Music in the War

Humanity creates music around and for all great events, and the First World War was no exception. There are three main groups of music associated with the war, Classical Music, Music Hall and Marching Songs.

Classical Music

© IWM Art 2989. christmas night, cassel, 1917.

Much of the ‘classical’ genre was written after the war. The most modern, and probably the best-known, is the War Requiem by Benjamin Britten.  Written in 1961, this masterpiece was influenced by the poems of Wilfred Owen!

Some First World War poems have been set to music as songs.  A very famous example inspired by the events of the First World War was Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto. Ivor Gurney, a student of the Royal College of Music, is also famous for composing music during the War. Ivor’s piece Severn Meadows was inspired by his time as a private serving with the Gloucestershire Regiment. Initially rejected due to his poor eyesight, Ivor joined the 2nd and 5th Gloucestershire Regiment in 1915. He was injured in April 1917, and suffered from a gas attack in September of the same year and subsequently sent home. Ivor had a history of mental illness which affected him severely in the post-war years; he continued to write poetry and compose music during this time.  

Severn Meadows – Ivor Gurney (1890-1937)

Only the wanderer 

Knows England's graces, 

Or can anew see clear 

Familiar faces. 

And who loves joy as he 

That dwells in shadows? 

Do not forget me quite, 

O Severn meadows

Music Hall

The main form of entertainment during the War was Music Hall. It was a live show in front of a live audience, and the performers were the stars and celebrities of the day. These songs were for a civilian audience so they were often cheery, optimistic and sentimental.  One of the most famous examples being, ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’. The songs had to be optimistic, if they told the truth about the suffering of the soldiers the Government would have banned them immediately! Yet these songs are remembered as symbolising the feelings of ordinary people at home during the War. However they were often rejected by the soldiers at the front, who used the tunes of the popular music hall songs but invented their own, often very rude, words. One example is the famous song ‘It’s A Long Way To Tipperary’, with the first line, ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary, It’s a long way to go’. If you heard it at all in the front line, it would have been turned into, ‘That’s not the way to tickle Mary, that’s not how you go…’ The people at home were comforted by the cheerful music hall songs, and rarely, if ever, heard the rude versions sung by the soldiers!

Marching Songs 

In 1914-1918, a soldier got to places by walking – except groups of soldiers do not walk to places. They march, in unison, together. Singing together as a group helped the men keep time and beat out a rhythm for them to march to. Unfortunately, most of the marching songs were too rude to reproduce here!

© IWM ART 5188 by gertrude leese

Soldiers, sailors, and airman used ‘soldier songs’ to strengthen morale and bond together in the face of the bleak life at war. Much of the light verse or songs sung by them did not focus on blood and guts. They had enough of that in reality, and didn't need to be reminded. 'Their' music/songs were not only functional (marching songs do actually help you to march) but they also boosted morale of the soldiers!