TV: The Great War (BBC)

9 March 2012

In 1964 the BBC produced a major documentary series about The Great War, feted with prizes and widely seen as the precursor to ITV’s landmark World At War. I toyed with buying the box set off Amazon but it’s a surprising £60 and I suspected would join all the other half-watched box sets in the cupboard.

Whereupon I discovered the whole thing is available free on YouTube! Just search for the titles of each episode, as listed on Wikipedia.

Having watched 23 episodes I’m struck by a) just how much footage seems to exist of specific events and b) the cumulative effect of hearing just a few pieces of classical music over and again: the brooding opening of Shostakovitch’s 11th symphony, the most intense parts of his 5th and 7th symphonies; the titanic opening chords of Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antarctica (occasional snippets of his pastoral symphony); and the stern original score composed by Wilfred Josephs, all build up a harrowing and devastating musical accompaniment to the scenes of horror caught on the old b&w footage.

The Great War on YouTube

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  1. Russell

     /  March 11, 2016

    Hi there, I’m trying to find (or failing that create) a list of all the music used in the Great War BBC series. Your post above has been most helpful – thanks. Would you know any of the other pieces used? I’ve managed to get hold of Wilfred Josephs music and also some of Trevor Duncans music which is also used in the series. Thanks

    • Hi Russell, I wish I could help but I watched and wrote this a long time ago and everything I noted went into the post. Good luck on your quest.

      • Russell

         /  March 12, 2016

        Hi Simon, no problem and thanks for your reply. Your article has pointed me in the right direction and I’ve started finding some of the pieces. Best regards and thanks again.

  2. Simon B.

     /  May 25, 2017

    Arnold Bax’s ‘Tintagel’ features on the soundtrack.

  3. Russell

     /  May 25, 2017

    Thanks for your post Simon.

    Since I made that last post I’d added Tintagel to the list I was putting together on a soundtrack forum elsewhere. I stalled at that point though so any extra help identifying pieces would be greatly appreciated!

    Below is the list of what I’d found including four pieces of Trevor Duncans music including ‘Smouldering fury’ – which was much later used in the ‘Ren & Stimpy Show’…
    See here:

    Other pieces:
    Shostakovich: 5th Symphony
    Shostakovich: 11th Symphony
    Stravinsky: Rite Of Spring
    Vaughan Williams: Sinfonia Antartica
    Bax: Tintagel

    This is from the Wiki page and it mentions some of the classical music used:…_(documentary)

    Musical score
    The music for the series was composed by Wilfred Josephs. It was performed by the BBC Northern Symphony Orchestra conducted by George Hurst. His expressive yet unsentimental score was widely acclaimed at the time and many have recalled the strong contribution it made to the series: in August 2007, Guardian columnist Ian Jack remembered how at the start of each episode Josephs’ ‘ominous music ushered the audience into the trenches’.[7] Much use was made of 20th Century symphonies, including Shostakovitch’s 11th and Vaughan Williams’ Sinfonia Antartica. The opening music is the last refrain from Rachmaninov’s Symphony No 1. Such musical references do not appear in the credits, therefore a full list of these extra musical elements would be welcome.[nb 2]

  4. BBC at it’s best. Watched whole thing on YouTube.


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