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Classics go to War
Although the topic of war may not be a fashionable dinner party topic these days, its horrors, history and heroes have fascinated us for centuries. This collection includes music about war, music for television and exciting and memorable music from some of the greatest war movies of all time.
Elgar’s Triumphal March from Caratacus was adapted at the theme music for the BBC television drama The Regiment which told of the exploits of the Cotswold Regiment during the Boer War. The series aired between 1970–1973 and was highly successful. Another television series Colditz, which aired in 1972, also featured a rousing march, this time composed by Robert Farnon, one of Britain’s finest composers of ‘light’ music. Another composer of this often-maligned genre, Eric Coates, originally produced the famous Dam Busters March for military band before it was developed as the theme for the famous film. Barber’s Commando March was also originally scored for band but on this collection we hear a full orchestral version first heard in 1943.
Much great music was written for Hollywood’s war epics: The plot for Objective, Burma!, which starred Errol Flynn, involves several dozen paratroopers being dropped into the Burmese jungle to find and destroy a Japanese radar station. Errol Flynn also starred in They Died with their Boots On, the story of General George Armstrong Custer and the 7th Cavalry. Our selection The Little Big Horn is an extraordinary composition by Max Steiner that frames the slaughter of Custer’s men by Crazy Horse and his warriors. Steiner was also responsible for the music for the Errol Flynn vehicle The Charge of The Light Brigade. Charge! accompanies a remarkable action sequence where over 700 magnificently uniformed cavalry ride into “the valley of death”.
Steiner’s spectacular music brings together numerous themes heard previously in the film with quotations from “Rule Britannia” and the old Russian Imperial Anthem: an extraordinary musical montage and one of the greatest musical sequences in all cinema history.
Another popular Hollywood heartthrob, Tyrone Power, starred in Captain from Castile set during the Spanish Inquisition. Alfred Newman, another of Hollywood’s great composers of “the golden age” scored the Conquest March for orchestra and military band: an entertaining and exciting noise.
The colourful scoring of Hollywood composers often drew inspiration from the vibrant scoring of Russian nationalist composers. Glazunov’s Stenka Razin tells of the exploits of the legendary 17th century Cossack who waged guerilla war against Russia and Persia. Stenka Razin is a wonderful work with many references to Russian folk music. The final death-or-glory attack by Stenka Razin’s Cossacks on the Tsar’s soldiers is particularly memorably scored. The Tsar gets another going over in Tchaikovsky’s opera Mazeppa. Mazeppa, our anti-hero, has sided with the Swedes against the Tsar in the hopes of establishing independence for his native Ukraine. The Battle of Poltava’s music includes the hymn of the victorious army of Peter the Great, and the rout of the forces of Charles XII. Ippolitov-Ivanov spent a number of years in the remote Soviet republic of Georgia. This provided inspiration for his opera Iveria from which we hear the Gregorian War March. Rimsky-Korsakov held similar fascinations and King Dodon on the Battlefield from his opera The Golden Cockerel features similarly exotic sounds.
Colourful writing for orchestra wasn’t just the domain of Russian composers. The defeat of Napoleon’s armies by the Duke of Wellington in 1813 was cause for celebration by Beethoven, who was by then a staunch anti-Bonapartist. Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory includes much additional paraphernalia beyond that of a normal orchestra. Each army is represented by its own wind band, trumpeters and side drums disposed to the right and left of the main orchestral body. Bass drums and rattles mimic the sound of cannon and musket fire with the score including 188 carefully indicated cannon shots. The first half of the piece features trumpet calls and national anthems and is a particularly noisy affair. The second half, is a ‘Victory Symphony’ during which “God Save the King” is triumphantly introduced and used as the main musical idea for the grand finale. Beethoven’s Two Marches for Military Band are considerably less grandiose in scope and were written in 1809 and 1810. Liszt’s symphonic poem The Battle of the Huns has its origins in a mural by Wilhelm von Kaulbach representing the fifth century battle between Attila and his Huns and the Christian Roman Emperor Theodoric.
Battle Hymn of the Republic was conceived during the American civil war and was first published in 1862 after Julia Howe visited a Union Army Camp on the Potomac River. The soldiers were singing “John Brown’s Body” and Howe penned the immortal words the very next day to accompany the tune.
Some of the greatest war films appropriated famous pieces of classical music, and in so doing rendered these pieces almost inseparable from the images they accompanied. Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries is used in Apocalypse Now to accompany a frightening attack in a Vietcong village by American helicopters. Platoon, also set in the Vietnam War, used Barber’s Adagio to wonderful effect. The use of such an introspective, melancholy work in the context of a brutal and bloody film also demonstrates how war film music does not have to be a noisy march! The delicate Cavatina, for guitar, is indelibly associated with The Deer Hunter, a Vietnam war film of extreme savagery and violence. The Thin Red Line also contrasts the brutality and horror of war with a classical work of serene beauty—Fauré’s In Paradisum. Albinoni’s Adagio is no less poignant as the main theme to Peter Weir’s Gallipoli.
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CLASSICS GO TO WAR