A Dream of Germany

Music’s War-Torn World


‘Now I am indeed in the musical Germany of which I have so long dreamed.’
Henry Chorley, Music Critic of The Athenaeum, in Leipzig in 1839

Even after a hundred years, nations struggle with the legacy of the Great War. Recently, Germany raised the delicate subject of the United Kingdom’s approach to the 2014 centenary, hoping it would shun triumphalism and celebrate the achievements of peace. Historically, musicians make a splendid case-study of the fruitfulness of international amity. For many, many years British composers were inspired to study and work in Leipzig, Dresden, Frankfurt and Berlin, while German musicians pursued careers in London. The sudden loss of centuries of fertile musical exchange between Britain and the great cultural centres of Germany is one of the least appreciated consequences of the Great War. To mark the centenary, Joseph Spooner, Mark Wilde and David Owen Norris present a series of concerts that celebrate the composers for whom there was no cultural divide.

The full version of this project may be heard in London on 5 October, and in Oxford on 8 November. For this and other programmes featuring this repertoire, see my Performances 2014 page.


Back in the eighteenth century, musicians from Leipzig found that Great Britain, with its German-speaking court, was a desirable haven from the stresses of the Seven Years’ War. Carl Friedrich Abel, for whom JS Bach wrote the gamba sonatas, arrived in London in 1759, the piano-maker Zumpe followed in 1760, and JC Bach arrived in 1762. Zumpe invented a new type of square piano, and Bach & Abel wrote concertos for it – the world’s first piano concertos, created in London by Germans.

In the 1830s and 1840s Felix Mendelssohn was the darling of English musical society, and his orchestra and conservatoire at Leipzig became the focal point of all English musical aspiration. William Sterndale Bennett, later Professor at Cambridge and Principal of the Royal Academy of Music, was taken under Mendelssohn’s wing there in 1836. After the latter’s death, the Mendelssohn scholarship brought Sterndale Bennett’s pupil Arthur Sullivan to study at the Leipzig Conservatoire from 1858 to 1861. John Francis Barnett was a fellow student of Sullivan’s, who went on to become professor of composition at the Guildhall School of Music in London.

Charles Villiers Stanford, one of the most successful composition teachers of all time, with Holst, Vaughan Williams, Herbert Howells & Arthur Bliss amongst his pupils, studied in Leipzig and Berlin. Hubert Parry, Professor at Oxford and Director of the Royal College of Music, after lessons in London with Sterndale Bennett and in Stuttgart with the English émigré Henry Hugo Pierson, ended up back in London with the German émigré, Edward Dannreuther, who had studied in Leipzig under Moscheles. Walter Battison Haynes, a chorister at Malvern, studied in Leipzig too, under Carl Reinecke. Edward Elgar, too poor and provincial to manage his dream of formal study there, nonetheless enjoyed a whirlwind fortnight of concerts over New Year 1883. Fritz (later Frederick) Delius studied there from 1886 to 1888.

In the later nineteenth century an Anglo-German musical community thrived in Dresden, just down the railway-line from Leipzig. Gerard Cobb, who had been a student at Trinity College, Cambridge, studied in Dresden at the encouragement of Sterndale Bennett. He returned to Trinity College and became the Bursar, in which capacity he helped Stanford, another Trinity man, to get to Leipzig. Cobb’s settings of Kipling’s Barrack Room Ballads enjoyed an enormous vogue during the Boer War. Most prominent of the Dresden Anglo-German musicians was the composer Percy Sherwood, who was actually born there. He won the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1889. At the outbreak of the Great War, he was on holiday in England, and subsequently lived permanently in London, abandoning his brilliant German career for a life as a jobbing harmony teacher – one of music’s minor tragedies.

George Dyson won the Mendelssohn Scholarship in 1905. During the Great War Dyson wrote the official British handbook on How to Throw a Hand Grenade – a foretaste of his successes in more musical aspects of education, which eventually saw him the Director of the Royal College of Music in London. His Epigrams for solo piano present a day-in-the-life of a soldier in the trenches.

The way in which the War interrupted the friendly musical interchange between Britain & Germany is dramatically illustrated on the manuscript of Sigfrid Karg-Elert’s brilliant virtuoso piano transcription of Elgar’s symphonic study Falstaff. Novello’s had already published Karg-Elert’s transcriptions of Elgar’s two symphonies. But after his signature at the end of the Falstaff transcription comes a note:

Leipzig, on the 6th day of mobilization 1914

Karg-Elert signed up as a regimental musician. The transcription was never published. The Anglo-German musical dream suffered a rude awakening.

Sir Hubert Parry’s son-in-law, the politician Arthur Ponsonby, later Leader of the Labour Party in the House of Lords, wrote in his diary on New Year’s Eve 1914:

Never can 1914 be forgotten. The time before August seems so remote that it is almost impossible to believe it was really this year. The war occupies the whole field of one’s vision and has filled my mind every day and every hour since the awful opening days of August. It has been an inward and personal growing pain and a shattering of all my views on morals, politics, religion and the whole life of mankind: … the chaos into which everyone and everything was hurled; and most of all the utter unnecessariness of it all.

Had there been a great cause, a great provocation, a great attack, a great danger, the fearful event of a European war would have seemed justified and natural. But there was no reason, no cause, no animosity, no national peril, nothing but a hopeless clumsy utterly meaningless diplomatic entanglement for which all the Powers were more or less responsible: and here we are with awful losses of life daily, suffering, ruin, increasing hardship, growing dislocation of national life and nothing but despair or the false note of jingo arrogance and self-righteousness.


All programmes, except the evening one, last about one hour.


I. 11.30: Teachers & Pupils 1830–1880


Sullivan Duo Concertante
Mendelssohn Songs without Words
Sullivan Shakespeare Songs
Sterndale Bennett Sonata Duo


This concert draws upon the unusually rich teacher-pupil chain of Mendelssohn-Bennett-Sullivan. Mendelssohn’s first book of Songs without Words was first published in London, under the title Original Melodies for the Pianoforte. The Sonata Duo is Sterndale Bennett’s finest chamber work, while the little-known Duo Concertante and the Shakespeare songs show very clearly that Sullivan had no particular need of Gilbert except when writing comic operas.


II. 3pm: High Victorians 1880–1900


Stanford tr. Grainger Four Irish Dances
Battison Haynes Vier Lieder
Delius Zwei Lieder
Parry Songs
Sherwood First Cello Sonata


Battison Haynes & Delius are perfectly at home in the German language. I have recently recorded Sherwood’s cello music with David Owen Norris. The reviews have been excellent.


III. 5pm: The Regimental Musician & the Volunteer Reservist


Elgar tr. Karg-Elert            Falstaff


In the opinion of many commentators, including Tovey, Falstaff is Elgar’s finest piece. This transcription, building on Karg-Elert’s work on both of Elgar’s symphonies, certainly does the piece justice. Reviewers of Norris’s recording of Karg-Elert’s remarkable transcription have clamoured for the opportunity to hear the piece live. The transcriber’s note at the end of the manuscript – Leipzig, on the 6th day of mobilization 1914 – dramatizes the effect of the War on friendly musical relationships. In August 1914 Elgar signed on at Hampstead Police Station as a Special Constable, and in 1915 he progressed to the Volunteer Reserve, learning how to hold a rifle. Karg-Elert, whose daughter was born in April 1914, became a regimental musician for the duration of the War.


IV. 7.30pm: The Great War


Dyson Epigrams
Cobb Barrack-Room Ballads (Kipling)
Sullivan The Absent-Minded Beggar (Kipling)
Stanford Crossing the Bar (Tennyson)
JF Barnett Chant séraphique
Elgar Carillon (Cammaerts)
Dyson Cello Sonata
Karg-Elert Sechs Kriegslieder im Volkston (Dehmel)
Cello Sonata


The Kipling settings show what people thought the life of a soldier was. Dyson’s Epigrams, written in the trenches, present a glimpse of the more terrible truth. The two cello sonatas date from the first decade of the twentieth century, and present all the beauty and hedonistic glamour of the time. Barnett’s piece was published a year before his death, in the midst of the War. Karg-Elert’s Six War-Songs in Folksong-style are strophic settings with the same simple aesthetic aspiration as Cobb’s ballads. They will be sung by our German singer.


Elgar’s Carillon is a tour de force of compositional technique, the bell-chime ostinato ringing throughout as it accompanies the speaker’s declamation. It was first performed in December 1914. The text is a passionate poem by a Belgian refugee, Emile Cammaerts.


Tennyson decreed that his elegiac poem Crossing the Bar – a simile of the passage from life to death suggested by the Isle of Wight ferry and the harbour bar in Southampton Water – must always conclude any collection of his poetry. Stanford’s setting of it is his most remarkable work.