Paul on Brooks and Bashford and Magee, 'Over Here, Over There: Transatlantic Conversations on the Music of World War I'

William Brooks, Christina Bashford, Gayle Magee, eds.
Alex Paul

William Brooks, Christina Bashford, Gayle Magee, eds. Over Here, Over There: Transatlantic Conversations on the Music of World War I. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2019. Illustrations. 280 pp. $99.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04270-6; $30.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08454-6. 

Reviewed by Alex Paul (University of Houston) Published on H-War (October, 2021) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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World War I marked the high point for wartime musical production and participation. This was especially true for the Allied nations of France, Britain, the United States, and Canada, whose leaders vigorously encouraged communal patriotic music making and singing as an integral part of their respective war efforts. The emergence and rise in popularity of radio, records, and sound films in the interwar years ensured that no subsequent major war would sound the same or feature so much musical participation. Over the last two decades or so, music historians and musicologists have begun to publish a number of studies on national musical responses to World War I. Collectively, they have called attention to the extensive and rich wartime musical sources that still have much more to say about the history of this dynamic and momentous period. Containing ten essays, edited by William Brooks, Christina Bashford, and Gayle Magee, Over Here, Over There: Transatlantic Conversations on the Music of World War I extends its analysis beyond the national to the transnational. Using a variety of methodologies to examine the World War I musical repositories of France, Britain, the United States, and Canada, Over Here, Over There argues that, in addition to building local and national communities in response to the wartime threat, music played a significant role in strengthening transatlantic alliances between the Allies.

The transatlantic collaboration that led to the eventual publication of this volume began in 2015 with two international conferences featuring diverse scholarship on how World War I music influenced Allied relations. Over Here, Over There contains a collection of essays focused on wartime musical responses that “ranged from those by single individuals on through responses that were communal, local, regional, national, and global” (p. 2). The editors describe the essays as more of an extended conversation and ongoing inquiry between scholars than an authoritative work. The result is an excellent volume that convincingly demonstrates the importance of music in reinforcing transatlantic Allied relations during World War I, and it prepares the way for future scholarship in this area.

Over Here, Over There initially focuses on individuals before shifting to examining communities. Divided in half, the volume’s first section contains five essays, each examining the wartime music of either a French, British, or American composer. Part 1 begins with two essays exploring music created in Britain and in the United States in response to the sinking of the Lusitania on May 7, 1915. Christina Bashford analyzes Frank Bridge’s Lament for string orchestra, a piece written in the memory of Catherine Crompton, the daughter of a well-known English businessman, whose entire family of eight perished when returning home on the Lusitania. Bridge was a British composer and master violinist and violist. For his Lament, Bridge chose to use the relatively new medium of string orchestra—whose violins and violas can replicate human-sounding sobs of grief. By World War I, the listening public recognized that well-heeled women routinely played in string orchestras, and, as Bashford argues, Bridge chose the title of “Lament” because it is a vocal genre traditionally sung by women that expresses grief, adding “further gendered signification” (p. 28). Bashford contends that Bridge’s choice of a genre and orchestra so strongly associated with women led to a performance of the Lament that created a communal feeling of mourning between Americans and the British who shared in the grief caused by the German submarine attack. Further emphasizing the significance of the sinking of the Lusitania as a critical event that reinforced Anglo-American relations, Gayle Magee identifies music that encapsulates New Yorkers’ visceral reaction to news of the submarine attack. Magee examines composer Charles Ives’s third movement of Orchestral Set No. 2, “From Hanover Square North,” which commemorated those who died on the Cunard liner. When news reached the United States that the Germans had sunk the Lusitania, Ives witnessed an outpouring of grief while waiting for a train in New York City. At Hanover Square station, Ives watched and listened as passengers responded to the loss of life by singing along to a familiar hymn tune. Deeply moved and wanting to capture the spontaneous emotions of strangers coming together in such a moment of crisis, the composer adopted the tune in “From Hanover Square North.”

Barbara L. Kelly provides a third example of how Allied composers portrayed German war atrocities and used them as inspiration for their music, which emphasized the destructiveness and callousness of the German military. Kelly examines France’s leading experimental composer during World War 1, Claude Debussy, and how he accurately captured the public mood and spoke for France in the 1915 carol “Noël des enfants qui n’ont plus de maison.” Employing Christian associations and written from the perspective of a child who lost everything in the summer of 1914, “Noël” is an emotional response to German war atrocities that demands punishment for the perpetrators. “Noël” was played at charity events at the beginning of the war to receptive audiences, and some scholars regard it as propaganda. Kelly’s research of Debussy’s private correspondence from this period, however, reveals that the carol contained Debussy’s own views on the German invasion. Kelly argues that “Noël” demonstrates Debussy’s immense influence through his music, and the capacity of music to capture a particular moment in the war and the national response to it.

Patrick Warfield and Jeffrey Magee center their research on two famous musical entertainers who wrote and performed patriotic music to large appreciative crowds while serving in the US military. Warfield tracks how the American military bandleader and composer John Philip Sousa recaptured his erstwhile fame during the war, emerging as a national hero whose music provides a window into the changing mood of the American public and its leaders. Warfield argues that throughout the war, Sousa’s public statements, his music, and his acceptance of a naval commission—giving him the opportunity to lead a major military band that roused the public with patriotic performances—reveals that Sousa purposefully mirrored national sentiment. As Americans gradually became more belligerent, Sousa stopped supporting neutrality, began championing military preparedness, and, eventually, promoted jingoist aggression. Magee turns to the internationally renowned songwriter Irving Berlin, highlighting how Berlin’s World War I Broadway show, Yip Yip Yaphank, inspired his hugely successful World War II international show, This Is the Army. During World War I, after Berlin was drafted into the US Army, and he convinced his commanding officer that he could produce a camp show starring the young servicemen of Long Island’s Camp Upton, Berlin wrote and produced Yaphank. Magee asserts that both Yaphank and This Is the Army particularly resonated with Americans during both world wars because Berlin normalized wartime life on stage by focusing on the common soldier’s experience, using humor and pathos to capture the banality of camp life as well as the realities of war.

The second half of Over Here, Over There explores musical communities, ranging from the local to the transnational, that emerged or were transformed during World War I. Part 2 begins with Michelle Meinhart’s examination of the rich musical life at an auxiliary military hospital in an English stately home, whose staff treated wounded soldiers from several Allied nations. The inhabitants of the hospital, from the aristocratic owners of the house to the convalescing soldiers, enthusiastically played music and sang together. Not only did this help wounded soldiers heal and boosted morale, but, as Meinhart argues, communal music making and singing also helped to dissolve national and social boundaries, creating a remarkably united transnational and trans-class wartime community. Brian C. Thompson’s study of Canada’s musical response to World War I also demonstrates how music reinforced transatlantic relations. Music was important to Canadians, but, as Thompson points out, historians and musicologists agree that they did not produce any great or enduring wartime music during World War I. In 1914, Canada was still a member of the British Empire, 70 percent of Canadian military volunteers were British immigrants, and Whitehall decided Canada’s foreign policy—including declaring war. Thompson concludes that Canadians did not leave a national musical legacy because they mostly played British music and sang British songs, reflecting their status as British subjects.

Kendra Preston Leonard uncovers a previously hidden wartime community by highlighting the overlooked importance of women as musical accompanists in American cinemas during the early twentieth century. Initially, it was mostly men who played pianos, and later organs, to accompany silent movies. However, as Leonard shows, during the Progressive Era, well-educated women were uniquely qualified as cinema accompanists, and they began making inroads into the profession. Most female cinema musicians had taken piano and singing lessons as part of their upbringing, so they were suitably trained to create and play music to accompany moving pictures. Regarded as arbiters of morality, women accompanists often attracted larger and more genteel audiences than their male counterparts. Once the United States entered World War I, even more women entered the profession as they began replacing male musicians who joined the armed services, eventually equaling or outnumbering men as cinema accompanists. Leonard reveals that these women often improvised and created their own music, playing an important part in shaping the sound of early cinema and the sound of patriotic expressions during World War I.

William Brooks traces Americans’ changing wartime sentiments through a statistical study of music created in response to the service flag, which was initially displayed with a blue star in the windows of families to recognize their relatives serving in the military and later with a smaller gold star stitched over the blue to honor those who never returned. Analyzing three different publishers of songs, three distinct types of songs, and changes in the subject matter of lyrics, Brooks reveals important trends. Brooks distinguishes between the publishers who produced the most songs containing references to service flags between 1917 and 1921. Tin Pan Alley, a publisher of commercial songs, was the most prominent until Kitchen Table publishers, who were often driven by civic concerns, began to dominate between the spring and fall of 1918. Afterward, “Song Sharks,” who published customers’ lyrics for a fee, rose to prominence. During the same period, Brooks tracks topical changes in songs, from those written about soldiers, to songs about mothers, and then to songs about national mourning in the later years of the study. Meanwhile, there was a move away from songs written by and focused on men to songs written by and focused on women. Brooks’s insightful study of 255 service-flag songs demonstrates how music, lyrics, and music makers revealed shifts in Americans’ social attitudes during World War I—from patriotic enthusiasm, encouraging men into military service, to mourning and remembrance, as American casualties mounted and the war eventually ended.

In the final essay, Deniz Ertan’s exploration of the relationship between American music and the 1918 influenza pandemic could not be timelier, as Americans and the rest of the world struggle to live through the COVID-19 pandemic. At various times, the 1918 influenza pandemic shut down live musical entertainment in the United States, silencing immediate lyrical responses. The government’s suppression of negative news during wartime, President Woodrow Wilson’s unwillingness to speak publicly about the pandemic, the ubiquitousness of patriotic music, and widespread communal singing of patriotic songs set the stage for a national effort to forget the suffering caused by the deadly influenza outbreak. Even after the war, few musicians created music about the pandemic. Ertan argues that the lack of music about the influenza outbreak was consistent with a national silencing that continued after the war, as Americans tried to forget the failures of science and government to protect them from the misery of the virus. Ertan’s findings provide relevant insight into how Americans might remember—or try to forget—the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Collectively, the ten essays in Over Here, Over There convincingly argue that music was effective at creating communities and strengthening ties between groups during World War I, both within Allied nations and transnationally with co-belligerents. Following the end of the war, however, as Brooks and Bashford point out, in the United States and in Great Britain, several white communities violently attacked racial and ethnic groups that they regarded as outsiders or second-class citizens. Patriotic war music and singing was at the forefront of national efforts to create unity and helped to define who belonged and who did not. In recent years, as unity within nations and across borders has appeared incredibly illusive, historians of wartime communities and armies have begun to focus more on internal divisions. Understanding to what degree World War I music increased the alienation of national minorities and bolstering of white supremacy and ethnocentrism would reveal important connections between wartime cultural practices and racial and ethnic violence and other exclusionary practices. The challenge music historians and musicologists must overcome to uncover these connections and other silences in the historical record is that nations at war suppressed critical voices, as well as unpatriotic music, leaving skewed archival evidence that says as much about what it is missing as it does about the triumphalist historical narrative that often emerges.

Over Here, Over There has many strengths. Above all, the authors use a range of innovative methodological approaches to uncover overlooked historical narratives. For example, Leonard’s and Bashford’s respective use of a gendered approach reveals the significant contributions of a community of female cinema accompanists and the gendered underpinnings of Bridge’s Lament for string orchestra, and Brooks’s statistical study of service-flag songs sheds light on how the American public’s focus shifted over time, from militancy to mourning and remembrance. The varied methodologies used in this volume not only support the arguments made in each essay but also serve as a model for other scholars who can apply similar approaches when asking historical questions of musical sources. Additionally, each author intertwines musicology and history in such a way that the reader never loses sight of either the music or its historical significance. Consequently, Over Here, Over There illustrates that the music of World War I provides a window through which scholars can see the changing mood of different communities and its influences. As Kelly and Warfield demonstrate in their respective studies on Debussy and Sousa, while wartime music and musical productions often reflected public sentiment, they also had the power to magnify popular feelings. Over Here, Over There convincingly demonstrates the value of using a transnational approach for studying World War I music, and it provides much inspiration for further research, especially for the field of comparative studies. Musicologists, music historians, war and society historians, and other scholars interested in World War I will benefit from reading this accessible collection of essays.

Citation: Alex Paul. Review of Brooks, William; Bashford, Christina; Magee, Gayle, eds., Over Here, Over There: Transatlantic Conversations on the Music of World War I. H-War, H-Net Reviews. October, 2021. URL:

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