Music in Wartime: New Exhibition

To commemorate the 70th anniversary of VE Day (8 May 1945), the library today launches a new exhibition: Music in Wartime. With material related to both the First and Second World Wars, the exhibition highlights resources unique to Trinity Laban – extracts from Trinity College of Music’s board minutes of the time (held in the Trinity College of Music Archive), and items from the Charles Kennedy Scott Archive – as well as providing a broader picture of wartime life through passages from The Musical Times and books from the library’s loanable collection.

Trinity College of Music board minutes, 1933-44

Trinity College of Music board minutes, 1933-44

The idea for the exhibition first came to me while I was conducting a stocktake of the library’s holdings of The Musical Times. This involved leafing through every bound volume of that journal (our holdings span from 1878 to the present day), checking for missing issues so that the information on the Jerwood Library’s catalogue is as accurate as possible. But as I looked through issue after issue – with the years moving from 1913 to 1914 and beyond – I couldn’t help but become enthralled by the inevitably stark effect of war on musical activity and thought: evident not just in articles and shorter notes (‘The European War and Its Influence on the Evolution of Musical Tendencies in France’ (1916), ‘Should Teutonic Music be Boycotted?’ (1915), and ‘Music in Ruhleben [internment] Camp’ (1919) are just a few examples), but also in the concert listings, advertisements and letters included in the journal. It provided a reminder of the effect of war on the (musical) lives of those at home, and of the role of music for those either at war or held in prisoner of war camps. And the sheer act of looking through each month’s journal issue brought home the reality of the length of time – season after season, year after year – for which both wars endured.

Material from The Musical Times at the outbreak of World War I presents a complex picture of attitudes towards musicians, music-making and concert-going. Wartime economies meant that budgets all-round were hit, and the general population too experienced a decrease in incomes. One article from late 1914 begins by noting that:

… the outlook for British musicians, although far from being normal, is improving. Many important musical enterprises that were threatened with extinction are being carried on bravely, and influential forces have been mobilized for the purpose of striving for the cause of the British executant. Ultimately the issue depends upon the attitude of concert-goers, who, in common with other classes of the community, have been hard hit financially, and who may not unnaturally have qualms of conscience as to whether musical recreation should be sought during a time when there is so much around us that is stern and grim.
‘The Outlook for British Musicians’. The Musical Times, no 861 (vol 55), December 1, 1914, p. 644.

The moral question posed by engaging in musical activities at the time was conveyed even more keenly in an article the following month, which reported on a paper titled ‘Music in War-Time’ given by Mr H.C. Colles at the first meeting of the Musical Association:

He said that musicians had been conscious lately that they had become less interesting to their fellows than they normally were, and many found, though perhaps ashamed to confess it, that music itself interested them less than it used to do. Yet music remained and musicians remained, and the question was ‘What were we going to do with them?’

‘Music in War-Time’. The Musical Times, no 862 (vol 55), December 1, 1914, p.707.

In contrast was the view that music could serve a valuable cathartic purpose, and that musicians – and their talents and activities – should be celebrated and made use of on those grounds:

Viewed in retrospect, the first half of the current season has revealed the undoubted fact that the War has made us all feel our music with greater keenness – not perhaps with greater zest, because one cannot get away from the fact that music seems an almost culpable joy in face of the European turmoil and desolation – but the message of great music is coming home to the average man or woman as never before, and where heroic feeling is the dominant note, conductor, players and audience have been swept up to heights not before reached in our generation.

‘Manchester and District’ (Music in the Provinces: by our own correspondents). The Musical Times, no 863 (vol 56), January 1, 1915, p. 46.

However, as budgets were hit, and festivals and concert series were drastically down-scaled or cancelled, musicians and their incomes also suffered. Along with a widespread movement against the performance of Austro-German music (for example, the 1915 Proms series contained ‘no German masterpieces’), a rise of protectionistic instincts is clearly visible: for example, the Music in War-time Committee was formed with the aim ‘simply to create or find engagements for the native performer, and to encourage performances’.

The desire to protect against the ‘enemy alien’ was also a prominent theme in Trinity College of Music’s board minutes of the time, which document in October 1914 the resolution that

…  it is undesirable to employ Germans and Austro-Hungarians in positions to fill which competent members of the British Empire can be obtained.

A short time later, in early 1915, two Hungarian students ‘being alien enemies and of military age’ are admitted to the college, only for this offer to be rescinded the next month, after further discussion by the board. Perhaps most striking – and difficult to imagine today – is the removal of contemporary compositions from a Trinity syllabus, on the basis that they had been published in Germany, and therefore that profit received from the printing and sale of these pieces would directly benefit ‘enemy alien firms’.

Entrance Hall to Mandeville Place, showing the War Memorial

Entrance hall to Mandeville Place, showing Trinity College of Music’s war memorial. Nine students and one member of staff lost their lives during World War One.

Trinity College of Music War Memorial, now located in the Hawksmoor entrance of King Charles Court

Trinity College of Music’s war memorial, now located in the Hawksmoor entrance of King Charles Court

While the possible consequences of war for Trinity College of Music were perhaps initially  underestimated by the board during World War I (for instance, they rejected the idea of insurance against aerial bombardment in October 1914, to later take out a policy in mid-1915), the College’s preparations for the implications of World War II seem impressively planned. In May 1939 plans are already under consideration ‘for transferring a portion of the College Staff, together with important documents and records, in the event of a National Emergency’, and among the numerous plans noted at an emergency meeting held on 1 September 1939 (the day war was declared), the Principal reports that ‘in order to provide for his complete general supervision of College administration during the period of hostilities, he has taken up residence at the College.’ A bomb-proof basement shelter was built, an air raid warden appointed, a rota of night-time fire watchers put in place, wartime economies were continually considered and salaries reduced… but teaching, examinations, rehearsals and performances continued between 1939 and 1945.

To end this post, a first-hand account of life at Junior Trinity during the Second World War highlights how the spirit of the college was able to prevail, even under the most challenging circumstances:

Common chords are never really common when learnt in our beautiful Lecture Hall with its panelled walls, organ, pianos, and blackboard and Miss Puttick’s magical teaching; but when learnt in a basement shelter, tightly packed on backless forms, with your neighbour’s gas-mask container digging into your ribs, there is something heroic about them, an echo of the Song of Roland (Norman-French Ballade) under the drone of planes and roar of anti-aircraft guns.


There were, of course, a few instances of homework not being done. Manuscript books have a way of getting lost when one’s home is bombed; and being flung across the room by blast – which happened to two of our small boys.


On September 17th 1940 a heavy bomb demolished property adjacent to the College. Dust, plaster, and broken glass filled the building and it was obvious that the new term could not begin on the fixed date. But here again, very little time was lost. All members of the clerical staff valiantly got down on their hands and knees and scrubbed; in a week the College re-opened. It was rather subdued and deserted, but nonetheless Trinity College carried on.

[extracts taken from ‘The War Years (1940-1942)’ (author unknown – found amongst Miss Puttick’s papers). In Junior Trinity 100 Years: 1906 ­– 2006, written and compiled by Anne Cassal. Anne Cassal: 2006, pp. 6-7.]

The Music in Wartime exhibition also contains items usually available for loan from the Jerwood Library, including the following books, CDs and DVDs:

Proof through the night: Music and the Great War, by Glenn Watkins
788.08 WAT

War Letters, by Ivor Gurney
789 GUR

Inherit the truth: 1939-1945: the documented experiences of a survivor of Auschwitz and Belsen, by Anita Lasker-Wallfisch  
789 LAS

War’s embers: songs by composers who perished or suffered in World War I, sung by Michael George (bass)

Great songs of World War II : classic songs from the World War 2 era, featuring Vera Lynn, Glenn Miller, Flanagan and Allen and George Formby

You must remember this, directed by Sue Mallinson

Oh! What a lovely war, directed by Richard Attenborough

The Reichsorchester: the Berlin Philharmonic and the Third Reich, a film by Enrique Sánchez Lansch

Music in Wartime will be on display from 8 May to 2 July and can be found in the Jerwood Library of the Performing Arts at the music faculty of Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance (directions here). If you are coming from outside the institution, please sign in at the main reception desk and a member of library staff will come to meet you.


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