An Historical Overview of "In Flanders Fields" Music

In light of the vast appeal "In Flanders Fields" has held for musicians over past century, Andrew Macphail's description of the poem as a "song" (in his 1921 biography of John McCrae) seems almost prophetic.  Of course – even though Macphail was most likely responding to the poem's inherently musical qualities – the fact remains that by 1921 "In Flanders Fields" had already been reimagined as a song many times over.

World War 1 prompted a massive outpouring from the music industry.  Ranging from patriotic to mournful, performed in homes as well as on concert stages, a wide range of “products” flowed out of the era's music industry, which was prolific at providing the public with what was needed to respond to those turbulent times.  The theme of war infiltrated numerous musical genres, not the least of which was sheet music.  There had already been a thriving commercial market for sheet music (i.e., songs with piano accompaniment written with a domestic consumer audience in mind) before the war; with the war's outbreak, the commercial music publishers and the composers they employed quickly responded with topically-themed publications.  Some composers wrote their own texts for their songs; others turned to pre-existing sources for their lyrics.  Given the popularity of "In Flanders Fields" in its own right, it is not surprising that it drew the attention of many composers and became the subject of more musical settings than almost any other war poem.1

North American audiences were first introduced to "In Flanders Fields" in the winter of 1916, following its publication in the Washington Post and subsequent reprinting and distribution via other journals and magazines.  The first "In Flanders Fields" songs began to appear the following year.  In her study of American song settings of the poem, Jennifer W. Ward suggests that with the United States' entrance into the war in 1917 the American public felt a significant connection to McCrae's poem.2  The next three years witnessed a surge of "In Flanders Fields" songs, with at least 55 composed in the United States alone between 1917 and 1920.  This number is even higher if one considers the songs that were composed in response to McCrae's poem (i.e., using original words inspired by or answering McCrae's, such as Annie C.w. Burton & Charles B. Galbreath's "In Flanders Fields: The Answer", or E.S.S. Huntingon and Leroy Wilkerson's "And Now They Lie in Flanders' Fields").

The significant body of songs united by this shared text encompasses a diversity of musical styles. Some, as Ward notes, might be best termed "popular" songs.  Such settings were written with amateur performers in mind: the melody is crafted such that it could be sung by either a male or female singer with a range that would be comfortable in most amateurs' voices.  The piano accompaniment is also accessible and supports the singer by doubling the melody. One such setting that Ward places in this category is by George W. Parrish, published in 1919. Like many of the era's popular war songs, Parrish's setting is strophic with a chorus, meaning that each of the poem’s three verses are sung to the same musical verse followed by a refrain.  To make the poem fits this form – because McCrae's line lengths are not strictly equal – Parrish had to lightly adjust the text to make it work within the musical strophe's evenly-paced phrase structure.  

The majority of World War 1-era settings, though, fell somewhere on the spectrum between popular song and “art” song.  As Ward writes, “while some composers even took part in the well-established practice of verses (with or without a chorus) favoured by Tin Pan Alley, most composers used musical conventions common to art songs, thereby granting themselves more flexibility to express McCrae’s words musically in a way consistent with the emotional interpretations as seen in newspapers and on posters.”4  Aimed at musicians with a bit more experience than the average amateur, such settings strive to closely align the music with the poetic text.  The scores of such settings are richly detailed with dynamics, articulatory gestures, and other evocative nuances.  Tempo changes, key changes, and to a lesser extent, metre changes help to convey the different mood and imagery evoked by each verse.  Often independent of the singer’s melody, the piano accompaniment collaborates with the vocal part to achieve the poetic affect, sometimes using word painting or other programmatic devices to capture a particular idea or image.

The World War I-era settings were produced by a wide range of composers, both male and female.  Some were accomplished composers with other publications already to their name; others were – and remain – relative unknowns.  Some of the songs housed in archival collections today were widely distributed; a few survive only as handwritten manuscripts, indicating they either were not published at all, or their published forms sold very few copies.

Two of the most distinguished composers to write “In Flanders Fields” settings (at least from our 21st-century vantage point) were Charles Ives and John Philip Sousa.  Today, Sousa is often remembered for his marches, but at the time of World War 1 he was among the United States’ most popular composers.5  Written in 1918, his song version has possibly the most direct connection to McCrae of any “In Flanders Fields” setting.  At the time the war broke out, Sousa was internationally known as a band leader; once the United States joined the war effort, Sousa enlisted as a lieutenant to train army bandsman, although he continued to tour with his civilian band during his periods of leave.  It was during one of these tours to Montreal in 1917 when Sousa received a letter from McCrae, delivered by way of a mutual friend, asking for Sousa to compose a musical setting of “In Flanders Fields”.  Sadly, McCrae never had opportunity to hear the composition he had requested; according to Sousa, he learned of McCrae’s death in 1918 on the very day that he sent the final draft of his song to the publisher.6

While Charles Ives’ music was less familiar to the American public than Sousa’s, today he is remembered as one of the most innovative American composers of his generation.7  While his setting of “In Flanders Fields” is not quite as bold or daring as some of his other more pathbreaking musical works, it does demonstrates the composer’s fondness for musical quotations (i.e., including snippets of popular tunes or other previously-composed music): interwoven throughout the song are the patriotic tunes “The Red, White, and Blue”, “The Battle Cry of Freedom”, “America”, “Reveille”, “Taps”, “La Marseilles”, and “All Saints New”.  It is not only a challenging work to perform, but also a challenging work to interpret.  Authors Alan Houtchens and Janis P. Stout suggest that the disjunct between the text and the music creates a sense of uneasiness that ultimately reflects the composer’s own unease with the war and his country’s decision to enter into it.8 

Ives' setting was likely the first by an American composer.9  The very first "In Flanders Fields" song, though, was possibly - and fittingly - published in Canada.  J. Deane Wells' version of McCrae's was entered into copyright in the United States on April 20, 1915 and was first published by Western Specialty, and then by the Frederick Harris Company.10  Wells was an Australian composer who had emigrated to Canada several years before the war, and as of 1917, was working as the organist at Vancouver’s Wesley Methodist Church.11  Aside from the brief minor interlude for the second verse, Wells' setting achieves a bombastic, almost triumphant quality.  He inserts a "bugle call" between second and third verse: a great example of a programmatic device used to connect the piece to the poem's battlefield origins.  Wells' setting also repeats the text of the entire third verse, which gives emphasis to that particular idea.  And whereas many settings would fade away to a quiet ending, his ends with bravura.  All in all, Wells' setting gives an excellent illustration of how a performance might guide an audience to a propagandist interpretation of McCrae's poem.

The rate of production of "In Flanders Fields" settings has significantly declined since 1920. Nonetheless, just as the poem has continued to resonate with audiences in peacetime, musicians have continued to find inspiration in this text.

While the majority of World War 1-era settings were for solo voice and piano accompaniment, settings for choir also occasionally produced. An early example of a choral setting, written by Howard Eustace Key, was printed in the McGill University Songbook in 1921.  Another Canadian setting for four-part choir was composed in 1972 by Greta Hurley, a local musician from McCrae's hometown Guelph, Ontario.

Since the 1980s, choral settings have become the predominant medium for musical versions of "In Flanders Fields", and the rate of production – not as prolific as during World War 1 – has been on the rise.  "In Flanders Fields" has been quite popular with Canada's choral composers, and it has also drawn – and continues to – American, Australian, and British composers, resulting in a diverse repertoire of arrangements for children's, mixed SATB, treble-voice, bass-voice, and a cappella choirs.

Beyond choral arrangements, “In Flanders Fields” has also been adapted for numerous other musical genres.  Carrying on the solo song tradition, singer-songwriters such as Adele Simmons, Anthony Hutchcroft, and Willard Bond have created arrangements in a folk/popular idiom.  In 2006, Canadian composer John Burge used the poem as the basis for an orchestral suite called In Flanders Fields Reflections, which won the 2009 Juno Award for Best Canadian Classical Composition.12  In 2008, British film composer Howard Goodall wrote Eternal Life: A Requiem, which juxtapose the “In Flanders Fields” text with the traditional Latin of the Dies Irae movement.13

Through the subjectivity of performance, each musical arrangement of “In Flanders Fields” adds its own subtext to McCrae’s famous poem.  Combined, this significant body of repertoire perpetuates the cultural legacy of “In Flanders Fields” and showcases the many ways this poem can be interpreted and resonate with its audiences.    


1. Jennifer A. Ward, "American Musical Settings of 'In Flanders Fields' and the Great War", Journal of Musicological Research 33 (2014): 97-98.

2. Ward, "American Musical Settings", 98.

3. Ward, "American Musical Settings",110-112.

4. Ward, "American Musical Settings",114-115.

5. "Biography and Articles about 'The March King', John Philip Sousa", Library of Congress,

6. Ward, "American Musical Settings", 117-118

7. Jan Swafford, "Ives the Man: His Life", Charles Ives Society,

8.  Alan Houtchens and Janis P. Stout, "'Scarce Heard Amidst the Guns Below': Intertextuality and Meaning in Charles Ives' War Songs," The Journal of Musicology 15/1 (1997): 77-78.

8. Ward, "American Musical Settings", 121.

9. Willam Brooks, “from … to … in Flanders Fields”, Fourth Biennial International Conference on 20th-Century Music, University of Sussex, 28 August 2005.

10. W.R. Norton, “From British Columbia: Music of the Great War, 1914-18”, BC Studies: The British Columbian Quarterly No. 182 (2014): 114-124.

11. John Burge, In Flanders Fields Reflections,

12. Howard Goodall, Program Notes to Eternal Life: A Requiem,