A book by Duncan Hall, 'A Pleasant Change From Politics': The musical culture of the British labour movement, 1918-1939, will be published in November 2001 by New Clarion Press
by Duncan Hall, September 2000
In 1978 Ian Watson published an article, 'Alan Bush and Left Music in the Thirties', which sought to place Bush in a 'Thirties Movement' of 'politically progressive musicians'. The article consisted of a review of socialist music-making in Britain in the 1930s and an interview with Bush that seemed to suggest that such a community existed, primarily in London, but without actually naming any other individual composers or performers. In fact Bush is so particularly interesting, for any student of the socialist music of the period, in the ways in which he differed from other 'politically progressive musicians' in inter-war Britain. His departure from what had gone before and from the musical ideas of his peers opened the door for quite new and different ideas to come into the 'labour musical movement' with extraordinary consequences for cultural change in Britain after the Second World War.
While in the early parts of the twentieth century most western nations experienced a period of avant garde art led by the artistic left, quite different traditions prospered in Britain. While the British artistic 'left' were curious about the avant garde movement and promoted its study at institutions such as Alfred Orage's Leeds Arts Club, for the most part they championed and prolonged the 19th century romantic tradition. This was not simple conservatism; artistic socialists recognised a radical potential in the romantic movement that could be traced back through William Morris to the Chartist poets and radical works by the likes of Shelley. While attention has been drawn to the literary longevity of the romantic tradition on the left (through Edward Carpenter and W.H. Auden), the tonal conservatism and pastoral ascendancy in the composition of serious British music in the first half of the twentieth century has similar roots. Rutland Boughton was the most celebrated composer of the labour movement between the wars and he did not stray from the sure footing of the romantic heritage when he composed his folk-inspired music-dramas, symphonies and other pieces. He and his contemporaries, involved in music and the arts, perceived a very clear role for romantic aesthetics in the work of socialists. Artists and socialists were considered to be in the same business: making life beautiful and banishing ugliness.
There was a clear pedagogical mission for many musical socialists between the wars. Writers such as H.G.Sear (who wrote music columns in national and regional Labour Party newspapers) attempted to tutor their readers in the lives of the great composers and in the 'art' of 'musical discrimination'. They echoed Boughton and others in championing the pastoral, the beautiful and the simple and in criticising some of the European avant garde and modernist music as, at best, pretentious.
Alan Bush was not entirely alien to that tradition but he had a very different musical education to many musical socialists. His academic training (particularly in Berlin) put him in contact with socialist artists with very interesting ideas from different traditions (such as Bertolt Brecht, Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler). Even before going to Berlin, Bush experimented with very interesting compositional methods that prioritised the architecture of the whole piece over the usual British pre-occupation with the 'sensual moment'. Bush was a socialist pioneer, embracing new ideas.
These new ideas were not only the radical serialist and modernist forms and structures that he brought to his own composition, but also the introduction of new uses for music besides simple 'beauty' or entertainment. He was no crude propagandist, but he was happy (and relaxed) in his employment of agitational lyrics (such as those of his long-standing collaborator Randall Swingler). He recognised that songs, rhythms and melodies could be more than 'a pleasant way to pass the time' or a vague utopian glimpse of what was to come: music could drive home messages and articulate ideas more successfully than newsletters, pamphlets and posters.
Bush clearly appreciated the music of peers who remained firmly in the bosom of a socialist romantic tradition. He praised Rutland Boughton's 'The Lily Maid' as 'one of the most beautiful and one of the most truly original operas of recent times'. [Donald Brook Composer's Gallery (1946)]. Bush had been Boughton's assistant at the helm of the London Labour Choral Union before taking over the reigns in 1929 (interestingly both men joined the Communist Party while leading this Labour Party organisation). There was no lack of pastoral simplicity in the melodies and motifs of Bush's composition but - perhaps almost unintentionally - he opened the way for satire, parody and social realism to assert themselves in the cultural production of the labour movement. This was not just through his work but through organisations that he ran and transformed: the London Labour Choral Union, the Workers' Music Association and, indirectly, the Workers' Theatre Movement. Others had been important in these movements (not least the socialist romantic, Rutland Boughton) but it was Bush who opened the door to international influences. He renewed his acquaintances with artists and thinkers escaping European fascism and introduced them to the rank and file of British socialist music.
There were other factors in this departure from the romantic tradition (not least the experience of inter-war political and industrial struggles) but Bush's role should not be under-estimated. The Industrial Folksong movement and the Topic Record label grew out of the Workers' Music Association and even the academic discipline of ethnomusicology owes much of its success in arriving here from the American academy to Bush's transformation of the artistic left.
While Bush's musical theories could be viewed as rather lofty, intellectual and remote, he was a key figure in the democratisation of art in Britain, achieving far more in this regard than his pedagogic, utopian patrons and peers, the labour romantics.
Bourchier, Arthur Art and Culture in Relation to Socialism (1926)
Brook, Donald Composer's Gallery (1946)
Goddard, Scott 'Alan Bush: Propagandist and Artist' Listener 23 April 1964
Hall, Duncan 'A Pleasant Change From Politics': The musical culture of the British labour movement, 1918-1939 (2001)
Hanlon, Richard and Waite, Mike 'Communism and British Classical Music' in Andy Croft (ed.) A Weapon in the Struggle: The Cultural History of the Communist Party in Britain (1998)
Janowitz, Anne Lyric and Labour in the Romantic Tradition (1998)
Payne, Anthony 'Alan Bush' Musical Times April 1964
Steele, Tom Alfred Orage and the Leeds Arts Club, 1893-1923 (1990)
Swingler, Randall and Bush, Alan Left Song Book (1938)
Watson, Ian 'Alan Bush and Left Music in the Thirties' Gulliver 4 1978
Workers' Music Association Tribute to Alan Bush on his Fiftieth Birthday (1950)
© 2000 Duncan Hall