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Thursday 21 February 2019

Classic Talk: Music with its roots in World War I

Composer: Maurice Ravel ferried the wounded at the Verdun front during WWI
Composer: Maurice Ravel ferried the wounded at the Verdun front during WWI

George Hamilton

Tomorrow morning at 11 o'clock, the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month, a unique moment in history will be marked - the signing 100 years before of the armistice, the peace treaty that ended World War I.

Last night in Dublin, the National Concert Hall staged a performance of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem.

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It was composed for the consecration of the new cathedral in the English city of Coventry, which was built to replace the 14th century church destroyed during World War II.

The Requiem features lyrics written by the soldier poet Wilfred Owen, who was killed in action in World War I exactly a week before the armistice was signed.

The ceasefire was subsequently formalised in the Treaty of Versailles, and tomorrow afternoon in the palace there, the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra will present a programme of music in commemoration.

Four years ago, the same orchestra had played in Sarajevo. A century before, the assassination of the Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand precipitated World War I.

Maurice Ravel, the French composer, was 39 when war broke out. He'd ambitions of becoming a bomber pilot but was deemed too old, and too small (he was only 5ft 3in), so he signed up as a driver and ferried the wounded at the Verdun front.

His six-movement piano suite Le Tombeau de Couperin, the title being a tribute to an earlier French keyboard composer, François Couperin, in whose baroque style it is written, was a reflection on his experiences.

The pieces are dedicated to the memory of fallen soldiers who had been ferried from the front by Ravel's ambulance.

Paul Wittgenstein was another musician caught up in the war. From a wealthy Viennese family, he was a concert pianist whose debut, with a John Field concerto, in 1913 had been widely acclaimed.

When Austria went to war, he was called up and sent to the Eastern Front. Only there a matter of days, he was hit in the arm by a Russian sniper.

Captured, he was taken to a field hospital, where his right arm had to be amputated.

In his prisoner of war camp in Siberia, they found a piano for him and he developed a technique for playing with his left hand alone.

After the war, he set about resurrecting his performing career. He worked on arrangements that would enable him to play Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Mendelssohn.

With his family resources, he could afford to commission new work. Prokofiev's Piano Concerto No 4, Benjamin Britten's Diversions for Piano Left Hand and Orchestra, and Richard Strauss's Parergon - or by-product - on the Symphonia Domestica, and the Panathenäenzug were among the 17 specials written for Paul Wittgenstein.

Ravel heard him play Strauss in Vienna. He'd never written a concerto for the piano before, never mind one for the left hand alone.

He set about writing two, one for himself and the other for the one-armed pianist.

Both were premiered in January 1932, Ravel conducting one, Wittgenstein performing the other. They've turned out to be two of the most enduring modern compositions in the piano repertoire.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday and Sunday.

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