exoticism inspired by his travels to distant lands, as can be seen by L’Offrande lyrique set to poems by Tagore, the Piano Quintet, the Suite en duo for flute and harp or the Quintet for flute, harp and string trio.

For me, composing is
obeying a higher will. Jean Cras