From the Library: War & Peace

in Daily Programme

by Elrik Merlin on Tuesday, 18 November, 2008

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 — 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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