The war in music

A century of conflict remembered by the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra this autumn.

This November, the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra commemorates the conflicts of the last century with concerts that draw from works that reflect on, react to or became entwined with the story of war.

In the centennial year of the outbreak of the Great War, the CBSO has programmed several concerts whose repertoire reflects and references the impact of war, with works by composers such as Prokofiev, Shostakovich, Britten and a UK premiere of a co-commissioned piece by Mark-Anthony Turnage.

In a concert on Sunday, November 2nd that also marks the 10th anniversary of the CBSO Youth Orchestra, Turnage’s Passchendaele will be performed in the UK for the first time. A modern voice reflecting on the conflicts of the past, Passchendaele remembers the battles fought in Flanders fields. Conducted by CBSO Youth Orchestra alumnus Ben Gernon, the concert also features two further British works with echoes of the Great War, Vaughan Williams’ On Wenlock Edge and Holst’s The Planets.

Prokofiev’s Symphony No.5 was composed in wartime Russia and premiered in January 1945 to the sound of gunfire. The composer described it as a “symphony of the greatness of the human spirit”. But, like his opera War and Peace, it’s also a stirring chronicle of a nation’s final push to victory. Experience both, alongside Beethoven’s Fourth Piano Concerto, on Thursday 6 November conducted by Lahav Shani, making his Birmingham debut.

The impact of the Second World War and the spirit of 1945 can also be felt in the concert on Wednesday, 19 November. In the USSR, Shostakovich blew a raspberry at Uncle Joe Stalin with his ninth Symphony. In America, Copland conjured a magical picture of lost innocence with Appalachian Spring. In Germany, Strauss was retreating from the horrors of wartime into an idealised classical past and his Oboe Concerto and in England, Britten rehearsed an opera that would change the face of British music. Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes will open this musical portrait of an extraordinary time, conducted by Nicholas Collon.

CBSO chief executive Stephen Maddock said: “Great art has often been created during times of political and emotional turbulence. In this, the hundredth anniversary of the outbreak of the First World War, we are focusing on some of the composers who have been moved by the impact of war and conflict to create music of both passion and reflection.”

Front page pic (c) Helen Tabor.