It was the end of innocence, the end of a certain world order and the end, more or less, of the time that classical music, as many people think about it, is written. The First World War ended 100 years ago on Sunday. And although the United States, who entered the conflict late in the game, did not make too much of this anniversary – compared to the intense focus around the 150th anniversary of the Civil War a few years ago – the music world presents legion truce concerts.
This includes some of the most significant offers in the Washington area of the season. This weekend the National Opera of Washington opens "Silent Night", the Pulitzer Prize-winning adaptation of the film "Joyeux Noel" from 2005, about the Christmas stock of 1914, when soldiers in the trenches laid down their arms and sang Christmas carols together for one night. before they start shooting again. The National Symphony Orchestra presents this month the "War Request" by Benjamin Britten, written to commemorate the end of the Second World War, but poems by Wilfred Owen about the first.
On Monday, baritone John Brancy and pianist Peter Dugan return with the program Armistice: The Journey Home & # 39 ;, a sequel to the 2014 program & # 39; A Silent Night & # 39 ;, also based on the Christmas Truce , which they offered for the first time at Vocal Arts DC and have since played around the world. This weekend the New Orchestra of Washington (NOW) presents a ceasefire commemoration with the Washington Master Chorale, with a world premiere of Joseph Turrin; Last month, the Koorvereniging Cathedral presented the premiere of a massive Requiem that the composer Alexander Kastalsky wrote in 1918 to commemorate the millions of fallen soldiers. And that is just a sampling of the programs offered by the Thirteen, Choralis and many others.
Classical music loves birthdays – because it is more than any other branch of art that focuses on looking at an ever-distant past. Classical music comes into its own in times of remembrance and mourning: even the mass audience inclines to classical music during a funeral. And classical music, as is often thought nowadays, was largely written in Europe before the First World War ended – in the part of the world that was most affected by the devastating changes of the war that took place when classical music was already underway was by a revolution. (Stravinsky & Rite of Spring & # 39 ;, That 20th Century Divide, had its premiere in 1913, a year before the war broke out.)
Today, when classical music wants to confirm its relevance to the world in general, this kind of historical presentation appeals to speakers. The question is whether these cease-fire views actually prove the relevance of classical music or simply serve to process history in a PBS soundtrack of nostalgia.
An argument for commemorations from the First World War is the extensive literature on the music from the First World War. In 1914, when the war began, classical music was a much more popular idiom than it is now. The artists and musicians affected by the war expressed their thoughts in symphonies and piano works instead of in protest songs. Nowadays the pianist Dugan says: "Because we do not have to deal with the design, we do not have much more of an army consisting of writers and composers and musicians, which gives a very different feeling in terms of the kind of art that is produced. . "And at that time, commemorative music was more likely to be traction than it is now, when a piece like" On the Transmigration of Souls, "The John Adams Memorial in 2002 for the 9/11 attacks, the Pulitzer Prize can win without attracting much attention from the public.
Brancy and Dugan's 2014 "Silent Night" program focused on composers who had seen military action, including George Butterworth and Carl Orff. The NOW program includes this weekend also commemorations of Maurice Ravel, who drove a truck during the war and dedicated the movements of his famous "Le tombeau de Couperin" to friends who died in the First World War; and Gustav Holst, who was rejected as unfit for military service and who wrote his "Ode to death" in memory of friends who had died. The City Choir of Washington offers works by Gerald Finzi, who has lost three brothers and sisters, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who saw action.
But to be truly relevant in today's market, many people feel that you need new work and it is never easy to invoke new compositions about specific historical events. Too often you get something ominous and pompous, a knock-off from Copland's "Lincoln Portrait" – like Peter Lieberson's "Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)", commissioned by the NSO and went premiered in 2011, that does not even have the modest half-life that I predicted as a ceremonial catchall at the time. If you write music about the First World War, do you have an obligation to make music that evokes the beginning of the 20th century?
Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, artistic director of NOW, is happy to program Radiohead at his concert: "Harry Patch (in memory)" was inspired by a radio interview with the last living veteran from the trenches of the First World War, who died in 2009 at the age of 111. (The song was orchestrated by Radiohead member-cum-classical composer, Johnny Greenwood.) But when it came to selecting a composer for the co-committee, there was some discussion before Turrin was selected , to make sure she found a musical voice that suited. (The piece, called "And Crimson Roses Once Again Be Fair", is set to poetry from World War I era writers.) "He has the right sound," Hernandez-Valdez said. "He writes in a very lyrical way, but absolutely contemporary."
In the same way, Puts, the composer of the "Silent Night", is a frequently used tonalist who writes music with a cinematic quality. For this opera, however, the historical setting gave a dramatic rather than a musical impulse; he explicitly chose not to include historical music references in his score, not even to write new Christmas songs instead of using well-known Christmas songs. It is an interesting decision, since the opera is so drenched with a sense of time and place that it would be virtually impossible to update to another historical period. You can argue for "Rigoletto" in the New York Mafia era, but it is difficult to pretend that this ceasefire could have happened so innocently and naively in Vietnam or Iraq.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with only music from the past; programmers always do it. And the challenge, in the microcosm, is the same that meets the field as a whole: how do you present the past in ways that bring it to life?
For Brancy and Dugan, the answer turned out to be a new model of song recital – "re-inventing the way a program is structured," said Dugan, "where all individual songs and elements come together to create one theme that often resonates with areas outside the music. "The couple will record the new project next year after the release, after an exhausting tour – eight cities in 11 days, they calculated last week – demonstrating proof of concept, they brought from their debut at Alice Tully Hall to a performance at the American military academy at West Point. Since their first concert they have been sponsored by the leading commemorative organizations from the First World War in the United States, Great Britain and France. The concert of Monday is co-sponsored by the General Delegation of the Flemish Government to the United States.
This form of extramusical buy-in is a sign that a program is meaningfully connected with its subject: to confront people and to think about the First World War instead of simply offering a few hours of histo- ried revelation about an event that no longer imposes in the popular imagination. Indeed, all World War I concerts must try to connect with the historical reality of that time, instead of retreating into the melancholy, nostalgic classical music world: mourning the closing of a cultural door in the 19th century – a door that some purists are still fighting to stay open.
A few remarkable commemorations from the First World War in the vicinity of Washington: "Silent Night" runs until November 25 in the National Opera of Washington. Gianandrea Noseda will lead the NSO and Choral Arts Society in the War Requiem of Britons from November 29 to December 1. . John Brancy and Peter Dugan present "Armistice: The Journey Home" at Vocal Arts DC on Monday. The "End of the War to End All Wars" concert of the New Orchestra of Washington, which was performed on Saturday night, will be repeated in New York on Sunday. The City Choir of Washington offers "A Farewell to Arms" on Sunday. The Washington Chorus presents the Brahms Requiem and Britten's Ballad of Heroes in the commemoration of the Armistice on 18 November. The Tapestry ensemble presents a commemoration of the Armistice Day in the National Gallery on Sunday.