Art Music in British Public Discourse during the First World War

Jane Angell

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

303 Downloads (Pure)


This study examines English musical life during the First World War through public musical discourse. It uses contemporary primary sources as its basis, in particular specialist music journals as well as musical comment made in non-specialist papers and magazines. Using these sources to highlight recurrent tropes and to identify ways in which public comment around music changed throughout the course of the war, I identify particularly significant features of wartime musical discourse. The war prompted some musicians in Britain to re-evaluate their position with regard to German music. Since Britain was Germany’s enemy, many commentators saw newfound opportunities for British music and musicians, in composition and in performance. Wartime conditions prompted a reconsideration of music’s role and relevance, and a significant amount of time and public comment was invested in proving that musical activity was both practical and justifiable. Debate during the war concentrated on both investigating and proving the various uses to which music could be put, including therapeutic ones. My findings show that musicians found many ways to justify their activities during a time of violent conflict. The musical needs of serving troops were discussed and addressed by musicians based in Britain, with widespread recognition that music was of value as recreation and for entertainment, both in rest camps and in the front line, with many musicians travelling to provide music to troops and writing commentary on their experiences in British publications. In this context I demonstrate how notions of taste and discrimination, related to the concept of cultural capital and the dominant class as theorised by Pierre Bourdieu, can be applied to both those who wished to maintain traditional boundaries relating to dominant taste, and those for whom the war caused a temporary reassessment of their position with regard to popular culture or the wishes and tastes of serving troops. Lastly, I note that music and musicians were mobilised in the service of charitable enterprise, both being asked to give their skills in the cause of others, and being the reason for the formation of charitable organisations which benefited both performers and audiences alike. The war challenged British musicians working within art musical fields to justify their activities at a time of national tragedy and armed conflict, and these challenges, increasingly as the war progressed, resulted in an attitude of confidence. For some this confidence was a belief, not shared by all commentators, that British compositions could bear comparison with the best of music from other countries (and particularly Germany). This study concludes that, although art music was and remained a minority interest, the particular conditions of wartime provided temporarily increased audiences and gave a fillip of confidence, engendered by experiences and observations during the war, to those whose livelihoods were bound up in the art-musical sphere, a confidence which persuaded them that there was a continuing place for those activities. The wartime uses, reception and experience of art music demonstrated to practitioners, as well as to commentators and observers outside the sphere of music, that music had a practical as well as an emotional role to play in supporting the war effort, and inspired hopes that this recognition of music’s importance would continue after the war.

Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Levi, Erik, Supervisor
  • Harper-Scott, J. P. E., Supervisor
Award date1 Jun 2014
Publication statusUnpublished - 2014


  • First World War, British music, Music journalism

Cite this