It was the end of innocence, the end of a particular world order and the end, more or less, of the time when "classical music", as many think, was written. The first world war ended 100 years ago on Sunday. And even though the United States, which came into conflict late in the game, did not make too much of this anniversary – compared to the intense attention around the 150th anniversary of the Civil War a few years ago – the music world presents the legion Armistice Day concerts.
This includes some of the most significant offers of the Washington area of the season. This weekend, the Washington National Opera is opening "Silent Night", the Pulitzer-winning adaptation Kevin Puts of the 2005 film "Joyeux Noel", on the Christmas truce of 1914, when soldiers in the trenches were laying the arms and sang the songs together. for one night before shooting one another. The National Symphony Orchestra will present the "War Requiem" by Benjamin Britten this month, written to commemorate the end of the Second World War, but setting Wilfred Owen's poems on the first.
Monday, baritone John Brancy and pianist Peter Dugan return with a program called "Armistice: The Journey Home", a follow-up to the 2014 "A Silent Night" program, also based on the Christmas truce, offered for the first time at Vocal Arts DC and since then they have performed all over the world. This weekend, the New Orchestra of Washington (NOW) presents a commemoration of the Armistice Day with the Washington Master Chorale which includes a world premiere of Joseph Turrin; last month, the Cathedral Choral Society offered the premiere of an impressive Requiem that composer Alexander Kastalsky wrote in 1918 to commemorate the millions of fallen soldiers. And this is just a taste of the programs offered by the Thirteen, the Corals and many others.
Classical music loves anniversaries – because, more than any other branch of the arts, it focuses on looking at an increasingly distant past. Classical music is expressed in moments of commemoration and mourning: even the mass audience tends to embrace classical music during a funeral. And classical music, as is commonly thought today, was written mainly in Europe before the end of the First World War, in the part of the world that was most profoundly influenced by the devastating changes of the war, which occurred while classical music was already going through an upheaval. (Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring", the 20th-century watershed, premiered in 1913, a year before the war broke out).
Today, when classical music is eager to reaffirm its relevance to the world at large, this kind of historical presentation appeals to presenters. The question is whether these observances of the Armistice actually demonstrate the relevance of classical music or simply serve to wrap the story in a soundtrack of nostalgia PBS.
An argument for the commemoration of the First World War is the vast literature of the music of the First World War. In 1914, when the war began, classical music was a far more popular language than it is today. The artists and musicians who were struck by the war expressed their thoughts in symphonies and piano works rather than in protest songs. Today, pianist Dugan says "because we are not dealing with the draft, we no longer have much sense of an army made up of writers, composers and musicians, which makes the kind of art that is produced very different". And the commemorative music at that time was much more likely to have traction than today, when a piece like "On Transmigration of Souls", the 2002 John Adams memorial to the September 11 attacks can win the Pulitzer Prize without attracting much popular attention.
Brancy and Dugan's 2014 "Silent Night" program focused on composers who had seen military action, including George Butterworth and Carl Orff. This weekend's NOW program also includes commemorations by Maurice Ravel, who drove a truck into the war and dedicated the movements of his famous "Le tombeau de Couperin" to friends who died during 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 lost three brothers, and Ralph Vaughan Williams, who has seen the action alone.
But to be truly relevant in today's market, many people feel that you need new work and commissioning new compositions on specific historical events is never easy. Too often, we end up with something portentous and pungent, a knockoff of the "Lincoln Portrait" of Copland – as "Remembering JFK (An American Elegy)" by Peter Lieberson, commissioned by the NSO and awarded in 2011, which does not even have the modest half-life that I preached for him at that moment as a ceremonial. If you are writing music on the First World War, do you have the imperative to make music that evokes the twentieth century?
Alejandro Hernandez-Valdez, NOW's artistic director, is happy to program Radiohead in his concert: "Harry Patch (in memory of)" was inspired by a radio interview with the latest living fighting veteran of the triad of the first world war, died in 2009 at the age of 111 years. (The song was orchestrated by Radiohead's cum-class composer, Johnny Greenwood.) But when a composer was chosen for the co-commission, there was a discussion before Turrin was selected, to make sure he found a musical voice that suited. (The song, entitled "And the crimson roses return to be correct", is set on poetry by the writers of the era of the First World War). "He has the right kind of sound," said Hernandez-Valdez. "He writes in a very lyrical, but decidedly contemporary way."
For the same reason, Puts, the "Silent Night" composer, is very much a tonalist, writing music with a cinematic quality. For this work, however, the historical setting gave a dramatic momentum rather than a musical one; he explicitly chose not to use historical musical references in his score, even writing new Christmas songs instead of using familiar ones. It is an interesting decision, given that the work is so imbued with a sense of time and place that it would be practically impossible to update itself to any other historical period. You can create a case for "Rigoletto" in the New York era of Mafia, but it's hard to pretend that this kind of ceasefire, so innocent and naive, may have happened in Vietnam or Iraq.
There is, of course, nothing wrong with using only the music of the past; programmers do all the time And the challenge is, in the microcosm, the same one that deals with the field as a whole: how do you present the past in ways that make it come to life?
For Brancy and Dugan, the answer turned out to be a new model of song recital – "reinventing the way a program is structured," said Dugan, "where all the individual songs and elements combine to create a theme, which often echoes with areas outside of music. "The couple will record the new project due out early next year, after a comprehensive tour – eight cities in 11 days, calculated last week – demonstrating the demonstration of the concept, taking them from their debut at Alice Tully Hall to a performance at the United States Military Academy at West Point. Since their first concert, they have been sponsored by the main World War I memorial organizations in the United States, Great Britain and France. Monday's concert is co-sponsored by the General Delegation of the Flanders Government in the United States.
This kind of extramusical buy-in is a sign that a program has significantly connected with its subject: making people face and reflect on the First World War rather than offering a couple of hours of historicized fantasies about an event that is not profile more in popular imagination. In fact, all the concerts of the First World War should try to connect with the historical realities of time, rather than retreat into the melancholy, nostalgic trope of classical music: mourn the closure of a cultural gate in the 19th century – a door that some purists I'm still fighting to stay open.
Some noteworthy commemorations during the First World War in the Washington area: "Silent Night" runs to the Washington National Opera until November 25th. Gianandrea Noseda will lead the NSO and the Choral Arts Society in the Britten War Requiem from November 29th to December 1st. John Brancy and Peter Dugan will present "Armistice: The Journey Home" at Vocal Arts DC on Monday. The New Orchestra of Washington concert "The end of the war to finish all the wars", which was performed Saturday night, will be repeated on Sunday in New York. The City of Washington Choir offers "Goodbye to Arms" on Sunday. The Washington Choir presents the Requiem of Brahms and the Ballad of Heroes by Britten in the commemoration of the Armistice on November 18th. The ensemble Tapestry presents a commemoration of the Armistice Day at the National Gallery on Sunday.