The Music of Martyrs – Talk Report

What a treat it was to listen to Professor Jeremy Dibble from Durham University talk on Saturday 12th November about the response of British composers to the war!  Professor Dibble’s enthusiasm for and knowledge about music associated with the war carried a packed audience on a journey that encompassed well-known composers and several less-known, all ‘illustrated’ with musical extracts.

Professor Dibble reminded us that the older generation of composers, especially Hubert Parry, Charles Stanford and Edward Elgar, who were themselves too old to fight, were nevertheless intimately bound up with the war through some of their compositions and through their musical and personal connections with men from the younger generation.   They were also men who had strong connections with German music and felt that music was part of the fabric of everyday life.

Parry’s last large-scale choral work was ‘The Chivalry of the Sea’ and Professor Dibble played the opening passage, depicting Dreadnoughts sailing out.  The background story to this piece brought home the conflicting feelings Parry must have had.  Parry’s musical mentor Edward Dannreuter was born in Germany although he lived in England for the latter part of his life.  His son Hubert, a godson of Richard Wagner and later Rear-Admiral in the British Fleet, served on HMS Invincible during the Battle of Jutland and he was one of five to survive from a crew of 1500 men.  The naval connection was continued with a piece by Stanford, setting poems by Henry Newbolt.  Although written before the outbreak of war, ‘Songs of the Sea’ (1904) and ‘Songs of the Fleet’ (1910) seem to presage war and were very popular throughout the war.

Elgar produced several works during the war, often very patriotic and less popular nowadays.  Professor Dibble played part of ‘A Voice in the Desert’, using a poem by the Belgian poet Camaerts, and intended as a morale booster for Belgium. 

Many people in the audience knew music by George Butterworth who was killed in July 1916 while serving as an officer with the Durham Light Infantry.  A few years before the outbreak of war Butterworth had set to music poems from ‘A Shropshire Lad’ by A E Housman whose poems were very popular with soldiers during the war.  We heard ‘On the Idle Hill of Summer’, evoking the idea of an idyllic English countryside, in keeping with notions that were part of the war propaganda.


Another composer (and poet) with a very close association with and feeling for his particular landscape was Ivor Gurney.  Rejected for military service in 1914 because of poor eye-sight, Gurney eventually joined up in 1915.  During the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917, he was shot and gassed; he spent part of his recuperation at Brancepeth Castle.  Gurney’s mental health declined after the end of the war, he tried to commit suicide and he spent the rest of his life in a mental asylum.  We listened to the beautiful and heart-rending setting of ‘In Flanders’, beginning with the words “I am homesick for my hills”.  The poem was written in a German prisoner-of-war camp by Frederick William Harvey, whom Gurney had known at school in Gloucester.

Another pupil from the King’s School attached to Gloucester Cathedral, was Herbert Howells who was declared medically unfit for service.  We heard part of his elegy for Francis Purcell Warren, another composer, who was listed missing in action during the Battle of the Somme.  The piece was premiered at a Mons Memorial Concert in the Royal Albert Hall in 1917 where the audience was “a sea of khaki.”

Not many of us were familiar with the name of Frederick Kelly, a music writer and pianist originally from Australia, and a friend of the poet Rupert Brooke and the composer William Denis Browne.  Kelly and Browne arranged Brooke’s burial on Skyros in 1915.   We listened to part of Kelly’s haunting elegy ‘In Memoriam Rupert Brooke’ that recalled the olive trees fluttering around Brooke’s grave.  Browne was killed during the Gallipoli campaign and Kelly, after recovering from wounds at Gallipoli, was killed in action very near the end of the Battle of the Somme.

Josef Holbrooke was unknown to most of us (though not to brass band players, I learned later).  He did not serve during the war but his violent piano piece ‘Barrage’, written in 1916-1917, certainly evoked the terrible noises men in the trenches must have suffered.

Another Australian, Percy Grainger, name we recognised but I don’t think many of us knew he left England for the USA on the outbreak of war, later joining the American army as a musician and never on active service.  The piece Professor Dibble chose was probably new to most of us – a setting of Rudyard Kipling’s macabre poem ‘Danny Deever’ about the execution of a soldier in front of his comrades.  Although written in 1890, similar executions took place during the First World War.  The piece certainly had a noticeable effect on the audience.

In 1914 Ralph Vaughan Williams volunteered at the age of forty-two, serving in the Royal Army Medical Corps as an ambulance driver until 1917 when he became a lieutenant in the Royal Artillery. In the 1920s his work began to express his feelings about his war experience.  We heard the second movement of the Third Symphony where the natural bugle – not always in tune – recalled what soldiers would have heard at twilight.

Patrick Hadley was Professor of Music at Cambridge in the 1950s but his music is rather neglected now.  During the First World War he had a leg amputated below the knee and, so we were told, in later life he shocked students (and amused himself) by sticking something sharp into his prosthetic leg.  His piece ‘One Morning in Spring’, based on English folksong, was written in 1942 to mark Vaughan Williams’ 70th birthday.

Professor Dibble ended his talk with Arthur Bliss who served through the war but was always haunted by the death of his brother during the Battle of the Somme.  His 1930 choral symphony ‘Morning Heroes’ is an anthology of war poetry across the ages, from Homer to Wilfred Owen whose ‘Spring Offensive’ we heard.

The talk was sub-titled ‘Sounds, sights, impressions, loss and memory’.  The whole afternoon  brought all these elements to us and gathered them together as a most appropriate part of Remembrance Weekend. 

The final talk in this series is on Saturday 10th December at 2.30 when Lucie Whitmore, a PhD student at Glasgow University, will talk about ‘The Modish and the Militant’ – how and why women’s fashion changed over the war period.  To book a place (£3 or FREE with Museum admission and for Friends and students) please email