Art Song, Nostalgia, & War

By Jay Winter on October 4, 2019
Jay Winter
Jay Winter, historian and professor emeritus at Yale University
A specialist on World War I and its impact on the 20th century, American historian Jay Winter joins us for our first Emerging Voices panel discussion (January 13).
In his essay for the project, he examines art song's role and evolution during and following the war years.

The call to military service in 1914-18 created the largest captive population of young men the world had ever seen. Over 70 million men served, roughly 80 percent of whom were under the age of 30. A minority were married, but all kept in touch with their families, friends, and workmates in the local world they had left behind.

Song reminded them of where they had come from and for what they were fighting. Consequently, music of many forms took on a deeply nostalgic tone, reminding everyone that soldiers, whether conscripts or volunteers, were living temporarily in uniform.

To reassure them that living in a ditch was not going to last forever, the market for nostalgic music soared during the war. No one wanted to buy or play the sounds of war; in late 1914 the British Gramophone company stopped selling such recordings and turned instead to the golden oldies of hearth and home.

Everywhere, this shift in the nature of the market brought about a mixture, even a merger, of high and popular culture that provided art songs with a new purpose and reach. In Germany, Austria, and Russia, art songs were distillations of popular music, arising, some said, from the soul of the people. In France, art songs were more the province of the elite, men like Debussy whose work reflected elite preoccupations rather than older, bucolic tropes.

The romantic elements of nineteenth-century Lieder and other art songs commanded a market larger than ever before in wartime. Its prewar transnational character, reflected in contracts and arrangements between and among recording companies all over the world, gave way to the marketing of music as the authentic voice of the nation at war. State-guided national campaigns to rally the population were behind this move towards patriotic appropriation of what was now deemed ‘national’ music.

But there was a deeper source of the success of this appeal, relating to the way war brutalized the men who fought in it. The director Stanley Kubrick captured this phenomenon many years later in his First World War film Paths of Glory. It was released in 1957, but the French were so furious about its depiction of the General Staff of 1917 that it only received an import license in 1975. What Kubrick captured was the volatility of the men in the trenches, their search for escape from what faced them in the line, and their nostalgia for days past when women were part of everyday life. On most fronts, the only women they saw were confined in brothels or estaminets.

In the film, a horde of such frustrated, frightened, and drunk men in a music hall are greeted by a showman promising them an answer to their yearnings. He drags a terrified German girl onto the stage and says that her God-given talent is evident in her body, more than in her voice. Expecting a striptease, the men howl for deliverance, drowning out her first halting words of song. It takes perhaps 10 seconds for some of them to hear her song, and when they do, they are stunned into silence. She was singing a lullaby in German, bringing home to them the world of kindness, comfort, and love they had left behind. Tears stain the faces of men who, reminded of gentleness, are yet about to face the artillery, the gas, and the terror once more. There the film ends, with a moving evocation of the appeal of many different kinds of songs, steeped in romanticism and nostalgia.

Singing a Different Song

The economic chaos and massive inflation of wartime extended and grew dangerously in the post-1918 period. New and longer borders wrecked the pre-war banking system. Violence was endemic from Finland to Turkey. The decline in the value of money, and therefore of savings, undercut the purchasing power of the middle classes, the primary consumers of chamber music and concert performances. This instability shook the pre-war foundations of the concert hall, the chamber music world, and the population they served.

The terms of the peace settlement turned empires into smaller nations. Older traditions of ‘national’ songs, especially but not only in the Germanic world, had to be wrested to new uses. Among the victors, the war against ‘enemy’ music, as representing the ‘barbaric’ culture of the enemy, came to an end.

Art song faced new competition too in the post-Armistice years. In the early 1920s jazz arrived as a new and competing transnational genre, with unmistakable African-American sources, as did the rapidly growing film industry, with pianists accompanying silent films shown in vast picture palaces all over the world.

The political context of cultural life changed in other ways too. The new communist world in Berlin and the socialist world in Vienna inspired musical innovations of many kinds. The partnership of Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill, and Lotte Lenya is perhaps the best known, but not the only, instance of post-war radicalism in song and staging. Their tendency to marry romantic songs with jaggedly disillusioned verse, or jarring songs with lilting lyrics, made irony both an aesthetic and a political weapon suited to the increasingly polarized world. Paul Hindemith, a front-soldier in 1918, brought some of the dissonance of the war into his compositions. Here was the soundscape from which wartime song had fled. Ironists and iconoclasts moved in another direction.

And so did the jagged nationalisms of the 1920s and 1930s, weaponized by the world economic crisis of 1929-33 to drive forward regimes in which the party and/or the army beat the drum for another war. What in 1918 had seemed unimaginable became irresistible from the mid-1930s on. By then, the appeal of art song and other modes of musical performance, which touched and expressed the emotions of people all over the world, was drowned out by the unmistakable sound of war.

Jay Winter participates in our first Emerging Voices panel discussion on Monday, January 13 at the College of Physicians. For tickets and information, visit the event page or