The sound of the Great War at the Historial Museum

Apollinaire, La Mandoline, l'œillet et le bambou
We are already (almost) accustomed to notice and recommend interesting exhibitions organized by the museum Historial de la Grande Guerre, and yet we are always pleasantly surprised at them. This time the title drew our attention: Hearing the War - Sounds, Musics and Silence in 14-18; because the hearing is – with the sense of smell – very hard to recreate and because the subtitle gathers the wide range of experience, up to the stillness. Running from March to mid November 2014, this special exhibition of the Historial Museum enables the visitor to discover the unprecedented sound transformations which occurred during the WWI and to enter into a new “sound universe”, making use of all sorts of testimonies (objects, sounds, images, texts). 

Let’s start with a given. It is impossible for us to hear once again the exact sound of the Great War, even if in the Historial Museum we can listen to the only survived (and now restored) original recording of those years: the testimony of a sound spectrogram which recorded the moment the battle ceased on Armistice Day and the following silence – and especially this latter is touching. Nevertheless the exhibition succeeds in its intent by developing two themes. It firstly explores the sound of war, including the roar of artillery, the machine guns and the clashes of combat or the noises of the rear guard, the attack and defense sounds, but also the music made during the war, improvised by the soldiers and accompanied by self-made instruments. Secondly the attention is focused on musicians and on their way to approach, describe, elaborate or remember the war. Through recordings and music scores, visitors discover not only military marches, national or victory anthems, funeral or popular songs (including the cinematographic tradition or jazz), but also the works of the leading composers, such as Debussy, Saint-Saëns, Stravinski and many others. 

All this was made possible by an innovative staging concept – which recalls a music score with objects and documents presented like musical notes –, by appropriate listening devices (headphones, sound showers and listening chairs) and by the innovative sound wall, designed by Luc Martinez, in the small exhibition hall. 

After a first overview of the aim of the exhibition in the entrance lobby (and have a look at the original manuscript of Apollinaire’s poem Les obus miaulent en boche too!), different aspects of the topic are addressed. The exhibition starts with the military music of the troops marching and with their instruments, with the songs of the rear guard and the front line, the soldier’ instrument made in the trenches with raw material and the industrial ones. It shows then photos and originals of renowned war composers; also funeral music as national culture of mourning is displayed with scores, posters and images. A section is devoted to the concerts which took place with charitable and patriotic purposes in the rear guard, other sections to concerts on the front line and the music in the camps and in the occupied territories. Also the impact of the new sound universe of the new Jazz music is illustrated. Moreover the exhibition introduces the visitors into the themes of acoustic wound and excessive noise (in the section entitled “the amputated ear”), as well as the silence of the Great War as symbol of mourning. In the end a section discusses the musical creation connected – since the end of the conflict – to the memory of the Great War.   

In short, don’t miss the exhibition Hearing the War - Sounds, Musics and Silence in 14-18 because it guarantees a unique experience into the sound universe of the World War One.
Further information here.