From the Library: War & Peace

Today’s From the Library pro­gramme fea­tures music cov­er­ing the years from the 1920s to the 1940s – a peri­od stretch­ing from the after­math of the Great War until the begin­ning of the recov­ery fol­low­ing World War II.

Musi­cal­ly, the sto­ry is one of increas­ing­ly larg­er scale. Not only had soci­ety changed dra­mat­i­cal­ly – in Britain at least – as a result of the 1914–18 war; music had changed too. The Roar­ing 20s saw the big bands come into their own, and even the more tra­di­tion­al bal­lads began to be couched in more detailed arrange­ments.

The 1920s also saw an increas­ing free­dom of expres­sion and behav­iour as soci­ety’s pen­du­lum con­tin­ued to swing between two famil­iar extremes. And then in 1929 came the Great Depres­sion: at its deep­est in 1933, it last­ed essen­tial­ly until the out­break of World War II.

Enter­tain­ment respond­ed to help take peo­ple’s minds off their trou­bles and those increas­ing­ly sophis­ti­cat­ed musi­cal arrange­ments had their visu­al coun­ter­parts in the movie the­atres too, with the aston­ish­ing kalei­do­scop­ic set pieces by Bus­by Berke­ley in the Warn­er Broth­ers musi­cals of the peri­od, such as 42nd Street, Foot­light Parade and Gold Dig­gers of 1933.

And then the rise of Hitler in Europe began the march to anoth­er war, and it was to be one that, for peo­ple across Europe, was to impact them direct­ly: for the first time, civil­ians were tar­get­ed on a large scale in bomb­ing raids. In Britain the major cities were exposed night­ly to ter­ri­ble destruc­tion rain­ing from the skies (above right: the shell of Coven­try Cathe­dral after the air raid of 14 Novem­ber 1940), and once again it was music that helped to take peo­ple’s minds off their dread­ful loss­es and increas­ing short­ages. The Allies won the war, but Britain was vir­tu­al­ly bank­rupt and the sud­den with­draw­al of US aid after the 1945 elec­tion cou­pled with a ter­ri­ble win­ter in 1947 made con­di­tions in some sens­es worse than before.

David Kynas­ton, writ­ing on the peri­od (in the first part of his remark­able opus, “Tales of A New Jerusalem”, A World To Build), sug­gests that per­haps the desire to pull togeth­er in peace­time as the British peo­ple had learned to do in war was not quite as wide­spread as some peo­ple (includ­ing the present writer) have held. How­ev­er there is no doubt that it was some kind of a spir­it of com­mu­ni­ty that led to the estab­lish­ment of a wide range of pop­u­lar mea­sures and State insti­tu­tions that changed Britain for the bet­ter for 35 years – just the kind of spir­it, and mea­sures, many might sug­gest, that we need today.

By the end of the 1940s, the big band arrange­ments had reached a peak of com­plex­i­ty and sophis­ti­ca­tion. They were almost too clever for their own good, and, as had been the case with the pop­u­lar waltzes at the end of the 19th cen­tu­ry, the lis­ten­ing pub­lic was ready for a change. Along with the end of the aus­ter­i­ty of the 1940s, that was to fol­low in the next decade – with the advent of Rock ‘n’ Roll, which turned the music indus­try on its head.

• From the Library is pro­duced by Radio Riel in con­junc­tion with the Cale­don Library in Sec­ond Life. Today’s pro­gramme was pro­duced by Elrik Mer­lin.

For more infor­ma­tion on the Cale­don Library, cur­rent exhibits and the work of Sec­ond Life ref­er­ence libraries in gen­er­al, please vis­it the Cale­don Library Web site, or one of their loca­tions in-world.

You can lis­ten now at http://music.radioriel.org — the ide­al URL for you to use in your home par­cel media address in-world — or sim­ply vis­it any Cale­don Library branch in-world and press Play on your embed­ded music play­er. (If you want to lis­ten off-world, eg in Winamp or iTunes, and the above address does­n’t work for you, click here.)

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