Frieder Reininghaus: Accompanied by Music

Music has always functioned as an important accompaniment to war and peace. It can be appropriated for war preparation and propaganda, and it can be used in a more or less purposeful way to whip up the will to win at the front and even more so behind the frontlines. Quite often, music has urged people to persevere or served to boost morale, make sacrifices seem more bearable, placate and console. It is an economic sector of continuing significance.

Even more openly than today, this was true at the beginning of the 20th century. At the time, the military as well as military music were a regular feature of everyday life. Soldiers’ and war songs could be found in the repertoires of students and most choir groups (and even many concert programs), increasing in numbers and rising to patriotic crescendo in 1914.

Most artists and intellectuals in Europe’s many “fatherlands” felt the pressure to take sides: Right at the beginning of the war, 93 renowned German professors, writers, artists, and musicians—including Engelbert Humperdinck, Siegfried Wagner, Felix von Weingartner, Gerhart Hauptmann, Max Planck, Wilhelm Röntgen, Max Klinger, Max Liebermann, and Franz von Stuck—signed an appeal “To the Civilized World!” The declaration was a much-noticed “protest ... against the lies and calumnies with which our enemies are endeavoring to stain the honor of Germany in her hard struggle for existence—in a struggle that has been forced on her.” With the patriotic propaganda machine shifting into high gear following Germany’ invasion of neutral Belgium, the pro-war artists claimed: “It is not true that Germany is guilty of having caused this war. Neither the people, the Government, nor the Kaiser, wanted war. Germany did her utmost to prevent it ... It is not true that the life and property of a single Belgian citizen was injured by our soldiers without the bitterest defense having made it necessary.”

In 2012, the University of Osnabrück hosted a conference on music in the context of the First World War. This was a welcome novelty, as the topic, with a few exceptions, had been largely ignored until then. Edited by Stefan Hanheide and colleagues, the conference volume, Musik bezieht Stellung, describes several, basically well-known manifestations of how music was instrumentalized for war propaganda around 1914. The gathered essays investigate the “image of the hero” in operas as well as in rural and urban popular music. They elaborate on the functions and repertoires of military bands, soldiers’ and war songs from different Western countries, as well as on the pathetic pro-war attitude of the musical avantgarde. Arnold Schönberg, Alban Berg, and Anton Webern were no exceptions. The pro-war enthusiasm of the Italian futurists and the Russian exponents of new music—foremost among them Alexander Skriabin—is legendary.

In 1914, Max Reger contributed an Overture for the Fatherland in F major for Large Orchestra, the then much respected Max Bruch composed a Hero Celebration for Choir and Orchestra op. 89, Victor Hollaender wrote Volunteers to the Front!, a “popular piece with music” for Leipzig, and Engelbert Humperdinck’s light operaThe Canteen Woman premiered in Cologne. Much was going on at the regional level. In the Oldenburg area, for example, a certain Johannes Theimer felt that his hour had come and composed a Patriotic Tone Picture with Battle Music, and his colleague Georg Kunoth gave a “hip, hip, hip, hooray” with his Imperial March and German National Song op. 24. Truly representative for the year 1914, these kinds of works have, however, disappeared into the black hole of forgotten music. Richard Strauss, the market leader of German-Austrian music, voiced his patriotic zest and fervor at the beginning of the war yet kept any public professions out of his work in order not to hurt its international sales. A particularly “noble” form of patriotism! Protestant hymns especially were enlisted for the war effort and are thus particularly well-suited for illustrating the historical contamination. The Catholic Church, for evident reasons of its internationalism, could not side with either of the warring blocs.

While it is laudable that semiofficial musicology has finally discovered the topic (albeit significantly lagging behind some early left scholarship and publications in the 1970s), it is equally striking that there is no closer examination of how the causes of war also shine through in the lyrics and of how the war aims were covered up, disguised, and drowned out by the music. In 1914, the declaration that “the world shall be healed by the German spirit” was propagated also and especially by music. Around 1914, coming out against the war proved to be a rather uncomfortable position. Ferruccio Busoni and Charles Marie Widor (1844–1937, Albert Schweitzer and Ernst Bloch distinguished themselves as opponents of war, as did the French songwriter Montéhus (Gaston Mordechai Brunswick). The young Hanns Eisler mutated in the field and the military hospital from a Wagnerian to a proponent of Neue Sachlichkeit and music’s social engagement.

For more detailed information on the topic from different European perspectives, see volume 1/2014 of Österreichische Musikzeitschrift (ÖMZ) entitled “1914 – Vor dem Stahlbad.”
Frieder Reininghaus is a music scientist, journalist and the publisher of the Austrian Music Journal among others.
ÖMZ 1/2014: 1914 - Vor dem Stahlbad