Last week, three local organizations presented a round-table panel that provided an enlightening and engaging discussion and performance surrounding three composers from the World War I era.
On Wednesday evening, the National World War I Museum at the Liberty Memorial was the site of a unique presentation where historical commentary, musical analysis, and performance intersected. Sounds from an Unsettled World offered attendees the chance to sit in on a discussion about how early twentieth century musicians perceived and might then have responded to their environment. How was the compositional process impacted by the advent and realization of the First World War and all of the related unrest, sacrifice, and grief?
This event was brilliantly conceived and executed via an exciting partnership among the WWI Museum, The Friends of Chamber Music, and the UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance. As a professor, I consistently point to collaboration as one key to success for twenty-first century artists. That said, I am grateful for this project as a tangible example of exactly what we try to relate to young students: that much is to be gained from this kind of alliance, not the least of which is fresh perspective on the past and present.
A charming “living room” feel was conveyed (complete with wine and snacks on a coffee table), an attractive format for this sold-out event. Matt Naylor, president/CEO of the National World War I Museum, set a casual tone with introductory remarks that related prevalent themes to orient the discussion, themes that perhaps naturally shape any meaningful conversation about World War I: globalization, awareness of difference, and nationalistic sentiment. The conversation was focused further toward a clarification of how social and political currents very specifically influenced composers, suggestive that world events manifested in the minds and processes of the featured three artists as intimate suffering and naïve hope.
Music of the past offers later listeners enough gray area to enjoy some latitude in the arts of investigation and interpretation. With that often comes the freedom to insert oneself (and personal filters and conditioning) into the convoluted process that is determining composer intention. This evening was about musing and wondering where we do not necessarily have definitive answers about the “why” of a particular melodic or formal decision. The audience took away that where composer intention can be elusive, historical, political, and social detail can fill in many blanks.
The discourse was anchored in the idea that all art is expression, and that “composers respond in different ways to their world.” Music is, though, a most abstract artistic medium, so while a composition might provide a platform from which a composer could shout his political or social ideologies, he also could manage to protect himself somewhat under the veil of musical properties that are not so easily translated into concrete ideas. What does a jagged melodic shape, biting harmonic clash, or disjointed rhythmic gesture really mean? Musicologists Andrew Granade and Bill Everett handily fielded those inquiries across three distinct case studies: Stravinsky, Schulhoff, and Elgar.
The round-table talk was enhanced by the Ariel Quartet’s and pianist Alon Goldstein’s performances of pieces that book-ended the war, originating from 1914 to 1919, while historian Lynda Payne, UMKC Department of History, admirably humanized each composer. The point was to survey turns in each composer’s life and then hear how musical ideas ricocheted off of personal and political episodes evolving across the ever-changing landscape that was the WWI era. We learned something about Schulhoff’s ideology and attitude and about his time spent fighting on the Eastern front. We heard about Stravinsky’s departure from his home country of Russia and then about his musical style as war events impacted his life and thought. Granade described the time as an era of possibility, where artists took advantage of the rather unscripted modern world reality to be bold—to draw their own defining lines in terms of genre and style. Payne expanded on that by offering her take on Stravinsky’s pre-war experiences, including his years in Switzerland, where he was displaced, likely nostalgic for home, and maybe even hungry thanks to widespread food shortages.
The Quartet then played excerpts from Stravinsky’s Three Pieces for String Quartet to demonstrate the more austere and intimate creative place from which the composer was working once the war began. This marked a stark departure from just one year prior when his boisterous, colorful outburst that was The Rite of Spring premiered in Paris. The Ariel Quartet, of course, rendered every melodic line and phrase sensitively and with beautiful nuance.
For Elgar, an intriguing aspect was the notion of home front: How did a composer navigate that obligatory sense of duty toward patriotism and how could he contribute to the war effort from home? Elgar was not comfortable making overtly patriotic statements, perhaps a sign of his indecision about how to best commemorate the war in art. He seemingly could not decide whether to celebrate and memorialize or move on and try to forget. Everett concludes that Elgar struggled so much with this that it caused him some amount of creative paralysis.
Throughout the discussion, the panel did a brilliant job of remembering they were in mixed company, keeping the musical and historical analytics on a basic (but not mundane) plane and drawing connections across disciplines and subjects so that there was always something for everyone. It was fascinating to survey contrasting composers—from such different backgrounds, regions, and training—and get in touch with the common ground that they actually shared. Each faced specific tensions and pressures, and clearly that informed their compositional choices (although perhaps in what exact ways we will never know).
Those in attendance are better off for having wondered how each composer navigated his time, communicated ideas to his very different publics, and hopefully satisfied himself in some small manner along the way. As a music historian, I already knew that history is dynamic, instructive, and anything but dull. However, this well-developed topic, handled by engaging panelists and performers, reinforced something much more important: That this not-so-distant past deserves our close attention, and it should be surveyed on multiple platforms (political, social, historical, and cultural). Only then can we hope to arrive at a more accurate and comprehensive understanding.
Friends of Chamber Music, UMKC Conservatory of Music and Dance
and the National WWI Museum
Sounds from an Unsettled World, 1914-19
Wednesday, January 28, 2015
National World War I Museum at Liberty Memorial
100 West 26th St, Kansas City, MO
For more information, visit https://theworldwar.org/