It has been over four years since I studied the First World War in any meaningful detail. Apart from a lecture I attended at the LSE on the role of China and Japan in the War, I have given little thought to its significance.
Not thinking about the War is remiss of anyone: its impacts are still being felt today since it irrevocably changed our way of life and paved the way for the Second World War.
Having not given much thought to the intellectual discussions of the War, I instead sat down to listen to Ralph Vaughan Williams’s Pastoral Symphony. The title is misleading since it was written to reflect Williams’s own experiences of the First World War. The music weaves together an image of England before the War and the experiences of its people fighting in France. The First Movement portraying an idyllic, pastoral England with the Second Movement rising with loud horns and brass instruments perhaps conveying the magnitude of the War. The ending of the symphony with the melodic, yet quiet strings and choral accompaniment could be the mixture of relief and sorrow he felt at the closing of the War.
I am not trained in classical music theory and therefore these descriptions are my own personal response to hearing the music. Tom Service’s article in the Guardian on the symphony provides a detailed analysis of the music for anyone interested.
Though I have not read any academic work on the First World War, I did gain an understanding of history through this symphony. All music, art and literature of the period shows the experience of the people who served; this is invaluable to the historian since one can gain from it the knowledge of what people felt during the War.
These feelings are of course relevant to understanding the past since this provides the perspective of those who actually participated in its events. Creative works of the time provide the same insight that letters of the period do, perhaps more so since censorship of music in particular would be an extraordinarily difficult task.
A.J.P. Taylor, on the unrelated topic of ‘dissent in foreign policy’, said that “Our task as historians is to make past conflicts live again; not to lament the verdict or to wish for a different one.” This idea of making history ‘live again’ is important I think to the understanding of history. How can one begin to understand a conflict from only the perspective of hindsight? The perspective that art provides is thus invaluable.
I would like to end this piece with the painting The Last Message by Fortunino Matania. The painting is a work of beauty and shows the deeply emotional scene of the last words of a dying soldier to his comrade. The painting evokes a deep sorrow when viewed, an emotion which was felt by many of those in the trenches. It may not depict a historical event, though no doubt countless accounts bear similarity, but it does encapsulate truths about the period: the loss of a generation being the most important.