Music, Britain and the First World War

A Great Divide or a Longer Nineteenth Century? 

Music, Britain and the First World War.

Durham University, Centre for Nineteenth-Century Studies One-Day Conference

21 January 2017 

Panel: ‘the communication of the dead’: music, mourning, memory and the modern

Dr Jonathan Clinch (Cambridge)

Mr Edward Smyth (Oxford)

Professor Jeremy Dibble (Durham)

Professor Douglas Davies (Durham)




 This paper considers a single work as a cultural object and site of memorialisation, Herbert Howells’ Elegy for Viola, String Quartet and String Orchestra. Written in 1917, the score is dedicated to Francis Purcell Warren, a fellow student and close friend of Howells at the Royal College of Music, who was killed in action that year. The first performance was at the Battle of Mons commemoration concert at the Royal Albert Hall in December 1917. 

 Three different theoretical perspectives are presented (from Arnold Whittall within historical musicology; from Douglas Davies within death studies; and Aleida Assmann within memory studies) in order to separate the symbolic minutiae of memory which make up the Elegy’s unique matrix of stylistic and formal elements, all of which define the process of memorialisation, replayed, re-experienced and reinterpreted in the ‘present’ of a performance. Warren, a viola player himself, haunts the work as a ghostly presence, defiantly attending his own memorial and this role is contextualised within psychological discourse on empathy to address questions of subjectivity. The ritualistic nature of performance, the denial of violence, the dynamic nature of cultural memory and the status of ‘neglected works’ which resurface having not accumulated/accrued meaning within a tradition are also considered, as is the framing influence of today’s heritage industry. 

In conclusion, the implications of these readings are then considered within the original performance context and now, during the commemoration of the First World War, in order to address the larger debate on the ‘Great Divide’ and why the dynamic between memory and history make this piece truly modern. 


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