In 1910, Fritz Kreisler (1875-1962) was at the top of his game! He had just premiered the Elgar Violin Concerto under the composer’s direction at Queen’s Hall in London, and he was revered as one of the finest instrumentalists of his day. Kreisler was a commissioned officer in the Austrian reserve, and at the outbreak of WWI he got word that his regiment, the Third Army Corps, had received an order for mobilization.
As a musician, Kreisler was particularly interested in the sounds of war, “My ear, accustomed to differentiate sounds of all kinds, had some time ago, while we still advanced, noted a remarkable discrepancy in the peculiar whine produced by the different shells in their rapid flight through the air as they passed over our heads, some sounding shrill, with a rising tendency, and the others rather dull, with a falling cadence.” Enthusiasm for the war quickly faded, however, and Kreisler was wounded by a Russian bayonet and lay injured in the trench for seven hours. He was eventually transferred to the field hospital where his wife was serving at as a nurse. His injuries were severe enough to be declared unfit for army duty, and he was exempt from further service.
Fritz Kreisler: Caprice Viennois, Op. 2 (1917 version)
André Caplet (1878-1925) is probably best known for his close association with Claude Debussy. Debussy quickly recognized Caplet’s talent for orchestration, and gave him permission to transcribe and orchestrate a number of his famous piano works. Debussy was already in ill health, so he relied on Caplet to correct proofs, finish the orchestration and conduct the premiere of his cantata Le martyre de Saint Sebastien in 1911. In addition, Caplet was a most talented composer who earned top marks at the Paris Conservatory and took the Prix de Rome in 1901, beating amongst others including Maurice Ravel! When Caplet was appointed conductor at the Boston Opera Company in 1910, his future looked radiantly bright. However, at the end of 1914 he signed up as a volunteer for the French army and was assigned to the extremely active trenches of Verdun. Promoted to the rank of sergeant, Caplet was wounded during a heavy bombardment in May of 1915, and he was subject to a horrific gas attack that left his lungs permanently damaged. Caplet managed to compose a number of works in the trenches, and he turned to Catholic mysticism to psychologically deal with the insanity of the war. With his health severely damaged, he focused almost exclusively on composition following the armistice, and completed his choral masterwork Le miroir de Jésus in 1923. The composer himself conducted the debut performance in Paris on 1 May 1924, and Caplet was dead less than a year later.
André Caplet: Le Miroir de Jésus
“I can hardly imagine most musicians as soldiers. Bach as a staff-sergeant (handing over a pair of oversized boots), that would be okay, but Beethoven practicing rifle drill, Mozart throwing hand-grenades or standing guard in front of a barracks; Schubert as an air force lieutenant and Mendelssohn as an NCO at a vehicle fleet convoy? They are inconceivable.” This was Paul Hindemith’s (1895-1963) reaction when he was conscripted to the German army in 1917. Due to physical weakness and heart defects, Hindemith had initially been rejected, but a shortage of men eventually forced his participation. Paul’s father had already been killed in the war, and with a great sense of trepidation, Paul was assigned to the Reserve Infantry 222. Luckily for him, Paul was placed in charge of the regimental band, and he even formed a string quartet with fellow soldiers. However, during the last weeks of the war, Hindemith was posted to the Western Front at Flanders. “Towards evening eight bombs landed near the town,” he wrote in his diary. “One hit the ammunition convoy that was camping 10 minutes away from us…A horrible sight. Blood, bodies full of holes, brain, a torn-off horse’s head, splintered bones. Dreadful! How mean and indifferent one becomes.” During the final week of the war, Hindemith was ordered to the trenches as a sentry and he survived a grenade attack only “by a miracle.” He composed his second string quartet between January and April 1918 while he was an active soldier in the field. Free from the horrors of the war, the composition seemingly allows for a physical and psychological escape into a different reality.
Paul Hindemith: String Quartet No. 2, Op. 10