Capturing the feeling of history with music… and the Bismarck

Have you ever been grabbed by history and had the raw emotion of a past event suddenly explode across you in all its human depth and drama? It’s this – and not lists of numbers – that makes history interesting.

Add music to the mix and you can create a historical account that has tremendous emotional power for people who, very likely, didn’t even know they were interested in history before. It’s a known technique in movies; Sofia Coppola used it in Marie Antoinette (2006), where she selected deliberately anachronistic 1980s goth-punk music – ‘The Cure’, ‘Siouxie and the Banshees’ and ‘New Order’ among other bands – to represent the social isolation of the French pre-revolution monarchy. It was, of course, absolutely wrong for the period; but what counted was the very real historical point it was making through metaphor. The Goth movement always was socially isolated from wider society, and by associating this music with the lifestyles of the last Bourbons, Coppola underscored the emotional reality of their social disconnection from their people in a way the audience could also emotionally identify with. It was artistically inspired, a clear metaphor – and yet, in this sense of human meaning – carried a historically correct message.

And that brings me to another example of the same thing. The other day I was pointed to a new music video by the Swedish power-metal band Sabaton. I am a bit of sucker for Euro-metal. These guys do a lot of narrative songs about military history, and this one was no exception – the story of Germany’s penultimate battleship Bismarck and her ill-fated sortie into the Atlantic in May 1941.

Photo by Prinz Eugen‘s gunnery officer Paul Smalenbach shows Bismarck with a bow trim after hits from HMS Prince of Wales. Public domain, NH 69732, U.S. Naval History & Heritage Command

Musically it was a bit average, but the treatment of the subject matter certainly was not. Some of the naval enthusiast groups I belong to were screaming about it not being historically accurate or about it being backed by World of Warships (a… ptooey… arcade game…). Actually, it was spot on in a lot of point-detail, including the naval uniforms and the CGI renditions of Bismarck that correctly showed her down at the bows after her battle with Prince of Wales (3:03), the torpedo strike in the rudder (2:53); and the angles her main armament was pointing after being knocked out during her last battle (3:43 and 4:22) among other things. A short documentary that went with the music video made clear that the band had been determined to get such details correct.

However, the video wasn’t about history. It was about the emotion of the experience, both then – and now. It didn’t tell the specific narrative of Bismarck’s last couple of days; it was all disconnected images, flashes of events, and emotional drama – heroic attacks by torpedo-carrying biplanes in vile weather, the final battle against Britain’s Home Fleet, and so on. And it added a human story into the mix, one with no historical reality, which brought the emotional experience into the now (watch out for the pocket-watch/compass and who’s holding it).

To me the key point was that the video had enough accurate detail to suspend disbelief, while simultaneously capturing the feeling of those events for participants and the feeling of the battleship as remembered today. It evoked, for me, much the same sense of emotional realism as Baron Burkard von Mullenheim-Rechberg’s memoir of the same events. And this, in many respects, conveys one of the key sides of history. The data and the facts are essential, of course. You can’t explore history without first knowing these in detail. But beyond those is what these facts and numbers mean, particularly in terms of people. What is the human story so revealed?

The Bismarck was a perfect example; it was an engineering artefact – but one that provoked intense emotion at the time, and which continues to do so today. That underscores the fact that history is more than just numbers and lists of data; it is about people and the effects of events on them – something we can’t quite capture with numbers or statistics, but which emerges as soon as we identify with their stories and experiences.


Copyright (c) Matthew Wright 2019


4 thoughts on “Capturing the feeling of history with music… and the Bismarck

  1. That was pretty awesome. Reminds me of how I got into big band music — to evoke the era of WW2 a little more effectively.

    However, more in the spirit of your blog post, while I was listening I had a memory surface from at least forty years back. In the soundtrack for Stanley Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange” there is a cut titled (if I’m remembering correctly) “Suicide Scherzo.” For some reason I thought that if I ever got a chance to write a movie with a dogfight scene, I’d have the scene filmed in alternating normal and slow motion to keep up with the music, since there’s a bit in there that always seemed like cannon shells and tracer going into another airplane.

    WW2 fighters in my mind for that, and “Suicide Scherzo” would be a total anachronism. But…I remember how that played in my mind.

    Very interesting post, Matthew, good work!

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  2. I remember that scene in the movie! More Kubrick genius, of course. Apparently the movie version of the music wasn’t the one Carlos had engineered – she released it later in full version. Beethoven will never be the same again… And again, that brings me back to the immense power that visuals and music can have to convey emotion – perhaps not more so, but certainly in different ways – than words.


  3. Well, I’ve never been a metal fan, but I would agree the music’s energy captured the drama of the moment. This is what I love about naval warfare; these are the largest war machines made by humanity. There is a certain grandeur to the old battlewagons, and the music put to their portrayal must carry that same power and energy.

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    1. The music definitely seems to fit the concept of a battleship. I guess back in the day the the crew probably sang ‘Lili Marlene’. I don’t know what was played when Bismarck launched with all pomp and brass bands – given that it was turned into a Nazi propaganda exercise, probably something by Wagner… the ‘heavy metaller’ of the nineteenth century. The scary part is that the British probably played their own hit of the day to go with their ships – the ‘Teddy Bear’s Picnic’:

      Which leads to a curious thought that I really must turn into a blog post (more on that soon…)

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