The Din of Battle

The nature of warfare is constantly changing. So are the challenges that composers face in depicting the sound and struggle of battle.

On 13 September 1515, King Francis I of France was encamped with his army at Marignano, near Piacenza. Having recently signed a peace agreement with the Swiss Confederation, he was looking forward to a day of rest. But as he was trying on a new suit of armour that morning, a scout rushed into his tent with news that the Swiss had reneged on the deal and were already on the march. Within hours, they would be upon him. Francis, snatching up his sword, immediately gave orders for his troops to be made ready.

The Swiss presented a formidable sight. Though they were outnumbered, poorly clothed and often barefoot, their overpowering self-confidence struck fear into the hearts of the French. They did not seem to care that they had little in the way of artillery and almost no horsemen. Lowering their pikes, they charged straight at Francis’ vanguard. A ferocious struggle ensued. Surprised by the force of the assault – and finding their guns of little use against so rapid an advance – the French started to fall back. Only a well-timed cavalry charge by the Duke of Bourbon prevented a rout.

The fighting continued until it was too dark to see. Exhausted, the two armies slept on the field, amid the wounded and dying; but at dawn, the sound of trumpets called them to arms once more. The Swiss again took the initiative, hurling themselves against the French lines, seemingly oblivious to cannon firing into their midst. Finding it almost impossible to resist the relentless force of this rag-tag army, Francis’ men began to lose faith. Even the king was unsure how much more of this he could take. But just as the battle seemed lost, Francis’ Venetian allies, commanded by Bartolomeo d’Alviano, suddenly appeared on the field. Throwing themselves into the fray, they tipped the balance in France’s favour. Overwhelmed, the Swiss took flight.

Francis had won a great victory. After riding into Milan in triumph a few weeks later, he had a medal struck with the legend Vici ab uno Caesare victos (‘I have defeated those defeated by Caesar alone’); and he later commemorated in all sorts of ways, too. In 1518, for example, Leonardo da Vinci organised a ceremonial re-enactment to mark the dauphin’s baptism.

But the most striking monument to Francis’ triumph was musical. Around 1528, Clément Janequin – who may have witnessed the Battle of Marignano – composed a chanson called ‘La Guerre’ in its honour. As was only to be expected, its lyrics celebrated the king’s military genius. But fascinatingly, it also attempted to recreate the sounds of the battle itself. Given Janequin’s work had no instrumental accompaniment, this was a tricky task; but he found a solution of sorts in onomatopoeia. In the secunda pars, he represented the blaring of trumpets with the lines:

Fan frere le le, fan fan fan feyne,
Fa ri ra ri ra

and the blazing of cannon with the even more bizarre lines:

Von pa ti pa toc von von,
Ta ri ra ri ra ri ra reyne,
Pon pon, pon, pon, pon,
la la la … poin poin
la ri le ron.

Janequin’s work marked an important moment in musical history. It was not, of course, the first piece of music to celebrate a battle. Songs had been written to commemorate victories – even defeats – since time immemorial. When Saul and David returned from vanquishing the Philistines, they were greeted by women ‘singing and dancing … with joyful songs and with timbrels and lyres’ (1 Sam. 18:6); the Greek rhetorician Athenaeus of Naucratis reported that, at a festival to celebrate the Spartan victory at Thyrea (c.546 bc), choruses of naked boys sang ‘the songs of Thaletas and Alcman and the paeans of Dionysodotos the Laconian’; and the Roman historian Jordanes noted that, after Theodoric, king of the Goths, was killed in battle, his body was carried from the field to the accompaniment of martial songs.

Nor was Janequin the first to imitate the sounds of battle. In 14th-century Italy, composers had started writing caccie (‘hunting songs’) that combined narrative accounts of military victories with recreations of battle sounds.

What was unusual about Janequin’s chanson, however, was that it was among the first works to respond effectively to technological changes in warfare. While musicians had long been used to evoking the thrusts of swords and pikes, they were puzzled by cannon. First used at Crécy in 1346, cannon had only recently become a regular feature of military campaigns. The thunderous noise they made was so new and so far removed from the usual run of acoustic experience that no one had any idea how to imitate them. No one, that is, until Janequin.

Soon, other composers were following in his footsteps, each vying to produce the most inventive way of replicating the sound of the new technology. In 1544, Mathias Werrecore published ‘La battaglia italiana’ – a song for four voices commemorating Charles V’s victory at the Battle of Pavia (1525). Using a similar combination of onomatopoeic words, Werrecore attempted to replicate the sounds of battle, from the rolling of drums to the thundering of mortars.

By the end of the 16th century, inventive new instrumental approaches were being tried, too. William Byrd’s ‘The Battle’ (1591) and John Dowland’s ‘Battle Galliard’ are among the best known; but perhaps the most interesting is Heinrich von Biber’s La battalia (1673). This used a range of novel techniques to capture the auditory confusion of the early modern battlefield. Dissonance stood in for the harsh voices of soldiers; chromatic antiphonal passages recalled the screams of the wounded; and the striking of wooden blocks replicated the crack of guns.

Yet it became increasingly difficult for music to act as a barometer of military innovation. By the mid-18th century, the pace of technological change was accelerating. As armies became larger, there was a need to produce bigger cannon, capable of firing more accurately and at a longer range. There was also an impetus to develop new types of munitions (e.g. canister shot, percussion fuses) and weapons (e.g. rifled breech-loading guns). This changed the soundscape of conflict and placed new constraints on composers.

They tried to keep up by developing complex orchestral effects. In 1794, Franz Christoph Neubauer wrote a symphony called La Bataille, which used rich orchestration to recreate the victory of the Russo-Austrian army over the Turks at Focşani, five years earlier. But, soon enough, composers found it so hard to represent the new types of artillery that they stopped trying. In Wellington’s Victory – commemorating the British defeat of the French at Victoria (1813) – Beethoven used real muskets and cannon; and in the 1812 Overture (1880), Tchaikovsky used the same technique to celebrate Russia’s defeat of Napoleon.

By the 20th century, however, the musical challenges became even greater. Not only were even larger artillery pieces being produced, but aeroplanes made their appearance, bombing became common and gas came into use. The concept of the battlefield changed, too. Battles were no longer solely between two armies facing each other across a wide open space, but encompassed whole countries. Even the home became part of the front line.

How could composers replicate such a sound world? One solution was to revisit some of the techniques developed in the 16th century and adapt them to produce a more impressionistic vision of the modern battle. One example is Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem (1961-2), written for the re-consecration of Coventry Cathedral. In the ‘Dies irae’, staccato voices evoke the falling of bombs, blaring horns recall the leaping of flames, rolling drums perhaps suggest tumbling masonry.

Another solution, however, was to shift the focus from the external to the internal. Although Dmitri Shostakovich is well known for portraying the German invasion of the Soviet Union in his seventh (Leningrad) symphony, he adopted a different approach in his eighth, from 1943. This attempted to recreate not the sound of bombs and gunfire, but the psychological effects wrought by this new and terrible form of war.

Today, war is changing yet again. Though ‘conventional’ wars are still being fought, we are also facing a different type of conflict – in which the weapons are not guns and cannon, but cars, knives and glasses of acid. There are no victors, only victims; and there are no sounds other than silence and screaming. It is not a change that can readily be represented in music; but perhaps now, more than ever, music must rise to the challenge – not so that we are stirred to fight our foes more fiercely or recall our victories with greater pride, but so that we may mourn our dead and strive more ardently for a peaceful future.

Alexander Lee is a fellow in the Centre for the Study of the Renaissance at the University of Warwick and author of The Ugly Renaissance (Arrow, 2015).