Thursday, December 11, 2014

Guy's Homage to WWI: Starting with "The Piano in Wartime: 1914-1918"

It has been a month now since we had what we used to call Armistice Day, and I have decided the conduct my own homage (if that word isn't a little overblown) to World War I. There isn't any particular reason. It's just that - in my opinion - this amazing and horrible event in Western history had such influence on our collective experience that it seems appropriate to stop and think a little about what it meant to us as people. How did the World War I affect us, as human beings? How have we spent the past 100 years? Has anything been gained from lessons learned from World War I (and, of course, what about the lessons learned but ignored)?

It's an awesome subject, isn't it? And none of these questions can be answered, not even - with any satisfaction - by the historians and the scholars who pour so much time and attention into their efforts. And certainly non-specialists like most of us can't add anything to the mix. We studied it, we read about it, we watched the films, but we amateurs can't really figure out what went on or what the results have been. But we can - if we pause a bit - pay our respects and try to connect what came from World War I with what we learned about humanity's history before 1914 and where we've come since 1918.

The Morgan Library & Museum
My own little tribute begins with an appealing program announced for last Tuesday at The Morgan Library and Museum. The Morgan happens to be around the corner from where I live, and anyone who knows me knows the role music plays in my life so I could not resist The Piano in Wartime: 1914-1918. Fifteen students from The Julliard School gathered to perform music composed during World War I, and these performances were interspersed with dramatic readings by actors from the school. It was an altogether satisfying evening, and I'm happy I had the opportunity to experience it.

The program was put together by Aaron Wunsch, Julliard faculty member and director of the PianoScope, the Julliard Piano Department's program that enables performances and other activities around a particular theme. Certainly that format came together for this program, with Wunsch providing a fine pre-performance talk on "Making Music during the Great War" and the performances of the splendid group of pianists and two actors (Therese Barbato and Max Woertendyke) grabbing (and keeping) our attention throughout the entire evening.

As it happens (as noted in the program notes) the period covered was a little more than the dates 1914-1918 usually associated with World War I because, as Wunsch pointed out, it was the overall era that provided the "range of creativity" that the program invoked. What was really being described (as pointed out also by Andrew as we were leaving the hall) was the impact that, a hundred years later, seems to be somewhat forgotten, that the war not only brought about "a gradual aesthetic change" (as Wunsch put it) in the creative endeavors of artists and like-minded people. The war, truly, changed how society was structured, with a totally different way of life emerging after 1918.

Because of the number of selections - both musical and written (poetry and letters) - it isn't possible to list everything and everyone involved, but I can provide a flavor of the program by mentioning the we heard performances of works as varied as Alexander Scriabin's Vers la Flamme ("Toward the Flame") of 1914, Igor Stravinsky's Souvenir d'une marche boche ("Souvenir of a German March") of 1917, and wrapping up with an almost-unbelievably athletic performance of Maurice Ravel's La Valse of 1919-1920. The readings, too, were equally varied, from the Anonymous "Shattered Illusions," from The BEF [British Expeditionary Force] Times of December 25, 1916 to an excerpt from Edith Wharton's Fighting France (1915), to Wilfred Owen's "Anthem for Doomed Youth" (1917).

A remarkable program, and I am happy to record here my gratitude to the PianoScope Program of the Julliard School's Piano Department and the Public Programs Department of The Morgan Library and Museum.

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