Music wars: In the mood

Although it was used as a propaganda tool, music helped those enduring the horrors of the Second World War, says Patrick Bade in a new book

Four years ago a pile of Second World War Pyral discs turned up mysteriously in a junk shop in Lyons. They came from the archive of the notorious Nazi-controlled Radio Paris. The premises of Radio Paris had been torched during the liberation of the city and no one knows how these discs had escaped the conflagration or why they had turned up in Lyons more than 60 years later.

In remarkably vivid sound the discs preserve two concerts that had been broadcast live from the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in January 1944. The concerts were free and ordinary Parisians mingled with members of the German Wehrmacht in their grey-green uniforms. What is evident in these recordings is the heightened response to music in wartime and the palpably shared emotion of musicians and audience, of oppressed and oppressors. The musicians of the Grand Orchestre de Radio had been picked from the other Paris orchestras and were the best that France had to offer. The conductor was the Dutch Willem Mengelberg – a revered musical figure before the war but later tainted by accusations of collaboration with the Nazis. He would conduct for the last time six months later (Beethoven's Ninth Symphony) in the same theatre with the allied armies already hurtling across Normandy on their way to Paris.

Most poignant of all is the highly charged performance of Tchaikovsky's Symphonie Pathétique given on 20 January, the day after the German siege of Leningrad had been broken. It is likely that the French civilians, glued to their clandestine radio sets at night to listen to BBC news bulletins, were better informed about the latest events than the Germans. But by January 1944 every member of the audience must have been aware that the end game had started and that their fates would be decided in the coming months. Under these circumstances Tchaikovsky's baleful utterances must have sounded more urgent than ever.

Anyone who lived through the war will have powerful memories associated with music, whether it was Beethoven or Glenn Miller. My father never forgot the emotion he felt when he heard the voice of Vera Lynn emanating from a radio set in a remote area of Persia. Musical sensibility was sharpened by what Noel Coward described as "the enforced contact with the sterner realities of life and death." In her autobiography Joyce Grenfell spoke of being "nourished" by music. Listening to a performance of Mozart's clarinet quintet at one of Myra Hess' famous National Gallery concerts in 1940, Grenfell had a "glimpse of unchanging limitless life, of spiritual being that no war or misery of uncertainty and fear could ever touch." Anita Lasker-Wallfisch, the cellist of the women's orchestra in Auschwitz, used strikingly similar language to describe her reaction to taking part in a string quartet arrangement of Beethoven's Pathétique Sonata. "We were able to raise ourselves high above the inferno of Auschwitz into spheres where we could not be touched by the degradation of concentration camp existence."

The Nazis laid more emphasis than the Allies on "high culture" and the tradition of Austro-German classical music was central to their self-image. Britain was dismissed as "das land ohne musik" (the country without music). Stung by Nazi accusations of philistinism, the BBC countered with a broadcast featuring the actor Marius Goring and the pianist Myra Hess billed as "Britain's reply to Goebbels by Goring and Hess".

Both sides exploited the morale boosting value of music. Radio was one of the most powerful weapons of the war and music both popular and classical was deemed essential to attract listeners. Nowhere was this more crucial than in the Middle East where millions of Arabs of dubious loyalty to their colonial masters listened to the Thursday evening broadcasts of the great Egyptian singer Umm Kulthum on the pro-British Cairo Radio. Umm Kulthum might have been the only woman who could have lost the war for the Allies had she changed allegiance and persuaded the Arab masses to follow her. Music also played a small but significant role in the battle for Stalingrad in the winter of 1942-3, which marked the turning point of the war. The Russians tried to demoralise the trapped German troops by bombarding them with nostalgic German songs from loud-speaker vans. Ironically, Goebbels succeeded in demoralising them more effectively still with faked broadcasts of Christmas carols, which he claimed came from within the besieged city. Some of the cruder attempts at musical propaganda were probably counter-productive. Charlie Schwedler who crooned Nazi propaganda in heavily accented English to melodies of popular American songs accompanied by an accomplished and sophisticated jazz band can only have raised laughs of an unintended kind. Glenn Miller's more laid-back approach paid better dividends if only in persuading Germans that it might be more comfortable to surrender to the Americans than to wait for the Russians.

On the popular music front the Americans won the war before it began. Though jazz and swing were reviled by the Nazis as counter to the German ideal, Goebbels realised that the desire to dance to American-style music was a force better harnessed than resisted. Gypsy music was also too popular to suppress, even if the Gypsies themselves were destined for extermination.

Apart from swing, the other popular musical form during the war was operetta. The suspicion among Hitler's inner circle was that he secretly preferred The Merry Widow to Götterdämmerung. But operetta was particularly problematic to the Nazis because so many of the composers, librettists and performers of operetta were Jewish. Johann Strauss's birth certificate had to be doctored to suppress evidence of his Jewish ancestry and there was a mass exodus of operetta composers and singers to the United States. The most famous of all, Franz Lehar, remained under the personal protection of Goebbels and succeeded in saving the life of his wife but not of his favourite librettist Fritz Löhner-Beda, who died in Auschwitz in 1942.

In a tribute to the conductor Bruno Walter, Thomas Mann commented on the dual nature of music "...it is both moral code and seduction, sobriety and drunkenness, a summons to the highest alertness and a lure to the sweetest sleep of enchantment, reason and anti-reason." Popular songs and more serious music too, could change meaning in the light of political events, could even change allegiance and jump enemy lines. Beethoven was claimed by both sides. He was by far the most performed composer (followed at some distance by Wagner) in the wartime Prom concerts that together with Myra Hess' National Gallery concerts became such an important symbol of British resistance. The British were quick to appropriate the opening four note motto theme of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony which conveniently formed the letter V in Morse code. Despite their best efforts the Germans never re-appropriated this music and it remained stubbornly associated with the Allied war effort.

The most famous example of a song crossing sides is "Lili Marleen", which was adopted as the song of the British Eighth Army and performed and recorded in countless different languages. The Merry Widow did good service to both sides, too, enjoying long runs in New York and London and touring to Cairo and Tel Aviv. Most confusing of all was the fate of Madama Butterfly. Puccini's opera was banned in New York for the duration of the war as it was not thought appropriate to represent an American naval officer mistreating a Japanese woman. In Marseilles performances scheduled for the beginning of 1943 were suppressed by the occupying Germans who feared that Puccini's musical quotation of the Star-Spangled Banner might provoke a demonstration so soon after the American "Torch" landings in North Africa. But in Germany and Britain Madama Butterfly was more widely performed than ever. Despite being at war with Japan, the British took the Japanese heroine to their hearts, although the statuesque Australian soprano Joan Hammond attracted astonished glances when she tottered across Glasgow railway station still dressed in her kimono when trying to catch the last train back to London after a performance. It would seem that Puccini's masterpiece even touched the heart of the monstrous Maria Mandel who ran the women's camp at Auschwitz, and who liked to be soothed with selections from the opera after her arduous work of mass murder.

Music is morally neutral. In the Second World War it was used for good and evil purposes. At no other time was music's power as a weapon and as a solace more vividly demonstrated.

'Music Wars' by Patrick Bade (East and West Publishing). The Mengelberg concerts are on Malibran-Music (malibran.com)

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

music
Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

film
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
News
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
people
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

film
Arts and Entertainment

art
Arts and Entertainment

film
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Where the spooks get their coffee fix: The busiest Starbucks in the US is also the most secretive

    The secret CIA Starbucks

    The coffee shop is deep inside the agency's forested Virginia compound
    Revealed: How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Loch Ness Monster 'sighting'

    How the Establishment closed ranks over fallout from Nessie 'sighting'

    The Natural History Museum's chief scientist was dismissed for declaring he had found the monster
    One million Britons using food banks, according to Trussell Trust

    One million Britons using food banks

    Huge surge in number of families dependent on emergency food aid
    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths 2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    2,500 years of history in 3,000 amazing objects

    Excavation at Italian cafe to fix rising damp unearths trove
    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey, 25 years on

    The Hubble Space Telescope's amazing journey 25 years on

    The space telescope was seen as a costly flop on its first release
    Did Conservative peer Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    Did Lord Ashcroft quit the House of Lords to become a non-dom?

    A document seen by The Independent shows that a week after he resigned from the Lords he sold 350,000 shares in an American company - netting him $11.2m
    Apple's ethnic emojis are being used to make racist comments on social media

    Ethnic emojis used in racist comments

    They were intended to promote harmony, but have achieved the opposite
    Sir Kenneth Branagh interview: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    Sir Kenneth Branagh: 'My bones are in the theatre'

    The actor-turned-director’s new company will stage five plays from October – including works by Shakespeare and John Osborne
    The sloth is now the face (and furry body) of three big advertising campaigns

    The sloth is the face of three ad campaigns

    Priya Elan discovers why slow and sleepy wins the race for brands in need of a new image
    How to run a restaurant: As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food

    How to run a restaurant

    As two newbies discovered, there's more to it than good food
    Record Store Day: Remembering an era when buying and selling discs were labours of love

    Record Store Day: The vinyl countdown

    For Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
    Usher, Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert as part of the Global Poverty Project

    Mary J Blige and Will.i.am to give free concert

    The concert in Washington is part of the Global Citizen project, which aims to encourage young people to donate to charity
    10 best tote bags

    Accessorise with a stylish shopper this spring: 10 best tote bags

    We find carriers with room for all your essentials (and a bit more)
    Paul Scholes column: I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England

    Paul Scholes column

    I hear Manchester City are closing on Pep Guardiola for next summer – but I'd also love to see Jürgen Klopp managing in England
    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    Jessica Ennis-Hill: 'I just want to give it my best shot'

    The heptathlete has gone from the toast of the nation to being a sleep-deprived mum - but she’s ready to compete again. She just doesn't know how well she'll do...