Life blood

Posted on Wednesday 20 August 2014 by Suzanne Keyte at

“Music is the life blood of the Royal Albert Hall and during the First World War music was incredibly important to the British public, not only on the Home Front but to those fighting on the Western Front. The type of music played at the Hall changed as the war progressed and reflected the mood of the nation: from the cheering and patriotic music in 1914 to the sombre and reflective music at the end of the war.

The tone of music played at the Hall changed as soon as the war started in August 1914. The first concert to be held after the start of the war was held in October 1914 and it started with the National Anthems of all the Allied nations: Belgium, Russia, France and Great Britain.

Patriotic songs and songs to encourage young men to fight were sung from the start. Two new songs were sung at that first concert, England’s Call and The Rally Call, leaving no doubt as to their message.

In October 1914, at a great fundraising concert for the Red Cross attended by the King and Queen, Adelina Patti (described by Verdi as one of the finest singers who had ever lived) came out of retirement to sing in public for the very last time and received rapturous applause for one of the most popular songs of the Great War, It’s a Long way to Tipperary. This song had been written in 1912 and was quickly picked up by British forces marching to the front as a cheering marching song. It is still sung today at the Remembrance Day festivals and other concerts.

At the Grand Patriotic Concert, held in October 1914, in front of the King and Queen, popular singer Clara Butt finished the concert with a rousing rendition of Land of Hope & Glory, conducted by Edward Elgar himself. The audience erupted waving their Union Jack flags in a way that had never been seen before. ‘Land of Hope & Glory’, a relatively new song, proved to be immensely popular during the War and continues to sung at the Last Night of the Proms held at the Hall every year.

At the Great Patriotic Rally – the huge Recruitment rally with Horatio Bottomley in January 1915 – Your King and Country Want You was sung. Published in London in 1914 at the start of the war, it proved to be incredibly popular. Written as a ‘Woman’s Recruiting Song’ to be sung with the intention of persuading men to volunteer to fight in the War, the profits from its sale were to be given to Queen Mary’s Work for Women Fund. The words of the song seem particularly poignant now in hindsight:

Oh! We don’t want to lose you but we think you ought to go

For your King and Country both need you so;

We shall want you and miss you but with all our might and main

We shall cheer you, thank you; kiss you when you come back again.

Other popular songs performed at the Hall were, Pack up your Troubles in Your Old Kit Bag, There’s a Long, Long Trail and the hugely popular Keep the Homes Fires Burning (first published under the name, Till the Boys Come Home). Composed by a 21-year-old Ivor Novello, it was the composer’s first big hit and was sung at the Hall on a regular basis.

But by 1917 as the War dragged on, the mood in Britain darkened and the songs, although still patriotic, were more sombre and more cynical. Songs like, Oh, It’s a Lovely War with its sarcastic and anti-establishment words was being performed in music halls around the country. There were no more Calls to Arms and instead the songs remembered the dead and seemed to promote a stoic bravery.English contralto Clara Butt sang Have You News of My Boy Jack?, the famous Rudyard Kipling poem set to music at a concert at the Hall in September 1917. The poem was written in 1916 after the Battle of Jutland, but Rudyard Kipling had lost his only son John at the Battle of Loos in 1915, making the poem especially poignant. Kipling had gone from writing pro-war propaganda for the Government at the start of the war to progressively critical writing about the old style Generals. After his son John’s premature death he wrote, “If any question why we died/ tell them, because our fathers lied”. Clara Butt was greatly moved by the poem and approached composer Edward German to set it to music.

At a concert at the Hall to commemorate the First Seven Divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in 1917 there was only music by British composers and it was of a deeply sombre nature. Relatives and surviving members of the BEF came to the Hall for an incredibly moving experience which saw the Hall’s balconies draped in banners, made by the Royal College of Needlework, to remember the men who had died. It was reported in The Times that women from around the country begged to be allowed just to put a few stitches in the banners. So many people wanted to see the banners that they were kept up in the hall for the whole weekend so that people could visit.

In November 1917 four of England’s greatest living composers – Sir Edward Elgar, Sir Hubert Parry, Sir Frederick Bridge and Charles Villiers Stanford – set poetry to music during a Royal Choral Society concert. The most famous of these was, ‘The Spirit of England’ written by English poet Laurence Binyon in September 1914 just after Britain had suffered its first heavy losses on the Western Front. Still used in the annual Remembrance Day services today, the poem’s fourth verse had become part of the enduring legacy of the Great War:

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

we will remember them.

The seatholders and Council members of the Hall would regularly give up their seats for the use of soldiers on leave and wounded soldiers and nurses from the nearby hospitals, who wished to take a few hours to escape the grim reality of War so many had experienced.

As the mood in Britain darkened the choice of music at the Royal Albert Hall became a subject of intense debate during 1917. Anti-German feeling in Britain was at an all-time high and it was in June of this year that George V changed the Royal family’s surname from Saxe-Coburg-Gotha to Windsor.At the Hall’s AGM in February 1917, Mr George Hicks, one of the seatholders took the Hall’s Council to task about the issue of playing German music.  He stated that;

I was only once here this season, and the Hall was full, and amongst the audience there were one or two thousand men in khaki. There was a wounded officer sitting near me; he drew my attention to the programme_-’ He said ‘_every item except one in the programme is by Wagner. What do you think of that, after all our suffering?…

However, the Hall’s attitude was more reasoned and its President Earl Howe and the Trustees argued that although they would not consider performing work by a living German composer, the work of dead Germans such as Beethoven, Mozart, Handel, Mendelssohn and Wagner should continue to be heard. And the Hall, true to its word, carried on playing German music to the end of the war.”

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