Karim Al-Zand: Music: Lamentation on the Disasters of War

Lamentation on the Disasters of War

for string sextet (or string orchestra) after etchings by Francisco de Goya
Lamentation on The Disasters of War is a string sextet based on Francisco de Goya’s harrowing engravings of the Napoleonic wars in 1808 Spain. It was composed in 2006 as a response to the US invasion of Iraq, a country where members of my family still reside. The work is an elegy for the victims of war, and a plea for peace in our time. A version for string orchestra also exists.

Napoleon’s incursion into Spain in the year 1808 marked the beginning of a brutal and ultimately futile war. Though the French army was the world’s superpower, the following six years of bloody conflict proved that even “the most determined of invaders, equipped with strong armies and copious intelligence about its enemy, can make myopic blunders that seem close to madness.”1 imageNapoleon’s ill-fated decision to march on Spain was in part a product of his own arrogance, which did not allow him to foresee the resistance his occupation would inspire. As he wrote to one of his senior officers, he found the Spanish people “vile and cowardly, about the same as I found the Arabs to be” and he was convinced that when he brought “the words liberty, freedom from superstition, destruction of the nobility, I will be welcomed…You will see how they think of me as the liberator of Spain.”

Among other things, the war brought a new word into the military lexicon: guerrilla. Bands of insurgents operated out of the mountains, continuously sapping the French forces of both manpower and morale through kidnapping, torture, execution and public displays of mutilation. imageThe civilian population of Spain was brutalized by both sides in the conflict, caught in a cycle of “oppression and outrage, atrocity and counter-atrocity; pillage, marauding, starvation, maiming, torture and murder.”2 They were beaten and raped by soldiers, terrorized and executed as traitorous sympathizers and driven from their homes by unremitting violence and bloodshed. Eventually thousands fled; their towns and cities conquered and re-conquered, houses burned and razed, churches looted and defiled. The ongoing military campaign also caused a devastating and widespread famine. In all, tens of thousands died. Eventually Napoleon was ousted and the Spanish monarchy was restored, only to usher in a new era of ruthless and despotic rule under Ferdinand VII.

Francisco de Goya (1746–1828) produced the series of 82 etchings known as The Disasters of War during the period from 1812 to 1820. The work is both a response to the horrific conflict he witnessed and a commentary on the ravages of war in general. What distinguishes The Disasters of War from earlier treatments of bellicose subjects is the unflinching realism of its portrayal (it almost serves as a kind of documentary, eye-witness account) and Goya’s refusal to see either side in the conflict as having absolute moral superiority. The imagery is dark and violent, its message profoundly pessimistic.

Lamentation on the Disasters Of War uses some 30 of Goya’s etchings, which can be projected behind the ensemble before the performance.3 While the composition is inspired by Goya’s work, it does not attempt to literally portray the events and actions depicted in the images. The piece is dedicated to my late cousin Husam Al-Zand (1966–2005) who was tragically killed in Iraq last year; to his surviving wife and children; and to the rest of my courageous family in Baghdad. Peace be upon them.

1. Hughes, Robert, Goya, (2003), p. 261.
2. Geoffrey Best, War and Society in Revolutionary Europe, 1770-1870 (1982), p. 174.
3. Details are provided in the performance notes to the score. A DVD presentation of the etchings with a recording of the work is available from the composer. A sampling of Goya’s etchings is here.

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10 minutes

string sextet: 2 violins, 2 violas, 2 cellos
OR version for string orchestra; min: 55431

April 30, 2006, Zilkha Hall, Houston TX
Enso String Quartet: (Maureen Nelson, John Marcus, violin | Robert Brophy, viola | Richard Belcher, cello) Katherine Lewis, viola | Valdine Ritchie, cello



PDF (version for string orchestra)