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1917: A year in music

As the slaughter of the Great War intensified, and certainties that had preceded the conflict faded away, an imaginative and rebellious spirit emerged. SOPHIA DEBOICK looks back on a year when the world hung in the ​balance

The First World War changed Europe’s soul. Old notions of sacrifice and patriotism were smashed by the realities of mechanised war at the beginning of a century of dramatically accelerated technological progress.

The musical response to the conflict ranged from the entrenchment of jingoistic fervour at the beginning of the conflict to the explosion of new musical paradigms as it entered it final stages, and 1917 proved a crucial year for European and American culture, even as its societies tore themselves apart.

1917 saw an escalation of the war to end all wars.

The US declared war on Germany and finally entered the conflict in April. In June the Luftstreitkräfte began daylight bombing raids on Britain and anti-German feeling intensified, precipitating the royal family relinquishing the name Saxe-Coburg-Gotha for Windsor.

The same month, the detonation of mines under the German lines during the Battle of Messines killed 10,000 in the most lethal explosion in human history until Hiroshima. The Battle of Passchendaele, begun at the end of July, saw 105 days of butchery, with losses of over a quarter of a million each on the British and German sides.

Many drowned in the unspeakable quagmire created by unprecedented rainfall. The following year, Siegfried Sassoon would write in his poem Memorial Tablet ‘I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele)’, and the name of this small Belgian village became a byword for the horrors of the war, just as the 12,000 graves of nearby Tyne Cot Cemetery became shorthand for the incomprehensible scale of the killing.

Europe’s composers took up the challenge of responding to the self-inflicted horror engulfing the continent. Ravel, who served as a driver on the Verdun front, finished Le tombeau de Couperin in 1917, each of its six movements dedicated to a friend he lost at war.

Holst, who volunteered on the continent with demobilising troops, had already finished The Planets, which was awaiting its 1918 premiere. The opening movement, Mars, the Bringer of War, with its staccato strings and booming percussion, was the sound of battle itself, but ironically Jupiter, the fourth movement, would become the musical setting for the flag-waving I Vow to Thee, My Country.

Written in 1921 by diplomat Sir Cecil Spring Rice, who had been instrumental in the US dropping the policy of neutrality in 1917, the song showed that military martyrdom was not a concept entirely banished by a war that had, in the song’s words ‘la[id] upon the altar the dearest and the best’, eulogising ‘The love that never falters, the love that pays the price/ The love that makes undaunted the final sacrifice’.

At the beginning of the war, popular song had also focussed on patriotism, boosting morale and creating a unified national mood. Ivor Novello, who spent the war doing clerical duties in the Royal Naval Air Service after crashing two planes during flight training, wrote Keep the Home Fires Burning (‘Till the Boys Come Home), which made clear the moral imperative of joining up: ‘For no gallant son of Freedom/ To a tyrant’s yoke should bend/ And a noble heart must answer/ To the sacred call of ‘Friend’.’

Such songs disappeared by the beginning of 1915, when the pacifist song I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier sold 650,000 sheet music copies in three months in the US, as many ordinary Americans supported the policy of isolationism and staying out of the European debacle.

The spirit of Novello’s song was revived as the US revved up for war. Nora Bayes made Over There a hit in 1917, the song’s call to ‘Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit’ making it a clear recruiting song.

Bring Back My Daddy To Me, released by child star Madge Evans in 1917, was less an anti-war song than a popular hit that used the theme of the war to give it sentimental clout.

While, in the enduring age of music hall, standards like It’s a Long Way to Tipperary (which pre-dated the war) and Pack Up Your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag were sung rousingly at home, the songs that emerged from the trenches themselves were very different in sentiment, even if they took up the music hall tradition of putting an ironically humorous spin on the sufferings of life.

Often crude and bitter, the soldiers’ songs took aim at the officer class and ‘The politicians drinking brandy at the House of Commons bar’ as much as the foreign enemy and engaged in gallows humour, even going as far as hailing ‘The whole battalion hanging on the old barbed wire’.

As men from across the western world killed each other in defiance of reason, in New York the sound of modernity was being born. Ragtime finally became labelled as jazz, or, at first, ‘jass’ and the first record of the genre was released by the Victor Talking Machine Company in March.

The Original Dixieland Jass Band, a white five piece from New Orleans, had benefitted from Al Jolson putting a good word in with an agent, and recorded Livery Stable Blues and Dixie Jass Band One-Step. They would make the first recording of the jazz standard Tiger Rag in August 1917, later to be covered by everyone from Sinatra to the Beatles, and the year was characterised by the jazz craze.

Vocal duo Collins and Harlan added further impetus to the jazz fad when they released That Funny Jas Band From Dixieland on Edison wax cylinder in April and as a phonograph record in July.

Collins would go on to make several solo records with ‘Jazz’, ‘Jass’ or ‘Jas’ in the title that year, and countless artists adopted this fashionable term, whether their music had the slightly insalubrious feel of emergent jazz or not.

Meanwhile, the first jazz recordings made by African American musicians were being made. Wilbur Sweatman and his Jass Band recorded seven instrumentals for Pathé in April 1917 which, although predominantly ragtime, nonetheless contained ‘jazzy’ elements that Sweatman would make more pronounced in the coming years.

Jazz was the sound of an individualism and hedonism that would stand in stark opposition to the ideas of deference and unquestioned service that had seen the war initially greeted with enthusiasm.

In 1917, art too would strike a tone of defiance. The second Dada manifesto was written, this iconoclastic movement being a reaction against the bourgeois, nationalistic values that the artistic avant-garde felt had made the war possible, and its eponymous art and literature periodical began publication in July.

Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, an upturned urinal, had been submitted to the Society of Independent Artists exhibition in New York in April and would become the most famous Dadaist artwork ever produced. Picasso, living in Avignon and exempt from war service as a Spanish citizen, designed Cubist sets and costumes for the Ballets Russes production of Parade, written by Jean Cocteau with music by Erik Satie, in this year (fellow Cubist pioneer Georges Braque had already sustained a severe head injury fighting in France which left him temporarily blind), and Europe was proving that its imaginative and rebellious spirit had not been cowed by three years of war.

This was also a year in which notable writers, poets and artists who had experienced the war first hand would produce work that came to define the conflict in the public imagination. In June, an 18-year-old Erich Maria Remarque was mobilised, his experiences later inspiring Im Westen nichts Neues (‘All Quiet on the Western Front’), and in August Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon met at Craiglockhart War Hospital in Edinburgh.

Sassoon, sent to Craiglockhart after he had written his Soldier’s Declaration denouncing the war in July, encouraged Owen as he wrote Anthem for Doomed Youth and his graphic gas attack poem, Dulce et Decorum est.

Paul Nash arrived on the Western Front in this year and, after being injured and shipped out, returned in the autumn as an official war artist. His shattered landscape We are Making a New World (1918) would come to stand for the nihilism of the war.

In the face of such devastation and loss of certainty, the old enchantments of the pre-war world intensified for some. The first two photographs of the ‘Cottingley Fairies’ were taken by two young Yorkshire girls in mid-1917, later to be publicised by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.

He gave his first lecture on spiritualism the same year, and a craze for séances and all things ghostly swept Europe and America as families tried to make contact with their war dead.

Harry Houdini showed that even in the face of mechanised war magical skills were not redundant, giving soldiers lessons in escapology in case they fell into enemy hands and gifting the patent to the quick-release diving suit he had invented for one of his escape tricks to the US Navy.

For all the profound effects the First World War had, two other events of 1917 would also have far-reaching consequences for the 20th century and beyond.

The October Revolution, which saw Rachmaninov flee to Helsinki by sledge and Prokofiev go to the US, saying Russia ‘had no use for music at the moment’, would be the start of decades of division on the continent of Europe and a Cold War that lasted half a century.

When Ernest Rutherford split the atom at the University of Manchester, the march towards the atomic bomb began. But the conflict had changed the definition of war, sacrifice and heroism forever, and it was a change played out in the era’s music.

Dr Sophia L Deboick is a historian of popular culture. Follow her @SophiaDeboick

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