The Mother of Beauty: War in Words and Music

Photo courtesy of Denzil Walton, “Discovering Belgium”

For the past two years, I have immersed myself in a personal and professional commemoration of the centenary of World War I. For a freshman composition class I designed in writing across the curriculum, I have read extensively in the scholarly and popular literature about shell shock and chemical weapons. I have purchased contemporary magazines and first-edition novels and a French postcard illustrating a scene from one of those novels. I have visited museum exhibits featuring helmets and weapons and love letters. I have watched films and a play and grainy documentaries about the war to end all wars. And I have read the novels and the poetry that bloomed from that barren landscape like the poppies in Flanders Fields.

No, I am not a war buff; I came of age during the height of the Viet Nam War and find neither romance nor thrill in contemplating scenes of battle. Nor did my passion for World War I arise from the same spring as my decision to major in American history; I never even took a class that covered the period in depth. Rather, I chose this theme because of my belief that that brutal war was the most important force in shaping Western culture for the ensuing century. It gave us chlorine gas and tanks and warplanes. It determined the use we made of the theories of Darwin and Einstein and Freud. It birthed the Roaring Twenties and killed God. And in its wake arose one of the most important groups of novelists and poets the world has ever produced, those who provided the voice of the Lost Generation: Hemingway and Fitzgerald, Eliot and cummings, Wolfe and Woolf. And of course there were those truly lost in the war, including the one man whom I credit as my strongest inspiration, Wilfred Owen. In short, I chose World War I because in it originated the ideas and the horrors and the beauty of the world I live in.

On the morning of April 11, with that leitmotif as background music and Bashar al-Assad’s use of chlorine gas on his own people very much in the foreground, I heard the following exchange on my car radio:

NOEL KING, HOST [of NPR’s Morning Edition]: I wonder, if you pull back and look at this from 3,000 feet, how dangerous a moment is this for the region and also for the U.S. and its allies?

RYAN CROCKER [ambassador to Syria 1998-2001]: That’s a great question. It is dangerous. You may remember some weeks ago, the Iranians sent an unarmed drone over Israel kind of to see what would happen. The Israelis shot it down, then conducted airstrikes on ground facilities in Syria, lost a plane. Had they lost the pilots, too, we might be in a regional war. So right now, the level of complexity is immense. Iran, Israel, the United States, Turkey, Russia–external players. Internal–Hezbollah, Islamic State, al-Qaida, Free Syrian Army, Syrian Democratic Forces. It reminds me uncomfortably of how the stage was set in August 1914. . . . Nobody wanted a war then. The tangle of alliances created a war. You see that same tangle of alliances with powers large and small all over the landscape. Again, had those Israeli pilots been killed, that might have lit the fuse. And again, nobody wants a big war here. Nobody wanted a big war a hundred years ago. We got one. I hope we avoid it this time.

Photo courtesy of Gimell Records

On the evening of that same day, I sat in the transept of the Collegiate Gothic chapel at Duke University and heard the Tallis Scholars sing War and Peace, billed as “a poignant program of music dealing with suffering, death, and redemption, delivered in remembrance of the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I.” Unquestionably, the program lived up to its billing.

The concert began with the simple Dorian melody “L’homme armé,” a secular French song from the Renaissance with its universal warning: “The armed man should be feared.” This song was used in more than 40 settings of the mass during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries–not coincidentally, a period when Europe was repeatedly embroiled in wars and rumors of wars. The rest of the program comprised the Mass itself:

  • “Kyrie” from the Missa L’Homme Armé by Josquin des Prez (c. 1450-1521);
  • “Gloria” and “Credo” from the Missa Batalla by Francisco Guerrero (1528-1599);
  • “Requiem Aeternam” from the Missa pro Defunctis by Tomás Luis de Victoria (1548-1611);
  • “Sanctus” (Guerrero);
  • “Agnus Dei” from the Missa Papae Marcelli, written for the Council of Trent by Giovanni Pierluigi de Palestrina (c. 1525-1594); and
  • “Libera Me” (Victoria).

Interspersed with these settings from the liturgy were other compositions written for other times of loss. The words of two of these I found particular moving:

Mu harp is turned to grieving,
And my music to the voice of this who weep.
Spare me, Lord, for my days are worth nothing.
                                          –Alonzo Lobo (1555-1617)

Weeping at the grave creates the song. Alleluia.
                                         –John Tavener (1944-2013)

And the music? Perhaps I can best describe the effect of the music with the following analogies:

The World War I novels of Gabriel Chevallier, Frederic Manning, and Sebastian Faulks have taught me that fiction is the most reliable means of turning the truth of war into flesh and blood. The sonnets and lyrics of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon have taught me that poetry can transform the grisly experience of war into moments of stark beauty, but only because “beauty is truth, truth beauty” (John Keats) and “death is the mother of beauty” (Wallace Stevens). And I learned as my soul vibrated to the complex polyphony of Wednesday night’s program that music can turn the rotting flesh and the stark beauty and the final truth of war into pure and soaring spirit like the voice of the soprano that rose heavenward.

On the very day when Twitter saw another bellicose threat from @realDonaldTrump about missiles that are “nice and new and ‘smart'” (Apr. 11), that lesson was at least as important as it was in 1453 or 1485–or 1918.

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1 Response to The Mother of Beauty: War in Words and Music

  1. Boz says:

    I wanted to include the following information in my post, but I was afraid it would detract from the flow of the argument. However, because I find it so fascinating and haunting, I share it here (courtesy of Denzil Walton’s blog, “Discovering Belgium,” linked below):

    Why did so many poppies appear during the First World War?
    The war created prime conditions for poppies to flourish in Flanders and north-west France. Continual bombardment disturbed the soil and brought the seeds to the surface. They were fertilized by nitrogen in the explosives and lime from the shattered rubble of the buildings. Most poignantly, the blood and the bones of the millions of men, horses, donkeys, dogs and other animals richly fertilized the soil. The longer the war continued, the more men died, and the more the poppies thrived.

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