Composer Casualties

I’m kind of fascinated by the First World War, which I think of as a catastrophe unparalleled for its combination of massive scale and utter pointlessness. I particularly recommend Adam Hochschild’s book To End All Wars, one of the most fascinating history books I’ve ever read; and Stanley Kubrick’s Paths of Glory is a film I can always watch again, as is Paul Gross’s Passchendaele. I’m commemorating the centennial of the war’s inception by listening to music of George Butterworth (1885-1916), who, as far as I know, was the most well-known composer who died fighting in it, leading his men in the Battle of the Somme. Although tomorrow I’ll probably also listen to the lovely Fourth Symphony of Albéric Magnard (1865-1914), who died when his house was burned by German soldiers. I have kind of a thing about works written during that war as well, such as the Concord Sonata, Socrate, and The Planets.



  1. says

    World War I was a watershed in so many ways. (You’ve no doubt read Paul Fussell’s Great War and Modern Memory, which was the book that set me on the trail of all things WWI.) While it’s my better half who had (and has) the longer and deeper knowledge of and fascination with the war, I’m here to say that one of our most memorable vacations included several days in Ypres! Now, how many people can say that, I ask you? Among other things, this resulted in one of a handful of short stories I wrote in a past life that actually found its way to publication. Here’s a link, for reading in all that spare time you have (just kidding): Just last night, I happened on a bit of a BBC Radio 3 program about the plight of Belgian refugees in Wales, of all things. One of the featured composers was Butterworth, another was someone I’d never heard of and whose non-film work appears nearly impossible to find, David Van de Woestijne. (Link is here: Glad to learn of Magnard. OK, last, I promise, but I also took a look just now at the BBC Radio 3 Music and the Great War Playlister here:, and, while Magnard is not on the list, there is a clamor about his omission from it in the comments.

    KG replies: Susan, you’re such a researcher, I should turn my Ives book over to you to finish.

    • says

      Oh, hardly. I dip in and out with little knowledge and less discipline–but it may amuse you to know that I was so intrigued by Ives’s statement, “the old hymn-tune that haunts the church and sings only to those in the churchyard to protect them from secular noises, as when the circus parade comes down Main Street….” that I made a small attempt to find the source for the reference (I have read almost nothing by Hawthorne, a bit of a handicap, I’d say), and that attempt led me here: Will be curious to know if anyone does come up with something on this.

      KG replies: Really, you were looking for that before I asked about it? Our Hawthorne expert at Bard said it rang a bell, which was neither helpful nor reassuring, and no one else has ever offered anything else.

      • says

        Oh, sorry for any confusion, not before you asked, but before I knew you’d asked, in the process of following one of the many interesting trails you noted in another post.

  2. says

    I also loved Hochschild’s book. Incredibly readable and a great story which definitely highlights the utter pointlessness of the war. I didn’t realize that Butterworth and Magnard were casualties. I believe that Enrique Granados was also a victim having died when his ferry was torpedoed by a German U-boat in 1916 in the English Channel.

  3. ctdeupree says

    The BBC is doing a whole series for a couple of weeks on WWI (, lots of music beyond the playlist mentioned above, and from several combatant countries (Britain, France, Germany, Russia). Earlier this week they played symphonies by Ernest John Moeran (wounded), Vaughan Williams (hearing loss from gunfire), William Denis Browne (killed at Gallipoli). Next Monday they’re playing Magnard’s 3rd symphony.

    • Richard Leigh says

      Thanks very much for the reference to Slonimsky. I knew about Magnard’s death, though not all the details. It’s very poignant that the next part of S’s text refers to Alain, perhaps a greater loss even than Magnard. And let’s remember someone who managed to die young with no help from WW1 – Lili Boulanger. I’d better stop there, I think.

  4. says

    Moeran I have read about but never heard. Magnard ‘s name too is familiar .In our age isn’t it amazing we can run to youtube(i know it’s more dignified to walk but I’m too curious for that!) and hear almost anything ever recorded?- and too a great deal exists uploaded by amateurs that hasn’t been commercially recorded ! What a feast! I used to buy records of any unknown composer I came across with high hopes! Some of that joy of discovery is gone but only slightly! Now I don’t have to even leave home. This next 50 years (if our species lasts ) will bring more amazing composers than ever before because of the ease of access. We live in truly amazing times Youtube and the Gutenberg Project are answers to scholarly prayers long ago uttered!

  5. Richard Leigh says

    Couldn’t agree more about Magnard – a marvellous composer. Years ago, I owned a set of three LPs on Erato, a collection of Jean Doyen’s recordings of a number of (supposedly) minor French composers. Magnard;s suite “Promenades” was my favourite piece in the set, and doesn’t appear to have been recorded elsewhere. I’d also like to put in a plug for Cecil Coles, who died in WW1 and would be totally forgotten but for Chandos, who issue a whole CD of his music, some of which is really worth hearing.
    As for Fussell’s book – it’s interesting, but he completely misses the point in his discussion of David Jones, whose “In Parenthesis” is one of the greatest books to come out of the war.