A musical commemoration of World War I

It’s the hundredth anniversary of the start of World War I this year, and I’ve seen some touching tributes. This is the first I’ve heard of a musical one, though. The London Symphony Orchestra and the Berlin Philharmonic have recorded a couple of pieces together under Simon Rattle, to commemorate the dead. Mark Brown, in The Guardian:

The commemoration at the St Symphorien military cemetery is one of three big events taking place on 4 August – the centenary of the declaration of war – and the only one with cultural content.

Rattle chose two works for the LSO and Berlin Phil to record: the last movement of Brahms’s German Requiem and George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad. The latter is laden with symbolism as Butterworth himself died in the trenches.

It’s a beautiful idea, and the pieces are well-chosen. I hadn’t heard of Butterworth before reading this piece, but using a piece by a composer who died in the war is as moving and true a tribute as I can think of. I took a short trip around some of the war sites in Belgium earlier this year, and what stayed with me most of all is what a pointless waste of life it all was.

Later in the piece, Brown mentions some problems that the orchestras had to overcome in playing together. Quoting Nicholas Kenyon, the creative consultant on the project: “There were interesting little problems, like they don’t play at exactly the same pitch.”

I knew that orchestras on the west and east of the Pacific used to play at slightly different pitches, but I’d thought that as recording spread, those changes were pretty much wiped out. There’s a video on YouTube where you can hear, in chronological order, the first two chords of every major recording of Beethoven’s third symphony. At first, it’s jarring, even unpleasant, with sometimes major differences in pitching. As you come into the sixties and seventies, though, it starts to feel more like a warped record, with generally just slight variations. You get to the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries, and the only outliers are those played on traditional instruments, pitched noticeably lower than modern ones.

I suppose that at the level of these orchestras, the differences in fine tuning only become apparent when they play together.

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