World War One came at a time of transition for English composers. The older generation were at the end of their reign, and a younger generation (of enlistment age) were being trained up, largely by the Royal College of Music. Ivor Gurney (1890–1937), Arthur Bliss (1891–1975) and Herbert Howells (1892–1983) were all students in 1914. Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958), rather older than the undergraduate composers, interrupted his work to enlist.
Those who saw action returned deeply affected by their experience. Yet this seemingly shattered generation was to prove the vanguard of a renaissance in British music in the post-war years. They poured their experiences into works such as Vaughan Williams’s haunting Pastoral Symphony (1922).
But writing on the front line was virtually impossible, and most ‘war music’ was written by those not on active service. As the pre-eminent composer of the time, Sir Edward Elgar (1857–1934) naturally felt it his responsibility to write pieces that might inspire and console. He came closest to achieving this with this piece, perhaps: The Spirit of England, a setting of words by Laurence Binyon (1869–1943).
Initially it proved hugely popular. But as the war progressed, emotional needs changed. By the end of the conflict, the emphasis was far more on a piece that would express people’s grief, and serve as a memorial to the dead.