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  • Culture and Propaganda in World War II: Music, Film and the Battle for National Identity by John Morris
  • Alexis Bennett (bio)
John Morris
Culture and Propaganda in World War II: Music, Film and the Battle for National Identity
London & New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014: 248pp.
ISBN: 9781780763972

A paradox at the heart of British musical culture during the Second World War was the continuing popularity and widespread use and performance of German music. As John Morris explores in Culture and Propaganda in World War II: Music, Film and the Battle for National Identity, significant voices called for blanket bans on any German, Austrian, or even Italian music between 1939 and 1945. However, the policies of the BBC, the British Council, and various commercial enterprises, including media organisations, were more nuanced. Morris successfully negotiates a thesis in which he argues that, in a sense, this was a more effective kind of propaganda. By continuing to allow the use of music by Austro-German composers in public service broadcasting, and actively encouraging the airing of music specifically banned by the Nazis, the BBC won a war of ideas. Great music was effectively safeguarded, not permitted to be politicised to an unnecessary degree, and Britain remained musically vibrant. In the eighth and concluding chapter, ‘Music’s Enduring Instrument’, Morris quotes The Times from December 1945: ‘The old reproach that Britain was das Land Ohne Musik is dead, and everybody knows it is dead’ (p.180). The war had galvanised British music-making and encouraged composition and performance both as direct propaganda and stoical cultural resolve, and ‘rather than a “land without music” Britain in the 1930s and 40s was musically rich in every way, and even more so than […] Germany’ (p.180). This remains a central strand of the book, and the chapters combine effectively to argue it convincingly.

In engaging with the culture of Allied (and specifically British) propaganda during the war, Morris divides his line of inquiry into three broad strands: music as propaganda, promoted by organisations such as the British Council and the BBC; music in propaganda, for example in films like 49th Parallel (Michael Powell, 1941) and Millions Like Us (Sidney Gilliat and Frank Launder, 1943); and, finally, music as the subject of propaganda in the cinema of the time, such as The Great Mr. Handel (Norman Walker, 1942). The latter is a particularly resonant example in the context of Morris’s book, since the film’s subject was – and is – in the minds of the concert-going public, simultaneously a German composer [End Page 92] and a great British musical hero. Indeed, throughout the book, the author reminds us that German music continued to be used in the context of Allied propaganda; there is a detailed discussion of the opening bars of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, which became a ubiquitous musical sign of victory across the airwaves, in part due to its use as the BBC World Service’s theme. In fact, by 1939, ‘there was no question in the minds of ordinary listeners that the music of Bach, Beethoven and a number of other composers of the Austro-German tradition belonged to England’ (p.12). Morris notes that, to some extent, this was due to the fact that ‘throughout the 1930s the BBC actively pursued a policy of German music, so that the masters of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries “reigned” at the corporation, and not only for purely musical reasons’ (p.12). Further, there was widespread opinion held among the musical cognoscenti that great Austro-German music must be distanced from contemporary German politics, and should be protected as ‘belonging’ to the common man, and as representing liberty and democracy.

Such is the subject matter of Morris’s opening chapter, ‘Music in the Context of Propaganda’, although in an early disclaimer he admits that the book will focus on ‘classical’ or ‘so-called “serious” music’ (p.3), and this is held to include such lighter fare as Richard Addinsell’s Rachmaninov-like Warsaw Concerto which, of course, started out as film music. In avoiding jazz, popular songs, dance music, and other forms of popular music, the author certainly limits his thesis, but...


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pp. 92-96
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