About 37 million people, both soldiers and civilians, died during the First World War. More than 60 million lost their lives two decades later during World War II. These two cataclysmic events, which defined and shaped the 20th century, erased families that had existed for centuries and nearly caused two generations of young men to all but disappear.
The two wars cast a long shadow over those who survived. It changed who they were and how they saw the world. For two composers, the Hungarian Bela Bartok and the Russian Dmitri Shostakovich, the horrific times also forever transformed the music they created.
“They were very affected by what’s going on, and it was coming out in their music,” Dr. Jeffrey Wood, Austin Peay State University professor of music, said. “They’re violent pieces. They’re aggressive to the point of almost being primitive, barbaric. I sense the war very close to the surface.”
Wood also found the music to be elegiac and beautiful. And he felt now was the time to share these works, and what they represent, with the community. At 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 17, he’ll perform a selection of Bartok’s and Shostakovich’s music at the APSU Music/Mass Communication Building Concert Hall, titled “In the Shadow of War: Currents in 20th Century Music, 1910-1950.”
“It struck me about the possibility of doing a recital using pieces that were, in a sense, written in a shadow with the war as a dominant thing,” Wood said. “We’re right now in this weird state culturally where there is a war going on, but you sure wouldn’t know it. Less so in this community because there’s a greater immediacy, but there has been a tendency to ignore it because it isn’t the size of either World War I or World War II.”
The concert, as arranged by Wood, tells a sort of story of the times. It opens with the Bartok piece “Four Dirges,” which, though it was written in 1910, hints with its dark themes of the atrocities to come. The program consists of two pieces by each composer, and ends with the Shostakovich work, “Prelude and Fuge in D minor,” which was written around 1950.
“‘The Prelude and Fugue’ is very triumphal in a way,” Wood said. “It’s as if he’s saying in spite of everything that’s happened you haven’t got me yet.”
Wood admits the pieces aren’t easy on the listener. They reflect a sadness and fear prevalent in those days, but he defends them as not only moving and beautiful, but culturally significant.
“War impacts our culture whether we acknowledge it or not,” he said. “These two composers were looking at the world around them without blinking, something I sometimes think we don’t do enough of.”