Conservatoires in time of war
‘Paris-Manchester 1918: Conservatoires in time of war’ is an online collaborative exhibition between the Royal Northern College of Music (RNCM) and the Conservatoire national supérieur de musique et de danse de Paris (Paris Conservatoire). Through research undertaken in both cities, we are able to learn about lives of the musicians behind the concert programmes, creating a lasting memorial in celebration of those who fought or made music during the extraordinary years of the First World War.
The exhibition showcases some of the archives of the Royal Northern College of Music, the Hallé Concerts Society and the Henry Watson Music Library.
Looking through these three collections, we discovered that the First World War’s impact on Manchester’s music and musicians was profound. During the war, women were performing in the Hallé orchestra to replace the men at war only to be dismissed when they returned. Students and staff of the Royal Manchester College of Music served in the war. European students and teachers at the College were interned in Europe or returned to their home country to fulfil their national service. Pacifist musicians in Manchester were imprisoned. Repertoire of the allies were being performed in Manchester as a show of comradery and some German music was seen as unpatriotic to play whilst Wagner was popularly performed. Musicians found it difficult to move around Europe and tour.
Even after the war ended the impact on music making continued. Dozens of men and one woman who served in the war were given government grants to study at the Royal Manchester College of Music which changed the demographic of the student body (mainly young women) and even the kind of instruments played.
The stories we wish to reveal here are those contained within these three archives. They are the stories of people, Manchester, music and change during the First World War.
The archive project was generously supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund.
The exhibition presents the life of musicians from the Paris Conservatoire during the Great War, as revealed through the10 issues of the Gazette des classes de composition du Conservatoire, a remarkable document that could be considered a kind of social network before social networks existed.
In 1915, some months after the start of the war, the sisters Nadia (1887-1979) and Lili Boulanger (1893-1918), who were musicians, teachers and composers, decided to offer to mail regular news to students and graduates of the Conservatoire, whether they had been called up or not, and then send printed compilations of their letters to various recipients wherever they were, at the front or the rear.
The exhibition invites us to follow the career of some figures who led unusual lives, such as Maurice Ravel, who volunteered for military service, and Fernand Halphen, killed at the front. We learn of the daily hardships faced by musicians at the front, while at the same time discovering how, despite everything, a musical life is organised and continues for these young artists, enabling them to bear the unbearable without succumbing to blind nationalism, and to reflect on their role after peace is restored.
“This gazette makes an excellent link,” wrote one of them joyfully in September 1916. “(…) It has brought us back together. Music, dormant for an instant in the depths of memory, begins to sing again, and the musical life evoked in a few pages, with the exquisite recollections that it brings, achieves the miracle of awakening, amid so much desolation, an ardent longing for the future.”
Associated researchers (Manchester)
Barbara Kelly Director of Research
Geoff Thomason Deputy Librarian
Heather Roberts Archivist
Eleanor Roberts Archivist, Hallé Concerts Society
Ros Edwards Librarian Henry Watson Music Library, Manchester City Council
Stephen Etheridge Musicologist and project volunteer
Ali Ronan Historian and project volunteer
Katherine Seddon project volunteer
Associated researchers (Paris)
Clément Carpentier Chief Researcher, the Gazette des classes de composition du Conservatoire project
David Mastin postdoctoral fellow
Mathias Auclair Director, Music Department, French National Library
Charlotte Segond-Genovesi PhD in musicology, author of Les Chemins du Patriotisme: Musique et musiciens à Paris pendant la Grande Guerre
Agnès Terrier Dramatist, Opéra Comique
With thanks to:
Musée de l’Armée
Théâtre du Vieux-Colombier
Hall de la Chanson
AHRC-funded Everyday Lives in War, First World War Engagement Centre
Heritage Lottery Fund
University of Bristol Library, Special Collections (DM2103)
Bibliothèque nationale de France
Archives de Paris
Centre international Nadia et Lili Boulanger