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  • At the Tomb of Couperin – Thoughts on a Centenary

    Posted by Sgt. Mom on November 11th, 2018 (All posts by )

    There is a lovely little classical piece by Maurice Ravel – Le Tombeau de Couperin, composed shortly after the end of the war, five of the six movements dedicated to the memory of an individual, and one for a pair of brothers, all close friends of the composer, every one of them fallen in a war of such ghastliness that it not only put paid to a century of optimistic progress, but barely twenty years later it birthed another and hardly less ghastly war. Maurice Ravel himself was over-age, under-tall and not in the most robust of health, but such was the sense of national emergency that he volunteered for the military anyway, eventually serving as a driver – frequently under fire and in danger. Not the usual place to find one of France’s contemporarily-famous composers, but they did things differently at the end of the 19th Century and heading all wide-eyed and optimistic into the 20th. Citizens of the intellectual and artistic ilk were not ashamed of their country, or feel obliged to apologize for a patriotic attachment, or make a show of sullen ingratitude for having been favored by the public in displaying their talents.

    The war whose casualties Ravel memorialized in that way ended exactly a hundred years ago today; the eleventh month, eleventh day, eleventh hour. It seems now to have been unimaginably distant at this point. The soldiers who fought in it for every nation and yet managed by pluck and luck to survive are all gone now … but like a long-healed wound, that war left horrific scars both physical and psychic. Woodlands and meadows the length of the Western Front across Belgium and France to this day are still marked by trenchworks, crumbling fortifications, the soil still poisoned by chemicals. All across Europe, Great Britain, Canada, Australia, Germany, what remained of Austria-Hungary – and the US, to a lesser extent – the smallest villages and the largest cities alike have memorials. Sometimes they are in odd corners, most often in a prominent place, with engraved tablets of names; the most notable were usually designed by the architectural great and good, standing on or near the battlefields themselves. The smallest memorials are sometimes the most moving – especially when the same handful of names appear. Everyone in this tiny village would have known this man or that, not just the immediate family and friends. This man, his neighbor, the boy who polished boots or delivered the mail; this and this, a hundred and a thousand times over. When those memorial monuments were first put up, the loss of the men – and sometimes of women – was a raw and savage grief. The observer picks up immediately on the sense of loss, the grief, the futile attempt to make a sense out of the cruelty visited on that community; they were here, they were of value, and now they are gone! The only thing we can do is to remember them.

    The political and psychic scars from the First World War, I think, have proved to be the deepest, and the longest-lasting. We are still dealing politically with the fall-out and the razor-edged shards of broken empires. The Austro-Hungarian empire splintered into component nations; Russia replaced the Romanovs and old ruling nobility with an even more vicious ruling class, the Ottoman Empire both splintered geographically, replacing the old inefficient Sultanate with an equally inefficient and/or vicious assortment of local ruling talent. Germany, wracked in defeat, replaced their supreme ruler serially with inefficient democracy and then crowned that debacle with Hitler, suffering another round of defeat and division. France – gutted of a generation of able, healthy and patriotic young men, required for the continuance of a stable society, those friends whom Ravel honored and mourned in his composition. Great Britain and her far-flung Empire, also gutted of men and the supreme societal self-confidence required to maintain that Empire, fell apart on a slower timetable. Documented in small and large ways in western literature and in even popular contemporary genre novels, the war marked a turning, a vast gulf, a shattering of the old, 19th Century optimism, and the certainty that things were bound – with the aid of science and industry – to only get better and better for that part of the world which thought of itself as ‘civilized.’ To the characters created for a mass audience by Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and any number of others – there seems in retrospect to be a “before” and an “after” to the war, which slashed a sharp dividing line across the cultural landscape; skirts were shorter, morals looser, music louder and more discordant, politics more rancorous, manners coarsened and buildings uglier. The shock and the loss of certainty in so much which had once been thought solid, stable, eternal … the reverberations when the guns finally fell silent on that day are still rippling across our consciousness, even when we don’t quite know why.

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    20 Responses to “At the Tomb of Couperin – Thoughts on a Centenary”

    1. Helian Says:

      Beautifully put, Sgt. Mom. You’ve accurately summarized a lot of history in a short post. I can think of nothing to add but a poem:

      https://www.bartleby.com/104/121.html

    2. Mike K Says:

      We visited one of the sites in 2015 and posted an account here.

      We went on to Waterloo two days later. One the way, we passed one of Marlborough’s
      s battlefields.

      We also passed an entire filled of Brussels Sprouts. I took a photo but don’t know what happened to it.

    3. Gavin Longmuir Says:

      Your finest writing, Sgt. Mom. Metaphorically, I doff my hat.

      Long ago, a very old lady who had been a girl before the Great War told me that the War had been a watershed — nothing was ever the same afterwards. And yet, as Matt Ridley correctly points out in his book “The Rational Optimist”, at the end of the 20th Century after the Great War, the Great Depression, and World War II, more human beings were alive than ever before, healthier and better-fed. It is a conundrum — science & technology have brought abundance around the world on an unprecedented scale … and yet we still have the feeling that something has gone wrong in our societies.

    4. Sgt. Mom Says:

      It is a conundrum, isn’t it? Advances and abundance that were unimaginable in the early days of the 20th century – but I can’t help wondering if those who survived it all – like your very elderly lady – didn’t wonder if it had been worth the sacrifice in lives.
      Just to look at some of the village memorials in little English, French and German towns, and to realize how small they were, and how many of the same surnames were repeated, and to think of how the their surviving kin must have felt…

    5. Brian Says:

      “I can’t help wondering if those who survived it all – like your very elderly lady – didn’t wonder if it had been worth the sacrifice in lives.”
      It’s never dwelt on now, but there was quite a philosophical backlash after the Civil War, leading to the rise in Pragmatism as opposed to the idealism that was viewed as having caused unimaginable bloodshed.

      Modernity has been described as the deal whereby man traded meaning for manna. We’ve not had another horrific war recently, but looking at the numbers of overdoses and suicides, which are buried from the national discussion, one can’t possibly think our current society is sustainable.

    6. Mike K Says:

      “I can’t help wondering if those who survived it all – like your very elderly lady – didn’t wonder if it had been worth the sacrifice in lives.”

      My mother wrote letters to soldiers in WWI although she had nothing like the experience one would have if one was in Europe.

      She remembered the sinking of the Titanic. My kids would fly back to Chicago to spend time with her and hear her stories.

    7. David Foster Says:

      In the French military academy at St-Cyr, there were plaques for each class listing the graduates who had been killed in the various wars. For the class of 1914, there was no need to list the names.

      The plaque said, simply: “The Class of 1914”

    8. Helian Says:

      Here’s a tune appropriate to the day. Sorry about the ad.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uIr-FoBW5Xw

    9. Mike K Says:

      The plaque said, simply: “The Class of 1914”

      The same might be said about the 1950 class from West Point, A lot of them died in Korea.

    10. Sgt. Mom Says:

      The gut-punch line is — about that memorial at St Cyr (IIRC what I read in The Guns of August) that those graduates were all killed in the first month or so of the fighting. Graduating class of young officers, the best and brightest, the most ate-up with patriotic glory and martial ambition — all gone in the first month or so. That has to leave a mark.

    11. Gavin Longmuir Says:

      In the middle of now nearly empty Scottish Highland glens, it is not uncommon to find a WWI monument listing 20 or more names. In those days, regiments were mainly raised from geographic areas, and men from the glen would mostly have served together. People who have researched the names on those monuments say it is not unusual to find that all those young men died within minutes of each other — in one of the many futile charges into machine gun fire. Somewhere, I read a historian saying something along the lines that it took generations of going to church on Sunday to raise men who would charge like that into near-certain death.

      Stepping forward to WWII, there are historical markers in West Texas besides lonely graveyards stating that a township once stood there. In WWII, the young men went to the army and the young women went to the munitions plants in the cities, and none of them ever came back to their former homes. Live or die – war changes things.

    12. oregonjon Says:

      Thank you, Sgt. Mom, for this. You’ve captured these few years of ghastly death with nary a wasted word. Thirty years ago I was living in Melbourne, Australia within walking distance of the Shrine of Remembrance. Every year on Anzac Day (April 25) and Remembrance Day there were haunting ceremonies honoring the departed. It was not just the Europeans and Americans who sacrificed their lives.

    13. Nitay Arbel Says:

      It had somehow escaped me that the piece isn’t just a homage to the French baroque composer François Couperin. Thanks very much!

    14. Anonymous Says:

      Anyone who thought to forecast the 20th Century from 1900 to 1950, nevermind to AD 2000, would have failed as completely, comprehensively, as Humpty Dumpty on his wall. By November 1918 every socio-cultural/political-economic verity meticulously pieced together since Merovingian times had gone a-glimmer (see Robert Graves, “Goodbye to All That”, 1928), while value-neutral scientific/technological advances rendered old-line ethical, moral, withal spiritual, entr’actes impossible to take seriously.

      How now, mad cow? Anyone who thinks 1800 – 1899, 1900 – 1999, 2000 – 2099 were or are foreseeable in any wise is naught but a fool. For laughs, to Century 22 we bruit three themes: Human organic evolution, reproduction, will have given way to hyperlinked, effectively immortal “symbiontic entities”; the bulk of these spontaneously self-emergent, sentient Nodes will be disposed off-Earth in vast intra-solar refugia drifting to the stars; in making nonsense of “scarcity economics”, quantum correlation/correspondence, holographic info-tech, will render meatloaf caste-and-class political advisories irrelevant.

      Just as things get interesting, we kick the bucket. Ah, well… all too many would say that’s a good thing.

    15. huxley Says:

      Well said, indeed, Sgt. Mom.

      Here’s a lovely, sad song commemorating WW I, “Dancing at Whitsun.” As I understand the context, men traditionally danced at Whitsun. However, after WW I so many men had been killed that in many villages there were scarcely any men left to continue the tradition, so the women filled in for them.

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JUoXAVJkvCo

      Down from the green farmlands and from their loved ones
      Marched husbands and brothers and fathers and sons.
      There’s a fine roll of honor where the Maypole once stood,
      And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

      There’s a straight row of houses in these latter days
      All covering the downs where the sheep used to graze.
      There’s a field of red poppies, a wreath from the Queen
      But the ladies remember at Whitsun,
      And the ladies go dancing at Whitsun.

      –John Austin Marshall

    16. Michael Says:

      My grandfather was a recon pilot in the Royal Air.Corps flying rickety biplanes over the German trenches. One day he took fire, but was able to nurse his crippled plane back to friendly territory. Crashing in a French field, he was met by the farmer’s daughter. And that is how my grandfather met my grandmother.

    17. Nitay Arbel Says:

      Angela Hewitt performs the work here live: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1Mgw8pV4iPM

    18. Clark Says:

      My grandfather was sent to France toward the end of the war to be part of an army forestry regiment. He was there when the war ended and almost died there from the flu. I’m darn glad he made it home.

    19. Harry Says:

      Very well written. Thanks.

      I’ve walked the Western Front whenever I can. Doing so has changed me forever. The level of obliviousness today to the way this war changed our world is terribly sad.

      Here is a poem written 50 years after a different war, with thoughts along the same line.

      https://www.bartleby.com/118/7.html

    20. Bill Brandt Says:

      there seems in retrospect to be a “before” and an “after” to the war, which slashed a sharp dividing line across the cultural landscape; skirts were shorter, morals looser, music louder and more discordant, politics more rancorous, manners coarsened and buildings uglier. The shock and the loss of certainty in so much which had once been thought solid, stable eternal … the reverberations when the guns finally fell silent on that day are still rippling across our consciousness, even when we don’t quite know why.

      Amen to that. The world that we know it today changed so radically because of WW1.