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Culture and Propaganda in World War II

Music, Film and the Battle for National Identity


John Morris


International Library of Twentieth Century History, vol. 64

London: I.B. Tauris, 2014

Hardcover. vii+248p. ISBN 978-1780763972. £59.50


Reviewed by Monica Bohm-Duchen

Birkbeck, University of London



Notwithstanding its subtitle, the title of this publication suggests a far wider canvas than is actually delivered. Not only is the focus on Britain (with only a cursory and rather tantalising nod at the relationship between music and politics in Nazi Germany), but – ostensibly for lack of space – only “serious”, that is to say classical music comes under scrutiny. Those wanting a more comprehensive, less hierarchical and geographically wider-ranging analysis of the role of all kinds of music during World War II, would be advised to turn instead to Patrick Bade’s Music Wars (East and West Publishing, 2012) – which, oddly, goes unmentioned in this volume, even in the bibliography. It is odd, too, that there is no mention of Brian Foss’s excellent book on the visual arts, War Paint : Art, War, State and Identity in Britain 1939-1945 (Yale University Press, 2007). Indeed, although painters are mentioned on the cover blurb, there is no comparative coverage whatsoever in the book itself.

Having said this, the current publication is an unashamedly academic one, based on meticulous first-hand research (primarily in the National Archives and the BBC Written Archives, as well as in contemporary journals and newspapers) which states its self-imposed limits from the outset. Avoiding the potential pitfalls of analysing the music itself in terms of its expressive message, the volume concentrates on what its author John Morris describes as the ways in which “serious music was used to present the ideals of democratic freedom”. In his own words, “I am concerned with the primary use of music as propaganda… the secondary use of music in propaganda… and music as the subject of propaganda in films”.

As a result, his focus is largely on the organisations – the BBC, the British Council and the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, as well as the Ministry of Information, the Foreign Office and the War Cabinet – whose policy decisions relating to new commissions, live concerts and broadcasts, although often somewhat haphazard and inconsistent, were instrumental in presenting a convincing picture, both in Britain and abroad, of a nation deeply rooted in a bucolic, pastoral and romantic past, linked by “a silver chain of sound” [186]. As in the visual arts, understatement, “something very sedative, very quiet, very calm” prevailed (the words, quoted on p.18, are Harold Nicholson’s). As Lord Lloyd of the British Council put it (see p.57), “everywhere people turn with relief from the harshly dominant notes of propaganda [the unstated reference to Nazi Germany is obvious] to the less insistent and more reasonable cadences of Britain”.

That this clearly idealised notion of “Britishness”, however understandable in the wartime context, demands more probing critical scrutiny than Morris affords it, never seems to occur to him. The same can be said about the author’s constant, unquestioning reiteration of lofty concepts such as “the spirit of Britain”, “national spirit”, “a rich tapestry of British aspiration and spiritual inheritance”. Nor (with the exception of film) does he choose to mention, let alone explore, the parallels to be drawn with other fields of wartime cultural activity – or for that matter, the discrepancy in terms of musical achievement between the German “masters” and the British composers being promoted. Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, William Walton, and at a stretch, Arnold Bax, Frank Bridge and John Ireland may be more or less household names, but how many people today have heard of Alan Rawsthorne, Richard Addinsell or Hubert Bath?

Another significant topic covered by the book is the perhaps surprising, certainly ironical fact that German composers and musical works – far from being shunned by the British musical establishment – were embraced, partly to demonstrate a tolerance of “foreign” culture far removed from the repressiveness of Nazi Germany, partly out of a genuine belief that composers such as Bach, Mozart and Beethoven represented a far truer Germanic spirit than the perversions of the Third Reich, and partly because to many in this country, their music embodied universal values which transcended politics and national boundaries. The case of Beethoven’s rousing Fifth Symphony, whose first four notes rhythmically resemble that of the Morse code for “Victory”, and which was therefore constantly co-opted into the cultural war effort, is a particularly interesting one.  As conductor Malcolm Sargent put it (see p.45), sincerely, if naively, “this music will live on long after Hitler and the Nazi regime is completely forgotten”.

Two of the more lively chapters of the book are devoted to a detailed examination of the role of music, both homegrown and German, in British wartime films, both feature and documentary. Notable examples here are The Great Mr. Handel, Dangerous Moonlight, Humphrey Jennings’ Heart of Britain and Listen to Britain, and Powell and Pressburger’s Millions Like Us, 49th Parallel and The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp. A number of films made immediately after the war are also considered (as, briefly, is the perceived role of music in post-war cultural reconstruction): notably, Jennings’ The Dim Little Island of 1948, with a score by Ralph Vaughan Williams, whose music and thoughts about music (“The art of music above all the other arts is the expression of the soul of the nation” – see p.27) necessarily feature prominently in this volume.

Overall, I suspect that the non-specialist reader is likely to find the rather dry, earnest, almost pedantic tone of the writing (with its frequent dutiful deferral to other authors’ opinions) and the relatively narrow focus of this publication a little off-putting, and its tendency to bury important general observations in a welter of detail and to dart around chronologically a little confusing. Nevertheless, it undoubtedly rallies interesting new evidence and sheds valuable new light on a comparatively neglected area of cultural enquiry.


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