Ode to Death


In artistic terms, World War One is mostly remembered through literature and poetry, but composers responded to the conflict too, in various ways. Writing at the front itself presented many practical difficulties. Poet and songwriter Ivor Gurney (1890–1937), for instance, was one of the new generation of British composers of enlistment age during the war. He returned after 15 months at the front having been shot and gassed, but carrying five of his most enduring songs, some written practically in the front line. One mud-spattered manuscript, a setting of By a bierside, was written by the light of a stump of candle in a trench mortar emplacement.

Therefore, most ‘war music’ was written by those not on active service. Gustav Holst (1874–1934) – who had dropped the ‘von’ from his name to avoid the anti-German sentiment of the time, even though he came from Cheltenham – had anticipated the ferocity of the war with his cataclysmic Mars, Bringer of War from his suite The Planets in 1914, though he always denied it was linked directly to World War I itself.

Indeed, he wrote little during the war itself that directly reflected the conflict, but his Ode to Death of 1918–19 is held by many to be his most beautiful choral work. Written on Holst’s return from Salonica, where he had been helping to organise musical entertainment for the troops, it sets words by the US poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892).

Full title:
Ode to Death
Music / Manuscript
Gustav Holst
Held by:
British Library
© Gustav Holst

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