What happened to classical musicians during World War 2?

Martin Hoyle discusses the Second World War’s effect on musicians

What happened to classical musicians during World War 2?

Today internationalism in classical music is taken for granted. But in some areas political irritants erupt through a very thin skin of artistic sensibility. The First World War saw America ban the ‘sound of the Hun’ from concert hall and opera house. Oddly, the hostile Habsburg monarchy’s Mozart and Liszt made it to the New York Met stage, even though staging the latter’s Saint Elizabeth  was rather scraping the barrel. In the next world war the New York Met exiled Madam Butterfly from the stage; after Pearl Harbor it was inevitable. In Britain, throwing stones at dachshunds (distressed dog-owners clothed their pets in Union Jack flags) soon exhausted Great War populist xenophobia and German music returned to the programmes. In World War II there wasn’t a comparable move to ban the Hun. The first wartime Queen’s Hall concert in London opened with Wagner and Beethoven.

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Classical music written during World War 2

The Second World War didn’t produce the plethora of poets of the first, or destroy as many musicians, but music had its heroes; from Jehan Alain, the brilliant French organist and composer killed in action aged 29, to occupied Denmark’s Royal Opera courageously mounting Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess under the Nazis’ noses. Constant Lambert, escaping the Nazi advance with a touring British ballet company, was moved to compose an Aubade héroïque for the defenders after watching German paratroopers cloud the dawn skies of Holland. Alan Bush, dedicated communist, was in uniform when his first symphony was heard at a Prom. He had already composed Variations on a German Song of 1848 – that year of revolutions; a Fantasia on Soviet Themes  would follow in 1942.

What happened at the 1940 Proms?

Britain was spared invasion, but the Home Front never slept. Almost literally, so in the 1940 Proms on August 26, the Blitz began. Neither audience nor orchestra, the LSO, could leave the Queen’s Hall. The artists sang and played, the audience listened or slept on the floor. The musicians subsequently brought in scores for smaller pieces as further all-night entertainment for an audience unable to leave before the ‘all-clear’ – while always turning up for the morning rehearsal at 10am. It proved too much, the Proms were abandoned; and a few months later the night that saw hits on Westminster Abbey, the Commons, the British Museum and the Law Courts, witnessed the destruction of the Queen’s Hall. The next Prom would come from the Albert Hall.

If Buckingham Palace was hit, Windsor provided occasional employment for musicians. Marie Goossens discussed relative merits of harp and piano with King George VI (the teenage Princess Elizabeth was ‘christening a ship somewhere up north’). The Princess Royal’s son, Lord Harewood, a captain in the Grenadiers, was wounded and captured by the Germans who were rather miffed that the British refused to haggle over this VIP prisoner. His imprisonment at least provided radio listening and music study which would stand him in good stead in post-war Britain’s cultural establishment.

Did orchestras play in Britain through WW2?

The rest of the country was surprisingly well served in classical music. The fear that London would be the constant target meant the provinces won unwonted attention. Malcolm Sargent toured with the LPO, besides conducting the Hallé and the Liverpool Philharmonic. The LSO ‘fish and chips’ tours, with musicians frequently dossing overnight in prisons or police stations, took classics to parts of Britain other bands had never reached. The BBC SO was evacuated to Bristol until the raids began in earnest. Paul Beard, the leader, was blown off his bike by a bomb; a double-bassist and his wife were killed. On November 24, 1940 a terrible raid devastated the town. Having escaped from Holland, Constant Lambert was seen aiming the little hose used for washing glasses in his local pub on the flaming furniture repository next door. A few months later the BBC band transferred to Bedford.

What happened to British musicians and composers during World War II?

On the Home Front Lennox Berkeley worked at the BBC, Walton turned to film scores (The First of the Few, Henry V ) and radio – Christopher Columbus with Olivier, as did Vaughan Williams (49th Parallel). In his seventies Vaughan Williams encouraged CEMA (Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts, later the Arts Council) and the Home Office Committee for the Release of Interned Alien Musicians. He also found time to compose his Fifth Symphony and become the grand old man of British music. His work had been banned before the war by the Nazis for his concern for German refugees. Using the award of Hamburg University’s 1937 Shakespeare Prize as an opportunity to endorse ‘those who combat all the present German régime stands for’ couldn’t have helped. Michael Tippett, a scrupulous pacifist, did time in the Scrubs. Benjamin Britten, who had spent the early war years in America (a topic he would always be sensitive about) nevertheless returned. In Sloane Square Rudolf Bing fire-watched at the Peter Jones department store. 

Foreign residents had mixed fortunes. The violinist Alfredo Campoli became a household name in Britain on radio in the 1930s but as an Italian national he was banned in 1940. This doubtless gave him time to brush up his bridge, a game at which he was a British National Master. After the war he played less of the light music that had made him popular and perhaps reproachfully reminded Britain of his excellence in Moeran, Ireland, Walton, Bax and Bliss (whose concerto was written for him). As a British citizen, Benno Moiseiwitsch could be spotted turning the pages for pianist Gerald Moore in one of the National Gallery concerts that Myra Hess started and which became symbolic of civilisation surviving.

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What happened to musicians in occupied Paris?

Paris adapted itself to occupation with varying degrees of co-operation. The Milhauds fled, leaving manuscripts concealed in hiding places where they were found after the war. Charles Munch conducted a concert every Sunday afternoon at the Palais de Chaillot for four years, but Paul Paray refused to conduct the Colonne Concerts when their name was changed because of Colonne’s Jewishness. He spent the war years in retirement. Pierre Monteux lost some of his family of brave resisters to the Gestapo. Messiaen composed Quartet for the End of Time as a German POW, released in 1942 to become a professor at the Paris Conservatoire. At the Opéra and Opéra Comique it was business as usual. Guests included the young Herbert von Karajan and adorable Elisabeth Schwarzkopf (National Socialist Party, 1940, No. 7548960 – the only party member to be made a DBE). For many Parisians the ultimate indignity was the affliction on them of Pfitzner’s Palestrina. Poulenc and Pierre Bernac continued their modern song recitals which included texts by the Nazi-banned communist poet Louis Aragon. In 1944 the Free French marched into a Paris liberated by Anglo-Saxons. Messiaen’s prize pupil, one Pierre Boulez, graduated.