History / John Morris

The Battle for Music

From Elgar to Vaughan Williams, what was the purpose of government involvement in promoting music during World War II?

The Battle for Music

During the Second World War, composers were encouraged to write music that could depict an England worth fighting for, but in a somewhat different way to what had gone before:

…whereas in the last war the thing to stress was the people who were fighting for England (the outlook of ‘The Spirit of England’ is to a large extent military), it would be more in keeping with the spirit of these times to emphasise the England that is being fought for (i.e. the outlook should be rather pastoral and romantic). [1]

The Spirit of England here refers, of course, to Elgar’s Op.80 work of that name, written in 1916-17. Scored for orchestra and either contralto or soprano and tenor, the work consists of settings of three poems by Laurence Binyon and the phrase ‘Spirit of England’ is drawn from the first number in the set, ‘The Fourth of August’:

Now in thy splendour go before us,
Spirit of England, ardent-eyed,
Enkindle this dear earth that bore us,
In the hour of peril purified…

Elgar had particular difficulty in setting the lines from ‘For the Fallen’, the final number of the set: ‘The barren creed of blood and iron, Vampires of Europe’s wasted will.’ They connect to a later Nazified view of music, encapsulated in the words of Deputy Propaganda Minister Eugen Hadamovsky, who wrote in 1933 that ‘Music exercises a deep influence upon the forces of the race and blood, latent in the sub-conscious. Hence a great musical masterpiece will engender, accelerate or, conversely, inhibit the awakening development or degeneration of these forces’. [2] In contrast, the more reasoned voice of British official opinion can be found in BBC drafts of a music policy, penned by Arthur Bliss. ‘A sense of music is a primal thing in mankind, and a tremendous force either for good or evil’, [3] he wrote. ‘Music is an ennobling spiritual force, which should influence the life of every listener’. [4] British composers were consistently opposed to the ‘blood and soil’ of German nationalism.

‘To Women,’ the central number of the set, was performed during a wartime spectacular celebrating 25 years of the Soviet Union’s armed forces. The ENSA (Entertainments National Services Association) Music Advisory Council under Basil Dean was summoned by the Ministry of Information to take entire responsibility for the music required for a government-sponsored event to be staged at the Royal Albert Hall. ‘Salute to the Red Army,’ staged in 1943 (and repeated the following year a few weeks before D-Day) was not the first major event ENSA and Basil Dean had organised. ‘Cathedral Steps’ had been successfully staged the previous year at St Pauls, and then repeated in the ruins of Coventry Cathedral, and Dean had no qualms about the ‘grand scale’ of this new production:

The performance would be continuous, lasting about two hours, so as not to interrupt the mounting climax. Two narrators would be needed to describe the achievement of the Red Army; their narrations would be punctuated with Russian songs and music. By way of counterpoint, there would be British tributes, illustrated by British songs and music. [5]

Basil Dean’s memoir of ENSA, ‘The Theatre at War,’ contains a wealth of anecdotes about the organisation’s involvement with music, not least the sometimes uneasy relationship with CEMA (the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts), which he felt had ‘got in first’. Dean prided himself on his war-work, not least for the efforts he made in bringing ‘classical’ music to munitions workers. ‘One aspect of our work,’ writes Dean, ‘that aroused more argument than any other was the general standard of the performances.’ There was some considerable rivalry between his organisation and CEMA:

It was irksome to find ourselves regarded as the chain-store of the concert world while CEMA dealt only with the custom-built trade. We had our exclusive counters, too, for the display of the finest musical wares, but we did not waste time preening ourselves so much; we went out into the market-place, amidst the rough and tumble of common living, in search of converts to good spirits and the common weal. [6]

Dean conceded, however, that despite the two organisations’ rivalry, the creation of the Arts Council, which grew out of the ‘CEMA infancy’ represented ‘the most forward step in the advancement of British culture that a British Government has yet taken,’ and its creation, without reference to the work of ENSA, represented ‘the British gift for political compromise.’ [7]

Perhaps the most remarkable and unknown aspect of official involvement in music is the programme begun in 1943 ‘under the auspices’ of the British Council’s Music Committee, which succeeded in producing a number of premier recordings of British orchestral works for the purposes of cultural propaganda, including Vaughan Williams’ fifth symphony. An editorial in Gramophone magazine expressed the general surprise in a country whose government habitually avoided ‘meddling’ in the arts: ‘The God of War brings together some strange bedfellows, but I do not recall any previous instance in the history of our country of respectable official opinion going to bed with the Muses…’ [8] The programme continued until well into 1946, when official involvement in music was subsumed into the work of the newly-formed Arts Council. ■

Culture and Propaganda in World War II: Music, Film and the Battle for National IdentityJohn Morris’s new book is Culture and Propaganda in World War II: Music, Film and the Battle for National Identity. He holds a PhD in English from the University of Exeter.
Image shows Jemma Pearson’s statue of Edward Elgar looking towards Hereford Cathedral (Rod and Di)

[1] Victor Hely-Hutchinson in a letter to Pamela Henn-Collins, secretary of the British Council’s Music Advisory Committee dated 29 May 1942 (The National Archives BW2/136)

[2] Quoted from Eugene Hadamovsky, Propaganda und Nationale Macht. Oldenburg: Verlag Gerhard Stalling, 1933

[3] BBC Written Archives, WAC R27/241/1, Music Policy (first draft), 30 December 1941

[4] BBC Written Archives, WAC R27/241/1, Music Policy (third draft), 1 April 1942

[5] Basil Dean, The Theatre at War, London: George G Harrap & Co. Ltd, 1956: 305

[6] Ibid., 135

[7] Ibid., 530

[8] Gramophone magazine, March 1943

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