The Proms and the first world war
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As part of its first world war centenary tribute, the BBC Proms this Sunday will juxtapose works by three composers who died on the battlefields between 1914 and 1918. Two – George Butterworth and Frederick Kelly – were English. The third – Rudi Stephan – was German.
Today that’s hardly controversial. A hundred years ago, though, programming the work of a German soldier at the Proms – that most British of British music festivals – would have been unthinkable. Indeed, there were some who believed that all German music should be boycotted in Britain.
Few aspects of music-making escaped the impact of the war. But while some London institutions, among them the Royal Opera House, shut down, the Proms – in those days held at the Queen’s Hall, Langham Place – kept going. Although the Hall itself was destroyed in the Blitz in 1941, the first world war programmes were preserved. They provide a fascinating snapshot of musical Britain during the era.
Take the note in the programme for Monday August 17 1914, which announces the cancellation of that evening’s Wagner performance. It reads like an omen, an implicit promise to expunge German repertoire from the schedule. Which makes a subsequent note, inserted a few pages later, all the more surprising:
“The substitution of a mixed programme in place of a wholly Wagnerian one was not dictated by any narrow-minded intolerant policy, but was the result of outside pressure . . . The greatest examples of Music and Art are world possessions and unassailable even by the prejudices and passions of the hour.”
Thereafter the Proms featured core German repertoire throughout the war. This may seem at odds with public opinion at the time. While Sir Henry Wood, the festival’s conductor, was programming Wagner, anti-German feeling caused financial control of the festival to transfer from Edgar Speyer, a banker and philanthropist of German origin, to the music publishers Chappell’s. Speyer, who had rescued the Proms from extinction when its founder Robert Newman went bankrupt in 1902, was stripped of his British citizenship and ended up an exile in the US.
Wood’s stance was not altogether unexpected. He was renowned for his open-minded approach to repertoire; in 1912 he had provoked hissing from the Proms audience by conducting the world premiere of Schoenberg’s radical Five Orchestral Pieces. And wider attitudes towards German repertoire were not clear-cut.
“If you studied at the Royal College of Music in the first decades of the 20th century, you couldn’t move for this huge Teutonic shadow of influence over your shoulder. And so any enforced separation from that overnight just because of a change of politics was too artificial,” says Kate Kennedy, a research fellow at the University of Cambridge, who specialises in the first world war.
Wood was not alone in championing the German avant-garde: Kennedy points out that Berg’s Piano Sonata was given its London premiere in May 1914 by the pianist and composer William Denis Browne – who, like many of his musical peers, would within a few months volunteer to fight the Germans. (He was killed in 1915 during the Gallipoli campaign.)
Such cutting-edge German music vanished from the Proms during the war years, though the likes of Beethoven, Brahms and indeed Wagner continued to be performed. In its place came an intensified focus on the music of the allied nations, the bulk of which, predictably, was contributed by British composers. Hardly any of them engaged with the war as subject matter. Only occasionally could a hint of war-induced melancholy be sensed in the programming. Significantly, George Butterworth’s settings of AE Housman’s poems from A Shropshire Lad – which nowadays are often played as a lament for fallen first world war soldiers – were first performed at the festival in September 1917, a year after the composer’s death in the Battle of the Somme.
While British composers were achieving greater prominence, homegrown performers were similarly flourishing, as a summary at the back of the 1914 programme confirms:
“Old friends of the Promenade audience – such as Miss Ellen Beck, Miss Johanne Stockmarr and Miss Tosta de Benici [have] found the journey across the North Sea impracticable at the present time. In consequence the artists who have appeared this season have been almost wholly of British nationality.”
Almost wholly British – and, if not wholly, then at least strikingly, female: with many artists dispatched to the front, the music industry, like other fields of employment, began to rely heavily on the contribution of women. By the 1918 Proms, male soloists had become scarce, while female artists, including the violinist Winifred Smith and the pianists Elsie Hall and Hilda Saxe, were in the spotlight. Female orchestral players similarly benefited, several of them filling the seats of absent male competitors.
The backlash was vociferous. “The arguments made for women not joining orchestras were extraordinary,” says Sophie Fuller, author of The Pandora Guide to Women Composers. “[Opponents said] that it was too dangerous for them to be playing late at night and then having to get home, that changing facilities would have to be provided for them . . . Then there was the constant complaint of them taking men’s jobs when they came back from the war.”
But when musicians returned from the front, many were quick to reclaim their former positions. The Hallé orchestra, for example, laid off several female instrumentalists in 1920. Still, a precedent had been set.
“All the people who had argued that women play differently from men so the sound wouldn’t work . . . had to stop, because women had been playing and it hadn’t made that kind of difference,” says Fuller. “So a lot of the arguments were obliterated simply by saying, ‘Well, we did it, so we can do it’.’’ When Marin Alsop last year became the first woman to conduct the Last Night of the Proms, it was the continuation of a trend that took off during the first world war.
That conflict claimed many promising young performers, who died before they could hone their talents. How would Butterworth, Stephan and Kelly have developed as composers had their careers not been prematurely snuffed out? No one knows – an imponderable that will only add to the poignancy of Sunday’s Prom.
Andrew Manze conducts the BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra in a programme of Stephan, Kelly, Butterworth and Vaughan Williams at the Royal Albert Hall, London, on August 17, bbc.co.uk/proms
Photographs: ArenaPAL; Mander and Mitchenson/Topfoto; Getty; Lebrecht Music & Arts