Outbreak of the war
End of the war

Composers’ Fates: War, Death and the Longing for Peace and Overcoming Memories

Even if they were only a tiny minority: the fact that many artistic talents did not live to see the end of the war, because they died on the battlefield, is one that is mostly suppressed. This is particularly true of music. There were others who overcame their wartime experiences in their compositions.

Who has heard of Rudi Stephan (1887–1915), one of the greatest musical hopes in pre-war Germany? He was killed at the age of twenty-eight, a few days after he had arrived at the eastern front in Galicia. The musical material he left was destroyed in 1945 as an effect of the war.

Albéric Magnard (1865–1914), whom many people call the ‘French Bruckner’, died on 3 September 1914, when German soldiers forced their way into his chateau in Baron in Picardy in northern France and, after he had shot at them, set fire to it. He was burned to death and with him the autograph manuscripts of two operas and a song cycle were destroyed.
The Spanish composer Enrique Granados (1867–1916), well-known for his piano suite Goyescas, died in 1916 when the cross-Channel ferry Sussex was torpedoed by a German U-boat in the English Channel. He drowned trying to save his wife from the sea.

Cecil Cole, a Scottish composer born in 1888, was killed by a German soldier in 1918 while attempting to rescue wounded men. He had also continued to compose during the war and had sent the manuscripts to his friend Gustav Holst. Holst, also a composer, survived the war, having been turned down for military service.

Like Holst and Cole, George Butterworth was also a highly talented composer (of the song cycle A Shropshire Lad (1911-12)) and a collector of English folk songs. He fell near Pozières during the Battle of the Somme in 1916, aged 31. His body has never been found. Few of his works have been preserved; he destroyed many of them before he went to the front. Other musicians were luckier: in Austria-Hungary Bela Bartók, Zoltán Kodaly and Bernhard Paumgartner worked far from the front for the Imperial and Royal War Ministry. Walter Braunfels, who composed the opera Die Vögel (The Birds), survived the war as a soldier at the front. His experience of the war turned him into a religious person. The Czech composer Viktor Ullmann, who in the next great war – before being murdered in Auschwitz – wrote the opera Der Kaiser von Atlantis (The Emperor of Atlantis) in the concentration camp at Theresienstadt and set to music Georg Trakl’s poem Herbst (Autumn), survived the First World War as an artillery observer on the Isonzo front.   

After the war Ralph Vaughan Williams, a close friend of Butterworth, wrote a wonderfully lyrical symphony, his third, which he called A Pastoral Symphony and in which he tried to ‘restore’ – in musical form, as it were – the soil of the western front which had been wrenched open and abused by the senseless slaughter. ‘It is really a war symphony,’ he later wrote to his wife. The plan to compose the work dates back to the year 1916, when Vaughan Williams himself experienced the battles as a soldier in the British army in the north of France.

Translation: Leigh Bailey


The Life of Ralph Vaughan Williams, in: Ralph Vaughan Williams Society. Unter: (20.06.2014)

Perret, Simon-Pierre/Halbreich, Harry: Albérìc Magnard, Paris 2001

Willaschek, Wolfgang: Leben und Werk Rudi Stephans. Unter: (20.06.2014)

Tonaufnahme "3. Symphonie, 3. Satz (Pastoral Symphony)" Ralph Vaughan Williams. Unter: (20.06.2014)

Contents related to this chapter


  • Aspect

    Violence in war

    Violence was a universal social phenomenon during the First World War. Soldiers, civilians, men, women, children and old persons were all confronted by it in one form or another. The way it was experienced differed. It was practised and suffered, it had mental and physical manifestations, it took place at a structural and an individual level, and it was felt directly and indirectly.

  • Aspect

    War and art

    Many artists, intellectuals and writers welcomed the outbreak of the First World War. They saw it not as an apocalypse but as the opportunity for a change for the better. As such they joined in the patriotic fervour of the first weeks and months of the war. What motivated them not only to devote their artistic energies to the fatherland but also to take an active part in the fighting? How were anti-war sentiments articulated by artists? What other forms of relationship were there between art and warfare during and after the First World War?

Persons, Objects & Events

  • Object

    The role of the intellectual in the war

    The year 1914 brought about an incisive change in their private and professional lives of many intellectuals. Formerly international intellectual and artist circles collapsed, many intellectuals entered the war, voluntarily or not, and many of them failed to return.