Music, a prime means of expressing the human experience, has been closely connected to warfare from earliest times.
Music, a prime means of expressing the human experience, has been closely connected to warfare from earliest times. Within military establishments, music fosters team spirit, conveys signals, and provides the cadence for coordinated marching. Music also plays a vital liturgical role, invoking God’s help in battle and celebrating victory. Less formally, most cultures have created a large genre of “soldiers’ music” sung by fighting men and women. A large body of civilian music also reflects on war, ranging from simple tunes about soldiers seen on the street to magnificent orchestral works that conjure up a purified battlefield experience. The nineteenth and especially the twentieth century also saw the rise of antiwar music at both the popular and the concert-hall levels.
The scholarly trend of studying “war and society” rather than narrow battlefield history has encouraged investigation of the intersection between music and warfare. Music offers a practically unmined wealth of sources that reveal what society at large has thought of the experience of war–and what the soldiers felt about the matter. Study of music and warfare is, however, still in its infancy. There are major studies of the music of the U.S. Civil War (1861-1865), the two world wars (1914-1918, 1939-1945), and the Vietnam War (1961-1975), but the war music of earlier eras has scarcely been touched.
It is likely that Egyptian and Mesopotamian armies also used “trumpets” (bored animal horns) for military signals. That other early civilizations also used musical instruments for signals is suggested by the terra-cotta army of
Songs about war, most notably
Evidence becomes better in the
The evidence for the intersection of music and warfare gradually improves during the course of the Middle Ages. The idea of armies marching in step was lost to Europe with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, but other forms of war music continued in the Germanic successor states. Especially noteworthy was a substantial body of German-language
The European Middle Ages also shed more light on liturgical music before and after military endeavors. Most notable is the
A system of
The short medieval songs that have survived tend to be positive. A notable example is the
The Agincourt carol was widely popular in England and probably facilitated recruitment for King Henry V’s ongoing war in France. Not all songs about war and fighting men were positive, however. One of the most popular songs of the fifteenth century was the French
A facsimile of the Agincourt carol in the Bodleian Library, Oxford.
The composer indulged in considerable word painting, raising the pitch as he told of a proclamation that all should be armed and clothing the whole song in an awkward rhythm that hints at how unsettling the presence of soldiers could be.
The greatest innovation in war music of the medieval era, however, came from the
A new development was programmatic
The great flowering of concert war music came in the nineteenth century, though, with great works like Ludwig van Beethoven’s Wellington’s Victory (1813) and Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture (1880), which even incorporates cannon explosions and church bells. The tradition continued into the twentieth century, taking new life in the form of movie sound tracks, such as Sergei Prokofiev’s score for the film Alexander Nevsky (1938), which celebrates Russia’s victory over the Teutonic Knights in the fifteenth century.
Other songs, dear to both civilians and soldiers, continued to reflect on the high cost of war. Some of the most tuneful came from Ireland, whose sons died for centuries in Britain’s foreign wars. The early nineteenth century “Johnny, I Hardly Knew Ye,” tells of a young man marching proudly to war, only to return blind and crippled. Based on it, the U.S. Civil War’s “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” (1863) interjected a somber commentary on the human cost of that war. The text is cheerful:
The melody, however, tells a different tale, its minor key and dissonance proclaiming that Johnny never in fact came home, and the singers’ expectations were doomed to disappointment.
World War I (1914-1918) saw a great outpouring of troop music, both positive and negative, about warfare. Perhaps the catchiest of all the pro-war songs was the American George M. Cohan’s 1917 hit “Over There.” It proclaims to the world “The Yanks are coming” to join the war, concluding with the bold boast: “We’ll be over, we’re coming over/ And we won’t come back till it’s over, over there!” Such a song, penned by an American who had never seen a trench, was simply not enough for the soldiers living through the war, though. The troops wrote their own songs–bitter, often ribald, and harshly critical of their officers. An example is the British “Hanging on the Old Barbed Wire,” which tells how sergeants and officers are safe (and often drunk), while the privates are “hanging on barbed wire.” It was so inflammatory that the British officers tried to suppress it.
Two novelties stand out in the music of World War II: the conscious manipulation of
In the wars of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries,
Andresen, Lee. Battle Notes: Music of the Vietnam War Superior, Wis.: Savage Press, 2003. Examines how the music of the Vietnam War era reflected the changing public attitudes toward the conflict during the 1960’s. Arnold, Ben. Music and War: A Research and Information Guide. New York: Garland, 1993. Looks at the aims composers had in the creation of war-related music. Bohlman, Philip V. The Music of European Nationalism. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2004. Examines the dialectic between music and European nationalism during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Jones, John B. The Songs That Fought the War: Popular Music and the Home Front, 1939-1945. Waltham, Mass.: Brandeis University Press, 2006. One of many books on the music of American conflicts, this one examines how music communicated war aims during World War II. Pieslak, Jonathan R. Sound Targets: American Soldiers and Music in the Iraq War. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2009. This work looks at America’s most recent conflict, examining changing social attitudes over the course of the war. Winstock, Lewis S. Songs and Music of the Redcoats: A History of the War Music of the British Army, 1642-1902. Harrisburg, Pa.: Stackpole Books, 1970. Using the rise of the British Empire as a case study, this study examines the role that such music played both in the military and in the national consciousness.
Art and Warfare
Commemoration of War
Film and Warfare
Ideology and War
Literature and Warfare
Religion and Warfare
Television and Warfare