There are many compositions dealing with the horrors of World War II. Some of them, like Penderecki’s Threnody for the Victims of Hiroshima, have little to do with the war–Penderecki changed the original title of the work from 8:37 after hearing its first performance. Others, like Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, achieved notoriety during the war, but their status in the repertory is still debated. (I can’t stand the Seventh, but find his Eighth Symphony one of the most moving works to arise from the war).

Then there is that genre unto itself, the Holocaust piece. An Israeli colleague of mine once solemnly claimed that if an Israeli wrote a piece about the Jewish Holocaust, they would get a performance by an Israeli orchestra. No joke–he had composed such a work and had a tape of said performance.

There is a curious paucity of works from the actual time of World War II which deal with the subject. Artists always claim to be mirrors of their own time, yet where are all the great reflections of the most turbulent era of the last century? One of the few contemporary composers who called out the Nazis and created a lasting work of art at the same time was Michael Tippett in his A Child of Our Time.  Dallapiccola’s Canti di Prigionia is another powerful piece written during the war, although performances are fewer than Tippett’s oratorio. Britten, the self-proclaimed pacifist, during the war years produced–Paul Bunyan? A violin concerto? Peter Grimes?

There has been plenty of music resurrected by composers who perished in Nazi death camps–most of it, to my taste, not worth the effort of programming. The greatest work composed in a Nazi concentration camp was written by a French prisoner of war at Stalag VIII-A, the Quatuor pour la Fin du Temps by Messiaen, which is less about the war then an expression of the composer’s faith.

For works about the camps, of course there is Schoenberg’s A Survivor From Warsaw, a good piece, yes, but I find the 1920’s/30’s neo-Expressionist language of Schoenberg a little over the top. It’s as if F.W. Murnau did a silent horror film about Auschwitz–effective but at the same time curiously dated and overstated.

For years I found Nono’s Il Canto Sospeso to be the most intense, emotionally powerful work inspired by WWII, with its texts drawn from letters of imprisoned Resistance fighters terrifyingly matched to the searing drama of Nono’s music. But for the past 2 decades, I have been fascinated, captivated, and horrified by Steve Reich’s Different Trains. I heard a good performance of this recently, and you can read my thoughts at the link below.

18 thoughts on “Music inspired by World War II”
  1. Thanks for your additional comments, Christian, and especially for the mention of Hartmann, BA Zimmerman, and Maderna. I was listening to Maderna a few nights ago.

    I would not have posted again, but I disagree with you, respectfully, and feel quite strongly that Britten did in fact accomplish conceptually what he set out to do in contrasting Wilfrid Owen’s poetry with the Latin Mass for the Dead.
    I’m wondering how others feel.

    This is quite a sensitive subject for me.

    We performed the work my senior year at Berkeley High School (using young professional soloists for the three leading roles, but otherwise student orchestra, chamber orchestra, and chorus). It was a powerful experience for all of us. The art department made slides of the bi-lingual text and of B & W engravings by Otto Dix and others which were projected as a diptych above the chorus.

    That September my youth orchestra visited Berlin and Mainz for two weeks before I began college.

    At college, I was interviewed by the composition/theory professor (a Babbitt student) to determine placement in the three-year theory cycle (which was heavy on Schenker), and I recall that when I mentioned then that I had performed in the War Requiem the professor said that – ah, yes, that that was an interesting work but a problematic work. I can’t clearly recall now whether he said “deep problematic” or not. His comment stayed with me for the next three years – and beyond – and colored my impression of academia. I recall spending hours listening to LPs in the library – such as the Penderecki’s Dies Irae – trying to locate what that professor thought was lacking from the Britten work (which was, of course, written for a specific public occasion). (By the way, Gorecki also began an Oświęcim/Auschwitz tribute in the 1960s, but was unable to complete it for personal reasons).

  2. Many thoughtful comments here. I’d forgotten Penderecki’s Dies Irae. Britten’s War Requiem, like many of Britten’s later works, has moments of great beauty surrounded by, to my ears, completely unmemorable music. Conceptually, War Requiem had the potential to be one of the greatest 20th-century works, but I don’t think Britten accomplished what he set out to do in contrasting Wilfrid Owen’s poetry with the Latin Mass for the Dead. My two cents.

    Shostakovich wrote his 8th Quartet in Dresden while writing film music for a film about the fire bombing of Dresden, but it’s really more about his own life: all the self-quotations in the work, and the insistent use of D-S-C-H.

    I probably should have mentioned Hartmann, who wrote politically subversive music (and an opera) during the Nazi years. In his Grove article on Hartmann, Andrew McCredie writes, “Works condemned by Joseph Goebbels in official statements outlining the Nazi aesthetic became sources for musical quotation. Other materials were derived from Hebraic incantation and folk music.”

    Composers who fought in WWII: the most notorious activist was probably Xenakis, a resistance fighter against the Germans, and later, when the British re-established the Greek monarchy, against the Brits. That’s where he got that facial scar. Messiaen wound up in the camp at Gorlitz where he composed Quartet for the End of Time after being captured as a prisoner of war. Lutoslawski was in the radio corps for the Polish army. B.A. Zimmermann was drafted into the Wehrmacht. Maderna fought for Italy, but later joined the resistance. Ross Lee Finney was an OSS member.

  3. I think you need some distance from an event as cataclysmic as WWII to provide the perspective. ‘War Requiem’ by Britten is probably the most powerful anti-war piece of music I have ever heard, mostly on the strength of the text by Wilfred Owen.

    But the piece that nails it for me is Górecki’s 3d Symphony. I know, just the second movement takes its text from WWII, but it is the only piece of music I know that provides pathos on the scale of the event itself.

  4. “Different Trains” is one of my favorite pieces of music of all time. When heard while reading the text, it is a very powerful piece of music. I shared it with a friend of mine once, and for a while she couldn’t hear a train without nearly crying.

  5. From 1942 until 1946, the late Andrew Imbrie served in the U.S. Army Signal Corps as a second lieutenant and as a cryptanalytic translator from the Japanese.

    Vladimir Ussachevsky worked for the Office of Strategic Services (now CIA) and for the U.S. State Department as an analyst of Russian and Chinese.

    Milton Babbitt commuted between Princeton and Washington, D.C. during 1943 to 1945 doing research in mathematics useful to the Office of Strategic Services (now CIA).

    During the Second World War, Edwar T. Cone served first in the army (as a pianist) and later in the Office of Strategic Services (now CIA).

    The names of all OSS personnel and documents of their OSS service, previously a closely guarded secret, were released by the US National Archives on August 14, 2008.

  6. has a summary of music, war and the military, here

    The relevant passage:

    Many composers dedicated these works to the war effort. Morton Gould dedicated his Symphony No. 1 (1943) to his three brothers in the service and to their fellow fighters; Marc Blitzstein wrote Freedom Morning (1943) for the black troops of the U.S. Army; Paul Hindemith dedicated his When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d: A Requiem for Those We Love (1946) to the memory of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and to the American soldiers killed during World War II; Dai Keong Lee offered his Pacific Prayer (1943) to the fighting men in the Pacific; and Roy Harris originally dedicated his Fifth Symphony (1942) to the USSR before later removing the dedication.

    Other composers wrote laments for the soldiers who had died: Bernard Herrmann’s For the Fallen (1943); Douglas Moore’s In Memoriam (1943); and William Grant Still’s In Memoriam: The Colored Soldiers Who Died for Democracy (1943). […] Some of the most intense works deal with the Holocaust. Both Part III: Night of Morton Subotnick’s Jacob’s Room (1985–86) and the second movement of Steve Reich’s Different Trains (1988) tragically depict a train journey to the concentration camps. Lukas Foss wrote an Elegy for Anne Frank (1989), which he later incorporated into his Symphony No. 3 (Symphony of Sorrows) (1991). Morton Gould extracted a Holocaust Suite (1978) from his music for a television docudrama about the Holocaust.

  7. And in a slightly more popular but still orchestral vein, what home in the 1950s didn’t have a copy of Richard Rodgers and Robert Russell Bennett’s music to “Victory at Sea”?

  8. I’m sure there were a lot of American works of the 1940s that addressed the war, for better or worse. Blitzstein’s “Airborne” Symphony, Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man”, Antheil’s 4th Symphony… Of course there’s also Shostakovich’s 7th, and both Stravinsky’s “Norwegian Moods” and parts of the “Symphony in Three Movements” derive from music to evoke WWII scenes.

  9. Just my $0.02, but as much as I love Schoenberg’s music, I’ve always been less than won over by A Survivor from Warsaw. Too programmatic for my tastes, but that’s just me.

    Same with Different Trains. I like it, but it’s actually not among my favorite works of Reich’s. Again, just my taste.

    But if I had to choose among works that I think express the horrors of WWII, I’d pick without any reservation whatsoever the Sixth Symphony of Vaughn Williams. Yes, it’s not likely to ever be considered a “trendy” work-Vaughn Williams ain’t John Cage. But some of his symphonies are amazing, at least to me. I grew up on several of them, starting with #7 (yeah, it’s programmatic, but it was a film score, and the music itself is incredible).

    The last movement of his Symphony #6 is perhaps the most ethereal, creepy, sad, amazing thing for orchestra written at that time, and is better than much of the crap written since then. IMHO.

  10. I think there was quite a bit of music that reflects the on-going war. Hans Eisler’s songs to Brecht texts and contained in the Hollywood Liederbuch come to mind. Songs like Hotelzimmer 1942, Ostersontag and Die Maske des Bösen and Mein jung Sohn fragt mich are clearly about the effects of the war and exile on Brecht. Some years ago, the BBC did a show on pieces all written in 1943. If I recall correctly there were pieces by Goldschmidt and other composers who fled Germany. Few addressed the war directly, but the effect was audible. I remember they include Frederic Mompou’s Prelude No. 9, which is perhaps the one piece of Mompou’s that verges on lamentation without hope. Mompou, an ardent Catholic, for a time, bought into the anti-Republicanism. Mompou had fled Paris and returned to Barcelona, foolishly thinking that the execrable Franco would make a better Spain. Mompou found out that Franco repressed the Catalan language and culture he loved. He surely must have reconsidered his view of a Republican Spain. Even popular songs that weren’t direct propaganda songs reflected the war. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas,” from Meet me In St. Louis is obviously about soldiers away from home. The music that didn’t propagandize about the war has worn much better than the music that took the opposite tack.

  11. “A Survivor From Warsaw” is more than a good piece, it a wonderful one… but I do have to agree with you when it’s about Schoenberg’s language. It’s a very good comparison with Murnau as thinking about horror themes, definitely. But do you think it is a necessarily bad aspect of these decades? In fact, I wonder how “limited by their decades” could these artists really be and how much the effects of World War II on arts contributed to this language construction. In this case, I don’t think it could be possible to do something not so dated.

  12. Britten’s War Requiem was inspired by the Second World War and by the bombing of Coventry Cathedral by the Nazi air-force, but the composition was literally dealing with the first-hand horrors of World War I as chronicled poetically by Wilfred Owen, a twenty-five year old casualty of that war. The World War II symbolism was reinforced when Britten intended the first performance to be by British and German and Soviet vocal soloists — Peter Pears, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, and Galina Vishnevskaya (Rostropovich’s wife). However, the Soviets would not allow Ms. Vishnevskaya to visit Britain in May 1962, and the world premiere featured instead Heather Harper. The work was also dedicated to four friends of Britten and Pears — all World War II veterans — who either died in the conflict, or – in the case of one – died of suicide within fourteen years of the end of the war

    [Footnote: In October 1962, less than five months after the premiere of Britten’s War Requiem, John F. Kennedy gravely warned: “It shall be the policy of this nation to regard any nuclear missile launched from Cuba against any nation in the Western Hemisphere as an attack on the United States, requiring a full retaliatory response upon the Soviet Union.”]

    Shostakovich’s Eight String Quartet of 1960 was written during a period of very deep depression which coincided with the composer’s visit to Dresden, East Germany — the fire-bombed center of which had (until 1990) been left as an anti-war memorial.

    Michael Tippett’s early A Child of Our Time was inspired by the assasination of a Nazi officer in Paris and the Nazi reprisals that followed. However, his opera, King Priam, was also inspired by World War II, and premiered in Coventry in 1962 — the same week as Britten’s War Requiem.

    I recall Lou Harrison’s later Pacifika Rondo (1963) being, in part, a protest against U.S. and French atomic testing in the South Pacific. (My youth orchestra recorded the work.)

    Of living composers, Penderecki’s Dies irae (in Latin and Greek, I recall) was written in 1967 for Oświęcim/Auschwitz-Birkenau. His Polish Requiem had its germ in a commission to commenorate Polish resistence to Naziism.

    Nancy Van de Vate’s Katyn, was written in 1989, I believe. (Does anyone have information on her All Quiet on the Western Front opera, for the Vienna State Opera, based upon WWI? I imagine that Thomas Hampson will star in it.)

    Henze’s choral Symphony #9 (1997) reflects upon German anti-Naziism

    Toshio Hosokawa’s “Memory of the Sea: Hiroshima Symphony” (with organ) is impressionistic and autobiographical of the composer growing up in Hiroshima in the 1950s and 60s.

  13. I don’t know that it is appropriate to dismiss Britten’s War Requiem since it wasn’t written during the war. As Scott addressed in his comment, perspective is often gained after an event is over. Context cannot always be seen from within.

  14. I think it’s a shame to say that the Penderecki has “little to do with the war” based on when the work acquired its title. I know this is a separate discussion, but it strikes me that many of the most important and lasting properties of a musical work take shape during its first performance, its first real hearing by the composer. If Penderecki was so moved by the associations that entered his head when he heard 8:37 that he chose to change its title and give all future listeners that specific frame of reference… well, then, I think it’s a piece about WWII for sure, just as much as one where the composer set out to comment on the war specifically. The timing of a composer’s intentions are a highly overrated factor, in my opinion.

  15. Lou Harrison’s Mass to Saint Anthony might be more of a divining rod than a mirror; in that the exceptionally sensitive composer started the work on September 1, 1939 (in San Francisco — the original and later restored scoring of vibraphone, snare-, field-, bass-, and brake-drums are said to have been inspired by the street or cable car that he was riding that truly black Friday).

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