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Theater Arts of the Allies in the Great War (March 2013): Music

By Felicia Hardison Londré


Music and theatrical performance were inseparable; thus studies of Great War songs invariably illuminate performance practices.  In Proof through the Night: Music and the Great War, a well-illustrated and densely written analysis of both classical and popular music in relationship to the other arts, Glenn Watkins devotes sections to Great Britain, France, Italy, Germany-Austria, the United States, and the post-armistice period, with the bulk of the coverage devoted appropriately to France and the United States.

Songs lend themselves more readily to analysis of public attitudes than do serious compositions.  Both the words and the sheet-music cover illustrations vividly convey the evolving spirit of the times—from the initial patriotic fervor to nostalgia for loved ones at home to disillusionment, the last often treated with humor.  An excellent selection of mostly British song lyrics, well supplemented by illustrations and brief introductory comments, is available in When This Bloody War Is Over, a compilation by Max Arthur.  Regina Sweeney’s Singing Our Way to Victory: French Cultural Politics and Music during the Great War makes an outstanding contribution to knowledge about the place of popular music and theater in wartime France; indeed, this book deftly traces changing cultural attitudes expressed through song and theatrical performance in both civilian and frontline milieux over the course of the four years of the war.

Although Philip Furia and Michael Lasser’s America’s Songs: The Stories behind the Songs of Broadway, Hollywood, and Tin Pan Alley goes beyond works related to the Great War, the authors offer, among other things, a wonderful account of George M. Cohan’s writing of “Over There.”  Irving Berlin’s Show Business, a lavishly illustrated volume by David Leopold, devotes three chapters to the war years.  These deal with Berlin’s being drafted, his participation in the Liberty Bond drives, and his creation of a Camp Upton musical that transferred to Broadway—Yip, Yip, Yaphank (probably never published)—which included the song that expressed the sentiments of soldiers in two wars, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning.”  Among many works on Berlin, others with significant coverage of his Great War-related work include Alan Anderson’s The Songwriter Goes to War: The Story of Irving Berlin’s World War II All-Army Production of This Is the Army, which discusses the song’s World War I backstory; Laurence Bergreen’s As Thousands Cheer: The Life of Irving Berlin; and Edward Jablonski’s Irving Berlin: American Troubadour.