Music at War
For almost as long as war has been fought, it has been soundtracked by music. Instruments have been used to communicate across the battlefield, to intimidate the enemy, to inspire courage in the ranks, and to celebrate and commemorate victories and defeats.
One of the earliest references to the role of music in combat can be found in the Old Testament, which describes how ram’s horns were sounded during the siege of Jericho. The Greek and Roman armies carried brass and percussion instruments, which were used on marches, in camp and in the field. The Romans faced a different style of music when they fought the Celtic armies in Scotland, who charged into battle to the sound of horns and bagpipes. During the Crusades, the European armies encountered the sounds of valveless trumpets and drums played by the Saracens.
In The Art of War (1520), the famous Italian strategist Niccolò Machiavelli advised that armies ‘place the trumpets next to the general Captain, as their sound is apt not only to inflame the Army, but to be heard over every noise more than any other sound.’ By the 1600s, armies had a set of musical signals that conveyed orders such as when to retreat and move forward. Troops had to recognise the instructions played by drums, fifes, and trumpets.
One of these calls is the Last Post, which was first played in the 1790s as one of the many calls sounded every day in British Army camps. The melody marked the end of the day, when the duty officer had finished inspecting the sentries guarding the camp. During the late nineteenth century, it became traditional to play the Last Post at the grave of a dead soldier. Now it endures as an act of commemoration.
‘World War One and Classical Music,’ British Library resources
‘Military Music in American and European Traditions,’ The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Niccolò Machiavelli, The Art of War, excerpt
‘The Last Post,’ Australian War Memorial
‘The Story of the Last Post,’ BBC Magazine