Chamber-Music Performance and Nation in Second World War London

Eleanor Thackrey

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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While twentieth-century British history overall is served quite well by musicology, the period during the Second World War has not been subjected to the same depth and breadth of analysis as the rest of the century. Moreover, performances of chamber music in particular often seem to be passed over in favour of larger-scale works and institutions, so that the focus is on composition and new music; orchestral performances; institutional histories; and individual biographies. This thesis thus offers a new angle by examining chamber-music concerts in London between 1939 and 1945 and situating these performances in their social, economic, cultural and political contexts. In particular, it examines chamber-music performances through the continually evolving relationships between music and ‘nation’. In this instance, ‘nation’ includes the construction and deconstruction of national identities, national representations, nationalism and national ideologies.
I trace the position of chamber-music performance in the wider musical and cultural context of the 1930s and 1940s through the activities and attitudes of the BBC, through discourses in newspapers and other publications, and through work in other performance venues and genres. Stemming from in-depth archival research complemented by historical and musicological literature, my thesis explores two prime venues for chamber music: the Wigmore Hall and the National Gallery.
The Wigmore Hall was a commercially run venue. During the period, however, chamber music was also presented there as a vehicle for charitable causes and, significantly, was used as a platform for ‘national’ groups such as the Anglo-Austrian Music Society. National ideologies and identities were thus articulated on a musical platform and in this war context the dominance of works from the Austro-German canon raises interesting questions. The Wigmore Hall also stands out as a significant venue for the performance of newly composed chamber music during the war.
The National Gallery chamber-music performances provide a considerable contrast to this. Under the direction of one woman, Myra Hess, they were conceived and run under particular ethical guidelines that extended to repertoire choice and administrative structures. While the concerts have often been discussed in relation to their morale-boosting mission, my thesis goes beyond popular myth to argue that despite striving to remain above constructs of ‘nation’, the concerts were necessarily tangled in complex ideological problems.
Each venue illuminates the complex interrelations between music and concepts of nation. The thesis suggests that British musical identity during the period was conceived, constructed and articulated through the medium of performance itself, rather than through the more problematic area of stylistic compositional traits.
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • Royal Holloway, University of London
  • Beckles Willson, Rachel, Supervisor
  • Levi, Erik, Advisor
Thesis sponsors
Award date1 Feb 2014
Publication statusUnpublished - 2014


  • music
  • second world war
  • London
  • chamber music
  • performance

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