Musicians in the war

What would the history of music have looked like if Archduke Franz Ferdinand had not been shot dead on June 28, 1914? What wealth of music was stolen from us because composers fell "on the field of honour" in the Great War, and with them al compositions they still had in them? These questions cannot be answered, no matter how haunting and probing they are.

The French composer Albéric Magnard (1865-1914) was murdered on September 3, 1914, by German lancers while defending his mansion in Baron (Oise). His body was burnt in his house and charred together with a unique series of music manuscripts. Music that was never to be heard again. The German composer Rudi Stephan (1887 - 1915) was on the threshold of recognition when, albeit with serious reservations about the war, he joined the army as a volunteer. He started his military training in March 1915, was sent to the eastern front in September, and fell after two weeks. His first music drama, 'Die ersten Menschen', had just been finished. And what would Enrique Granados (1867-1916) have composed if he had not been drowned on March 24, 1916, returning from the US? After his ship, the SS Sussex, had been torpedoed in the Channel he managed to hoist himself on a lifeboat, but when he tried to save his wife, both of them perished. A few months later, on August 5, 1916, the English composer George Butterworth (1885-1916) received a lethal bullet in Pozières, one of the bloodiest battlefields at the Somme. Butterworth left behind a small, but invaluable oeuvre, promising more and better. His compatriot Ernest Farrar (1885-1918), composer of some pastoral works for orchestra, fine songs and organ music, was sent to the front only in the summer of 1918; even so, he fell after only a couple of days.

The Walloon composer Georges Antoine (1892-1918) miraculously survived his first months in the Yser trenches, but became so ill, due to the precarious war conditions, that he was discharged from the army. In reduced circumstances he composed in France a series of exceptionally interesting compositions, among them a piano quartet praised by Vincent d'Indy. Despite his poor health he joined the army again in the summer of 1918, but succumbed to high fever two days after the armistice. While dreaming of participating in the "Prix de Rome" competition for composers...

The young Flemish composer André Devaere (1890-1914) intended to compete for that prestigious state prize, too. Concurrently he prepared himself for international piano competitions. Until the Great War decided otherwise. On May 17, 1914, Devaere still played Bach, Beethoven and Schumann in his native city Kortrijk on what was to be his last piano recital, but a few months later he was already totally immersed in the horrors of a gruesome trench warfare. For Devaere's vulnerable artist's soul the shock must have been terrible. To his father he writes the nearly prophetic words: "Never was I acquainted with misery, now I am steeped in it. I will no doubt be totally swallowed by it until, exiled, abandoned, the Belgian army will have lost one more gun! Let Fate run its course...". On November 10, 1914, he is mortally wounded at the Yser, four days later he dies as a consequence of a shot in the lungs. Only twenty-four, and at the beginning of what promised to become a splendid double career, as a pianist as well as a composer. From reminiscences and reviews we gather that he was an excellent pianist, and moreover a musician who was close to contemporary French impressionistic music. Also as a composer young Devaere showed great ability. The subdued, doleful song 'La flûte amère de l'automne' and his organ composition 'in memoriam' for his teacher Edgar Tinel (1854-1912) - perhaps his very last composition - justified great expectations. How many embryonic compositions did he still carry with him when he abruptly perished in the mud of the Yser plain?


                                                                                                                                       Jan Dewilde

                                                                                                    (translation: Joris Duytschaever)


André Devaere vzw