World War I

Jonathan Bellman

Almost eleven years ago (my God; has it really been that long?), when I first heard of composer Morton Gould’s death, I posted the following to the electronic discussion list of the American Musicological Society.
Date: Thu, 22 Feb 1996 14:37:28 -0700 (MST)
From: Jonathan D Bellman

To: amslist
Subject: Morton Gould
I do not want to mentally say good-by to Morton Gould without at least semi-publically (meaning the amslist) acknowledging some music that I haven’t heard anything about in decades. People have been mentioning a variety of his works, including the soundtrack to the TV miniseries Holocaust, which I missed. What I haven’t head mentioned is is soundtrack to the 1964 documentary series World War I, which I was allowed to stay up an extra half hour, 8:00-8:30 PM, to see (I was seven). His music was evocative and almost intolerably powerful, and provided the perfect backdrop for the authentic film footage of which the documentary series was entirely made up. I made my parents buy me the soundtrack album, which was an unlikely thing for us to have spent money on in those lean years.
Gould’s music provided as powerful a musical experience as I can remember from my childhood.
Forn gezunt, Mr. Gould.
Jonathan Bellman
Now, more than four decades after I first saw the shows, I got the DVDs of this 1964 CBS World War I series through Interlibrary Loan, and we watched the first five episodes last night. It is extraordinary: there is Archduke Ferdinand, Nicholas II of Russia, the Hapsburgs…the whole pathetic, childlike, inbred wreckage of European nobility. There’s the Lusitania. There’s Belgium. And there’s ship after ship sunk by the U-Boats and their strutting captains and crews. There’s Big Bertha.


I remembered the music, which plays throughout the entire series and was composed by Morton Gould, as being very powerful. Indeed it is, but listening to it in its proper context—as opposed to on my nearly-worn-flat LP of it—is revelatory. Gould has a variety of chosen musical themes, two or three for each affect: battle, giddy Europe ignoring the threat, arming and preparing for war, soldiers leaving for the front, and so forth. He treats these themes as a traditional, common-practice composer might: in a variety of different orchestrations, different rhythmic treatments, augmentations, moods. There is ample use of the orchestra, and also much use of the symphonic wind ensemble. It is wonderful, evocative music, and it increases the eerie effect of this historic footage—footage I cannot believe survived.


What I realize now, and (of course) could not have known as a seven-year-old, was that this is still School of the Newsreel (I believe that newsreels did occasionally show up in the cinema in the early 1960s, though it was more specialized than in the 1930s and 1940s). The war is played out, horrific calamity after horrific calamity, with a constant running commnentary read by Robert Ryan and Gould’s symphonic score. The sense of the Epic is unmistakable. WWI certainly needs no such help, certainly, but the music and narration have the paradoxical effect of both distancing the footage—one has to keep reminding oneself it was all too real, not staged—and making it more vivid and disturbing.


That was, by the way, from a time when broadcasting companies were required to devote a certain amount of airtime to serving the public, since they were using public airwaves. It is a superb effort, the result (obviously) of many hours of archival research.
Borrow it on ILL. Very, VERY worthwhile.

About jonathanbellman

Professor of Music History and Literature and Head of Academic Studies in Music at the University of Northern Colorado. Author, *The _Style Hongrois_ in the Music of Western Europe* (Northeastern University Press, 1993), *A Short Guide to Writing About Music* (2e, Longman, 2008), *Chopin's Polish Ballade: Op. 38 as Narrative of National Martyrdom* (Oxford University Press, 2010), Editor, *The Exotic in Western Music* (Northeastern University Press, 1998), author of bunches of articles and reviews and so on. Likes to play the piano, the mandolin, and even guitar sometimes. A. M. and Jo Winchester Distinguished Scholar at UNC, 2011.
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5 Responses to World War I

  1. Peter Alexander says:

    I think this is available on DVD — at least, it seems to be the one that is listed on Amazon with narration by Robert Ryan. (They don’t list the composer of the score). If so, it’s available for around $30 and might be worth owning!

  2. Jonathan says:

    Peter–I only find VHS tapes listed. When the DVDs were marketed they were several hundred dollars. I also saw an odd, incomplete listing for “World War I 2003” with Robert Ryan’s name attached…but that seems to be a CD-ROM. I wonder if they’re changing the format. Of course, if I could get the DVDs for $30-$60 I’d snap them up, but I don’t think they were ever that inexpensive.

  3. Peter Alexander says:

    Jonathan, Check out this link:
    Here is the Amazon description: “This collection includes eleven episodes on three DVDs that were painstakingly researched and assembled to include rare original material and long-lost footage that takes viewers from the carefree Europe of the turn of the century to the uneasy peace that ended it. Narrated by Robert Ryan.” It’s a three-disc DVD box set re-released in 2005. It sure sounds like your set, priced at $30.99 on Amazon. If the URL above doesn’t work, you can just search on Amzaon for “The Complete Story: World War I”.

  4. Jonathan says:

    Suggestion taken, Peter–thanks!

  5. CURTIS says:


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