Across the centuries, composers have been inspired by the twin dramas of human conflict and the subsequent making of peace. Here are ten great pieces of classical music that dramatize war, celebrate its resolution, and recall its sacrifices.
10. Franz Liszt: The Battle of the Huns
One of the composer’s many tone poems, Franz Liszt’s Hunnenschlacht—written in 1857—was inspired by the painting of the same name by Wilhelm von Kaulbach, which depicts the battle of the Catalaunian Fields of 451. There on the plains of Gaul, Attila’s forces fought a desperate, bloody, and ultimately inconclusive battle against armies under the Roman General Flavius Aëtius and the Visigothic king Theodoric. The pagan philosopher Damascius reported that the fighting was so intense that “the ghosts of those who fell continued the struggle for three whole days and nights as violently as if they had been alive; the clash of their arms was clearly audible.” This image is what what inspired von Kaulbach and in turn, Liszt.
9. Joseph Haydn: Mass in Time of War
Franz Joseph Haydn composed this, his tenth setting of the Roman Catholic Mass, in the city of Eisenstadt, Austria, in 1796, as Napoleonic forces won victories in Italy and German and threatened to invade Austria itself. Haydn himself christened the work Missa in Tempore Belli, employing martial-sounding timpani in the Agnus Dei, a feature that has led others to nickname the work the “Kettledrum Mass” (“Paukenmesse“). The tone of the entire work is one of intense supplication, and it concludes with a rousing and moving Dona Nobis Pacem.
8. Pyotr Tchaikovsky: 1812 Overture
A popular piece today in the United States during Fourth of July concerts, Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky wrote the 1812 Overture in 1880 to commemorate Tsarist Russia’s victory over Napoleon. Making use of the tune of the French Marseillaise as well as the hymn, “God Save the Tsar!,” the work tells the story of Napoleon’s advance into Russia and eventual retreat west during the brutal winter of 1812. Though the composer himself was somewhat embarrassed by the populist bent of the piece, its concluding triumphant section, with a rousing rendition of the Tsar’s hymn accompanied by a live cannonade, is surely one of the most thrilling moments in all of music.
7. Gustav Holst: The Planets — “Mars, the Bringer of War”
Completed in 1916, Gustav Holst’s every-popular suite is less about the heavenly bodies and more about the characteristics of the gods after whom they are named. As conductor Benjamin Zander has argued, Holst “was interested in astrology and the character of each of the planets, and the way it manifested itself in the human psyche… It’s not about the planets. It’s not about the other world. It’s about the inner world.” “Mars, the Bringer of War,” the opening movement of The Planets, brilliantly manifests the aggressive impulse of man and has inspired many other composers, most notably John Williams in his music for the original Star Wars movie.
6. Antonio Vivaldi: Juditha Triumphans
Based on the Biblical tale of the young Israelite woman who lops off the head of the barbarian invader, Holofernes, Antonio Vivaldi’s sole surviving oratorio was written to celebrate the 1716 victory of the Republic of Venice over the Turks. In the opening chorus below, Holofernes’ bloodthirsty barbarian army sings of death and destruction as it approaches Israel:
Let weapons, carnage, vengeance, fury, famine and fear go before us.
Rotate, Encircle us, give battle, O Fates of War:
Inflict a thousand wounds, a thousand deaths.
5. Hector Berlioz: Grand Funereal and Triumphal Symphony
Hector Berlioz composed his Grande Symphonie Funebre et Triomphale in 1840 upon a commission from the French government (for which he was paid the handsome sum of 10,000 francs). Scored for a marching wind band of 200 players and chorus, the work honors the dead of the 1830 Revolution. It begins with a funeral march, proceeds to a funeral oration featuring a solo trombone, and concludes with the spirited “Apotheosis” below, in which the chorus sings:
Glory and triumph, to these heroes!
Glory and triumph!
Come, chosen other life!
Change, noble warriors, all your laurels, for immortal Palms!
Follow the Seraphim, divine soldiers, in the eternal Plains!
At their endless choruses, be United!
Angels glorious, harmonious, blazing like them, enter, sublime victims!
Glory and triumph, to these heroes!
They fell to the fields of the fatherland!
Glory and respect to their tombs!
Come, elected another life!
Glory and triumph, to these heroes!
And Respect at their tombs!
4. Richard Strauss: A Hero’s Life — “The Hero at Battle”
Though unnamed, the hero of the tone poem Ein Heldenleben is likely the composer himself, who once unabashedly deemed himself “no less interesting than Napoleon.” In this work, which lasts some fifty minutes, the hero is pestered by his adversaries (music critics?), comforted by his companion (Strauss’ wife?), goes to war, consummates peace, and then retires from the world. The movement, “The Hero at Battle,” depicts the excitement of combat in all its supposed glory.
3. Gustav Holst: “Ode to Death”
Holst wrote his “Ode to Death” in 1918-1919 in the wake of World War I. Though he received a medical exemption from military service, Holst had composer-friends who served (Ralph Vaughan Williams) and died (George Butterworth) in the horrific combat on the Western Front. The text of “Ode to Death” sets a section of Walt Whitman’s 1865 elegy, “When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom’d,” which was written to mourn the death of American president Abraham Lincoln. Its spirit is one of gentle resignation.
2. Sergei Prokofiev: Alexander Nevsky
Sergei Prokofiev wrote the music for the 1938 Sergei Eisenstein film, Alexander Nevsky, which tells the story of the Russian Prince Alexander’s defeat of invading Crusaders in the thirteenth century. Prokofiev turned the music into a seven-movement cantata. In the sixth section, “The Field of the Dead,” a mezzo-soprano sings the plaintive words of Mother Russia, as she wanders among the bodies of her young men killed in battle:
I shall go across the snow-clad field,
I shall fly above the field of death,
I shall search for valiant warriors there,
Those to me betrothed, stalwart men and staunch.
One lies quiet where sabers mangled him,
Here lies one impaled by an arrow shaft.
From their wounds warm, red blood like the rain was shed
on our native soil, on our Russian fields.
He, who fell for Russia in noble death,
Shall be blest by my kiss on his dead eyes,
And to him, brave lad, who remained alive,
I shall be a true wife and a loving friend.
I’ll not be wed to a handsome man:
Earthly charm and beauty fast fade and die,
I’ll be wed to the man who’s brave.
Hark ye warriors brave, lionhearted men!
1. G.F. Handel: Music for the Royal Fireworks (1749)
King George II of Great Britain commissioned George Frederic Handel to write this piece (originally for wind instruments and percussion only) for performance during a fireworks display in London’s Green Park, celebrating the signing of the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle and the end of the War of the Austrian Succession. Today, it is only the lucky concertgoer who gets to see the piece performed in conjunction with actual fireworks; but enjoying a performance with the kind of gusto that the conductor below brings to the piece is a fair substitute.
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