WWI devastated Europe.
It was an horrific war of attrition and, for the most part of it, a bloody stalemate. It was the first industrialized war, introducing weapons like the aerial bombing, tanks, heavy machine guns, and worst of all, weapons of mass destruction like chemical weapons.
In the midst of this war, a 42-year-old English composer by the name of Ralph Vaughn Williams, decided to join the British Army as an “ambulance man.” You might think of that term as a vehicle driver, but in reality, these were the combat medics of the British Army at that time. They took care of diseases and the wounds of their fellow troops at the front, in the trenches, on a daily basis.
Like any combat medic, Vaughn Williams saw the worst of war, along with his men. Before the war, he had already become one of Britain’s and the 20th century’s most celebrated composers. His prewar music was innocent and stunningly beautiful, like his famous “The Lark Ascending,” which you will hear a short bit of in this video.
But, Vaughn Williams’ experiences as a combat medic and losing many of his own friends, including another well-known composer, took their toll. His post-war music is much fuller of the pathos that comes with war and its aftermath within those who fought and suffered its effects. And yet, it uses beauty, musical power, to overcome the darkness and pain, while acknowledging it at the same time.
It was shaped by his wartime experiences and are very powerful and moving.
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WWI produced some of the most powerful war poetry in the last 100 years. Men and women who have been to war, who have seen its devastation and experienced the loss of friends often deal with their own inner turmoil by writing it out of themselves in books, or in poems, or in Vaughn Williams’ case, in music. Many of them recovered their own sense of balance in the world through the art of writing, or their music and, because they have done so, the world has benefited from their musings on page or in music.
It is an ironic fact that beauty sometimes comes out from the dark corners of human experience. This is the case with Ralph Vaughn Williams’ post-war music, particularly his ironically titled, “Pastoral Symphony.” It is a musical reflection on the devastation that WWI brought to the once pastoral beauty of Flanders Fields and the Somme area of France during that war.
A portion of that piece, and details of Vaughn Williams’ wartime experiences, can be seen in the video below.
It seems a paradox, but encountering and creating beauty is often the remedy for those who have seen the darkest sides of humanity in war. Take a few moments to listen to this short video about the combat medic, WWI veteran, Ralph Vaughn Williams, and then the short video with visual backgrounds of his Pastoral Symphony.
You have to step into the light to be able to see what the darkness hides.
Dan Doyle is a husband, father, grandfather, Vietnam veteran, and retired professor of Humanities at Seattle University. He taught 13 years at the high school level and 22 years at the university level. He spends his time now babysitting his granddaughter. He is a poet and a blogger as well. Dan holds an AA degree in English Literature, a BA in Comparative Literature, and an MA in Theology, and writes regularly for The Veterans Site Blog.