MUSIC IN A TIME OF WAR
by Elizabeth Vercoe
(Public lecture in March, 2003 during a semester in residence holding
the Acuff Chair of Excellence at Austin Peay State University in Clarksville,
Tennessee and preceding a concert of music at the university by women
During the recent debate about Iraq at the United Nations Security Council,
a tapestry woven to represent Picasso’s famous painting, Guernica,
perhaps the single most shocking and influential piece of art about war
in the 20th century, was covered so as not to provide a disturbing visual
backdrop for post-debate press conferences. The explanation was that “we
had a problem with, ya know, the horse.”
Interesting. The U.N. media spokesman didn’t mention having a problem
with the agonized mother with a dead child on her lap. Or with the huge
dead soldier in the foreground. Or with the horror-struck woman with
a lamp illuminating the slaughter. Well, ya know, perhaps he was right:
the problem is the horse. It is terrified, rolling its eyes in fear,
a spear piercing its side. Not a reassuring image as background for a
cool discussion of war.
In 1937, Pablo Picasso, long exiled in France and already the most famous
Spanish painter of his time, ruminated about a commission for a large
painting for the Spanish Pavilion at the World Fair in Paris that year.
He was considering a self-referential portrait of an artist’s studio.
Then, on a clear April day, Nazi planes began dropping bombs on a small
Basque town called Guernica on market day and everything changed. The
planes didn’t bomb bridges or factories, just the houses and people,
gunning them down in the fields as they fled. We know now that the campaign
was to test a new German strategy, to so shock the people with overwhelming
power that they would be too demoralized to resist the brutal advance
of General Franco in his quest for control of Spain during the bloody
Civil War that Hemingway and others had so romanticized.
Within weeks of the news of Guernica, Picasso had scrapped plans for
the studio painting and begun a series of sketches of the powerful images
soon to people his canvas called Guernica. Although he experimented with
color, stark blacks and greys emerged as his final choices along with
the quintessentially Spanish images of bull and horse that came to represent
the courage and suffering of the Spanish people. The eyes of the bull
are said to bear an uncanny resemblance to those of Picasso himself but
he never explained his imagery. What he did say in a moment of anger
at criticism was: “Paintings are not made to decorate apartment
walls, they are instruments of war.”
The further history of the painting is a compelling one: how it was exhibited
in the U.S. to raise money to fight fascism in Spain, how it remained
in New York for years as a safe haven during WW II, how Picasso’s
will instructed his lawyer to decide when Spain was sufficiently free
and safe for the painting to go “home,” how the Museum of
Modern Art resisted the transfer, how the people thronged when it was
finally installed in Madrid—a symbol of their suffering and new
freedom—, how a mysterious blue line appeared on the opposite wall
which study soon revealed was from the blue jeans of the crowds leaning
against the wall while regarding the painting, how that white wall must
still be repainted weekly—such is the scrutiny given the painting,
how the Basques are still hoping to bring Guernica closer to the rebuilt
town and to Frank Gehry’s stunning museum where a chapel stands
empty and waiting for its arrival.
Few great works of art have so captured the spirit of a people, representing
their suffering but also (note the flower near the sword) representing
their ability to endure. The symbols from the bullfight where men and
beasts confront death may elude our understanding, but they touch something
deep in the heart of the Spanish people, whom the great playwright Lorca
identifies as a people in love with death.
And Guernica shows that art can be dangerous. Franco hated Picasso and
his painting for its challenge to his regime and implication of his complicity
in the bombing of a civilian population. And the U.S. refused Picasso
a visa in the 1940s. (You can see the FBI files on Picasso in the library.
They are open now under the Freedom of Information Act.)
Guernica was painted 66 years ago. 66 years before that, another art
work was unveiled that had political ramifications and dealt with the
subject of war, namely Giuseppe Verdi’s opera, Aida. But where
Guernica was a response to the horrors of war, Aida’s Triumphal
March seems to glory in war and victory. In fact, this March is still
so popular in Egypt today that it precedes evening news reports and is
played before football games. But in 1871 the premiere of Aida was given
in Cairo to celebrate the opening of the Suez Canal. The opera’s
story of armies battling in the desert, showing the spoils of war in
a triumphant processional, may seem—in Susan Sontag’s words— to
be an example of a work of art that has “shilled” for war.
But like all art that lasts, closer inspection reveals Verdi’s
more complex view, one that shows how a people can be manipulated into
war, how bloodthirsty a people can be, how an individual can turn against
her country, and how an opera seemingly about war is really in the end
a love story after all, albeit a tragic one ending with a cry for peace.
But the question remains: do patriotic marches, the novels of Hemingway,
some wartime poetry, films like “Apocolypse Now” featuring
Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries or movies like “Platoon” whose
poignant use of Barber’s Adagio for Strings made that music recognizable
to nearly everyone or “Saving Private Ryan” “shill
for war” in Sontag’s words and support imperialist dreams?
Or are these works more complex?
I wonder now myself, in my eagerness to capture the spirit of a young
female warrior, in an excess of feminism perhaps, if in this music I
too was guilty of “shilling for war.” See what you think.
Here are two exerpts from Herstory 3 where the young Joan of Arc first
says: “France is calling us. Let us vanquish or perish. A Frenchman
must live for her, for her a Frenchman must die.” Then she revels
in her role as a soldier and, more dangerously, as a warrior servant
Vercoe, "La France nous appelle" & "I Am A Soldier"
Performers: Dr. Sharon Mabry and Rosemary Platt.
Was Joan’s war a just war to eject the English oppressors occupying
France? Does the whole piece (not this excerpt) show the pity of war
as well as the imagined glory?
I know for sure that Austin P’s own distinguished composer, Jeffrey
Wood, never “shills for war” in his works on this subject,
even in a song about impending war. The piano motif representing trumpets
that pervades this short song from his Kriegeslieder cycle is not one
that conjures up glories to come, but instead has a quiet, relentlessness
that is edgy and unnerving. The mood is one of unease, not bravado.
Performers: Lisa Conklin Bishop and Dr. Wood.
And now for some live performances. The first excerpt is from a brand
new piece commissioned by Austin Peay that I have just finished.
It will be premiered next Monday night on the Dimensions concert
preview. This short movement was inspired by Paul Klee’s
drawing called “More Will Be Marching Soon,” one
of the artist’s
responses to the growing menace in Germany in 1934. This piece
was written out of dread of the coming war and out of anger that
any young person
should die in a desert far from home. You will hear "Onward Christian
Soldiers" quoted at the end of the introductory section and throughout
the rest of the piece in different voices.
Live Performance: Vercoe, "More Will Be Marching Soon"
Performers: Lisa Vanarsdel, flute, and Patti Halbeck, piano
The next piece is the second of two songs in a group called "Ma
The first song tells of a mother willing a connection to
her daughter imprisoned at Auschwitz by watching a star she
can see and thus sending her thoughts to her. The second
song is the daughter’s,
in which she, too, watches the stars and a line of poetry comes to her
that she can no longer remember when returned home. (You have the text.)
The daughter is named Charlotte in the first poem, the name of the poet,
Charlotte Delbo. Delbo survived Auschwitz but her husband, a member of
the Resistance, was shot in 1942.
Live performance: Wood, "Mois aussi, je regardais les étoiles"
This music you have just heard by people you know and see
every day is just a brief introduction to a large catalog
pieces very well known. Much of this repertoire expresses
the pity of war. So much of the music is in fact anti-war.
Schönberg’s 6-minute cantata, A Survivor from Warsaw (1947),
is one such work which came, like Guernica, from the composer’s
personal emotional connection to the events and his own sense, as a lapsed
Jew, of needing to return to his roots. Schönberg wrote the narrator’s
text in English, saving the German language for the shouts of the sargeant.
The intensity of the atonal musical vocabularly is well-suited to the
intensity of the subject matter and the still remarkable orchestration
that heightens the drama at every turn, from the opening screaming trumpets
and tenor drum to the male chorus that stops us in our tracks when it
enters near the end.
Other pieces striving to communicate the horrors of war
Threnody to the Victims of Hiroshima written in 1960 with the composer’s
trademark multiple divided strings and unusual extended techniques on
the instruments including instructions to play the highest note possible
and to play beyond the bridge of the instrument. Penderecki has also
written a Dies Irae, called the Auchwitz Oratorio.
The Soviets have had their own horrors to record and
commemorate. In 1941 Shostakovich wrote his 7th Symphony
in memory of
the wartime siege
of Leningrad, the same year Prokofiev was writing his
epic grand opera, War and Peace, based on the Tolstoy
that is now
a staple of
the Bolshoi Opera repertory. Shostakovich again commemorated
the war dead— at
some personal risk— in his 13th Symphony setting the politically
explosive poem of the Russian poet Yevtushenko entitled “Babi Yar.” Babi
Yar was a suburb northwest of Kiev where in September of 1941, Jews were
ordered to assemble for supposed “resettlement.” In fact
what happened was that the Nazis marched them to a ravine where they
systematically shot 32,000 men, women and children. Over the next two
years, a total of 100,000 citizens of Kiev as well as POWs were shot
there. This 13th Symphony of Shostakovich was banned by the Soviets for
While some of the works mentioned rage against war and
others are intended primarily as a memorial to the dead,
to war embody
the strenth of the enduring human spirit. Certainly the
end of Schönberg’s
Survivor from Warsaw invites such interpretation when the male chorus
rises up phoenix-like to sing an ancient Hebrew prayer.
But some works are in their totality spiritual in nature.
Such is the case with Messiaen, himself interned in a
he wrote his monumental Quartet for the End of Time under
terrible conditions during a terrible time in human history.
were those at hand: a cello with a missing string, an
out-of-tune piano with keys that stuck, a violin and
a clarinet. Yet
despite the circumstances,
the eight-movement work he produced is one of deep spirituality
and faith, not rage, and Messiaen later said that this
first audience of 5,000 prisoners
was his most attentive and understanding.
In 1992 cellist Vedran Smailovic made his own courageous
stand following a horrific grenade attack on people in
a bread line
in Sarajevo where
22 were killed. Thereafter, in full evening dress, he
went to the spot at 4 pm every afternoon during the siege
played his cello
risk of mortar attacks and machine gun fire. Deeply moved
by the story, composer David Wilde wrote his piece The
here by Yo Yo Ma. I will play just the opening two minutes,
the falling half-step motive on the lowest two notes
of the cello, a motif that returns again and again.
Wilde, The Cellist of Sarajevo (Yo Yo Ma. cello)
In 1988 when the Cold War was winding down but the Soviet
Union was still intact, I was lucky to be part of
a Soviet/American exchange and festival
in Boston. About half a dozen Soviet composers and
as many Bostonians met in private to talk and listen to
each other’s recordings and
later to attend public performances of our music, which in my case included
the Joan of Arc piece commissioned by Austin Peay two years earlier.
One of the composers whose music I particularly admired was Franghiz
Ali-Zadeh, a woman from Baku in Azerbaijan, a war-torn country she has
In 1993 she wrote a piece for the Kronos Quartet
called Murgam Sayagi that draws on her native musical
is not anger and not to memorialize the victims but
rather to search for
She says in 1992: “The Moslem world is under attack today. I quite
openly want to show the cultural traditions of the Moslem people. I want
people to sink into the beauty of a profound new world.”
Another reaction to war, hot or cold, that we haven’t mentioned
yet is satire or irony, a way of making war seem
absurd. This is what Scott Johnson does in his Cold War Suite written
in 1991 to 1993 that uses the voice of I.F. Stone in a lecture given
on National Public Radio
in 1983 for the Ford Hall Forum. Johnson manipulates
the vocal sounds and adds accompaniment of string quartet. I will play
you the final one
short movement from the suite, entitled The Perfect
Weapon. The Perfect Weapon discusses our technological prowess and
where that gets us.
Johnson, The Perfect Weapon from Cold War Suite (Kronos
Whereas I have mostly played music you are not
so likely to know and have simply mentioned the
works on the
like to conclude with an excerpt from perhaps
the best known of all, the Benjamin
Britten War Requiem.
The occasion for the War Requiem was the rededication
of Coventry Cathedral after all damage to it
during the bombing
had been repaired.
1961 was an unstable time: the year of the Bay
of Pigs, the beginning of construction of the
Berlin Wall, and
in Vietnam. Britten, a lifelong pacifist, had
previously planned works
have presaged the War Requiem had they been written.
One was to be an oratorio called Mea culpa following
to be about the Gandhi assasination in 1948.
Neither happened. But, as Michael Steinberg says,
in his opera,
Grimes, in the collision of innocence with wickedness
Britten’s choice of nine poems by the eloquent war poet, Wilfred
Owen, meant that recent, English-language poetry, sung by tenor and baritone,
representing one English and one German soldier, and accompanied by chamber
orchestra, was to be combined with the ancient liturgy of the Requiem which, of course, is in Latin, sung by large mixed chorus and solo soprano
accompanied by full orchestra. In addition there is a boys’ choir
accompanied by organ, the most remote and purest sound. Britten dedicates
the work to four friends who died in the war and quotes Wilfrid Owen
as a preface to the music. He writes: “My subject is War, and the
pity of War./The Poetry is in the pity.../All a poet can do today is
to warn.” Here then is the Lacrimosa for soprano, mixed chorus,
and orchestra in which the drooping lines on the words of weeping and
mourning remind me of Purcell.
Britten, Lacrimosa from War Requiem