Exploring the Music of the “Great War” on the 100th Anniversary of the Armistice

Photo of the Sculpture "Sacrifice" in the Memorial Room of the Memorial ChurchThe sculpture entitled “The Sacrifice” is the work of artist Malvina Hoffman. It was commissioned by Martha Bacon, the wife of Robert Bacon, Class of 1880, the former ambassador to France, who had served on General Pershing’s staff. The Memorial Room honors more than 360 Harvard students, graduates, and faculty killed in World War I. Photos by Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications


By Jeffrey Blackwell/Memorial Church Communications

United States Army Cpl. Arthur Briggs Church, 32, was killed on a French battlefield during an attack on Germany’s fortified Hindenburg Line, Sept. 28, 1918.

Marine Lt. Carleton Burr, 26, was leading his men in an advance on the battlefields of Picardie, France when he was struck and killed by shrapnel on Sept. 20, 1918.

And in the skies over Chamery, France on Bastille Day 1918, Lt. Quentin Roosevelt, the 20-year-old son of President Theodore Roosevelt, was shot down and killed in a dogfight with a flock of German planes.

Church, Burr, and Roosevelt, whom all lost their lives in the final months of World War I, are just three of the 372 names of students, alumni and faculty engraved into the granite walls of the Memorial Room in Harvard’s Memorial Church.

The Great War left an enduring legacy on the Harvard campus. The Memorial Church, its bell and Memorial Room are a testament to the sense of loss felt by the University community in the wake of the first World War, which came to an end at 11 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918 with the signing of the Armistice of Compiègne.  

“The Memorial Room commemorates the Harvard men who died in World War I, and to whom the Church is dedicated,” said Edward Elwyn Jones, Gund University Organist and Choirmaster. “The Memorial Church holds such a prominent place on Harvard’s campus, and it is first a church dedicated to peace, but also to sacrifice. I think it is wonderful for us, especially this year, to be mindful of that sacrifice.”

Names listed on the Wall of the Memorial RoomThere are 372 names of students, alumni and faculty killed in World War I listed on the walls of the Memorial Room. 

Over the next several weeks, the Church will commemorate the 100th anniversary of the end of the war in a series of performances featuring the music and composers of the era. The performances, which will all take place in the Memorial Church sanctuary, are free and open to the public.

  • Sunday (Nov. 4), 3 p.m. ­– Igor Stravinsky’s “The Soldier’s Tale,” featuring story narration by Thomas Forrest Kelly, the Morton B. Knafel Research Professor of Historical Musicology in the Harvard Music Department, accompanied by an instrumental ensemble conducted by Edward Jones.
  • Friday (Nov. 9), 12 p.m. – Uppsala University Chamber Ensemble musicians are joined by French pianist Paul-André Bempéchat in a concert of chamber music by Swedish romantic composers, including music of Peterson-Berger, Wirén, Chini, Hermansson, and Frumerie.
  • Saturday (Nov. 10), 7:30 p.m. – Massachusetts vocalists Deborah Selig and David McFerrin with pianist Clifton J. Nobel will present Angel Spirits: Music of World War I.
  • Sunday (Nov. 11) 4 p.m. – Harvard University Choir’s Fall Concert: Remembering the end of World War I; featuring the music of Lili Boulanger, Charles Hubert Hastings Parry and the U.S. premiere of a new choral piece, In Flanders Fields, by Gareth Treseder.
  • An exhibition of the wartime etchings of J. Alphege Brewer will be open from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. on Nov. 9; 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Nov. 10; and 1 to 4 p.m. on Nov. 11.
  • Tuesday (Dec. 4) 8 p.m. – The Tactus Ensemble: Songs of Farewell.

The concerts are also providing a teaching moment to students and others about the historical effect the war had on composers and musicians of the time. The carnage of World War I decimated a generation, including its artists. English composer Sir Charles Hubert Hastings Parry (1848-1918), for example, lost many of his former students in the war, Jones said.

“I talk a certain amount to our students about the history of the war itself, but also the artistic endeavors and reactions to the war,” he said. “Many artists and musicians fought during the war and many lost their lives. But the ones who were left behind were deeply affected by it. Parry’s reactions to the war are very visceral and we hear that in the music.”



That deep emotional sense of loss and sacrifice is also present in the Memorial Church, which was dedicated in 1932 to honor those in the Harvard community killed in World War I.

Inscribed at the top of the wall of the Memorial Room are words expressed by Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell, who also donated the bell to the church. “While a bright future beckoned, they freely gave their lives and fondest hopes for us and our allies that we might learn from them courage in peace to spend our lives making a better world for others.”

The Memorial Church continues to recognize the service and sacrifice of all Harvard Veterans, especially during services Veterans Day weekend. The walls of the sanctuary are dedicated to members of the Harvard community who died in World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, as well as three Radcliffe College women killed in World War I. The names of more than 1,000 men and women are listed on the walls surrounding the pews.

Stone face of the fallen soldier on the lap of Sacrifice

Jonathan L. Walton, Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in the Memorial Church, said every time he steps foot into the church sanctuary and the Memorial Room he is reminded of the words of the Rev. Phillips Brooks, the long-time rector of Boston’s Trinity Church and namesake of Harvard’s Phillips Brooks House.

“’How carefully most men creep into nameless graves, when occasionally one or two forget themselves into immortality,’ Brooks wrote,” Walton said. “Etched on the walls are the names of men and women who were able to live a life that was worth living because they found a cause and a purpose greater than themselves. We continue to honor their service, their sacrifice, and their memory.”

On Sunday, Nov. 11, members of the Harvard ROTC will speak at the Faith & Life Forum at 9:30 a.m. in the Buttrick Room. The Commemoration of Benefactors and the War Dead will take place during the Sunday Service beginning at 11 a.m. Former Massachusetts Governor Deval L. Patrick will preach. The Church will also be open on Veterans Day, Monday, Nov. 12, from 8 a.m. – 5 p.m. Morning Prayers, which begins at 8:30 a.m., will feature U.S. Army veteran Richard Martinez ’21.

Member of the ROTC lay a wreath on the sculpture Sacrofice during the Commemoration of the War Dead  in 2017.Members of Harvard's ROTC lay a wreath on the sculpture "The Sacrifice" during the Commemoration of Benefactors and the War Dead service at Memorial Church in 2017.