by Rachel O'Higgins
On Saturday evening, 15 June 2002, the Archive Hour, produced by Nigel Atchison and introduced by Gerry Kennedy, was devoted to a programme of discussion with a number of interesting musical illustrations on the subject of music and political protest. It focussed on three composers - Rutland Boughton, Michael Tippett and Alan Bush - who, in the 1920s and 1930s, in their different ways, contributed to music and the British labour movement between the wars.
Rutland Boughton who became the Musical Director of the London Labour Choral Union in the 1920s, had composed Bethlehem, a Christmas story with words by William Morris, and later a series of operas, the most famous of which was "The Immortal Hour", which enjoyed a run of 216 performances in London. In an interview, Dr. Duncan Hall, the author of 'A pleasant change from politics': Music and the British labour movement between the wars (New Clarion Press, 2001), said that music and Socialism made sense, because it gave the idea of how beautiful life would become. Much of the research for the programme was drawn from material provided by Duncan Hall.
Alan Bush, who first became involved in politics in the 1920s, joined the London Labour Choral Union as the conductor of a labour choir in Finchley, became Rutland Boughton's deputy in the LLCU, and, in 1929, its Musical Director when Rutland Boughton retired. In 1934, Alan Bush was a key figure in composing the music and conducting of the 1934 Pageant of Labour, along with his friend, and fellow-composer, Michael Tippett, who was also involved in labour politics and labour choirs at this time. The programme played a short excerpt from Alan Bush's string quartet, Dialectic, Op. 15, composed in 1929, which the commentator suggested showed that Bush's music was not always overtly political. The commentator also mentioned another work by Alan Bush, a song-cycle, also composed in 1929, which was first performed by the London Labour Choral Union in London in 1933, Songs of the Doomed, Op. 14, which was to do with coal miners.
The BBC programme largely focussed on a later pageant, "Pageant Music and the People", the first event in the "Festival of Music for the People", which took place in London from 1-5 April, 1939. The "Festival of Music for the People" consisted of three musical performances, a pageant in Albert Hall on 1 April, a Concert in the Conway Hall on 3 April largely made up of choral music, and including pieces by Schonberg and Hanns Eisler, and a concert in the Queen's Hall on 5 April, with the London Symphony Orchestra, conducted by Constant Lambert. The programme of this last concert included music by Benjamin Britten, who composed a Ballad of Heroes specially for that occasion, and John Ireland's prophetic musical vision These Things Shall Be. In the programme, Alan Bush recalled meeting John Ireland in the waiting room of a London railway station. John Ireland wanted to know if Alan Bush knew the tune of the International, and Alan Bush wrote the melody on the back of an envelope. Thus it was that an excerpt of the International was incorporated into John Ireland's work. The BBC programme played excerpts from Britten’s and Ireland's works. The Lento and Finale of Alan Bush's Piano Concerto was also performed at the concert.
The pageant music was specially composed by twelve composers, who included well-known British composers, such as Alan Rawsthorne, Edmund Rubbra, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Alan Bush. Several of those who took part in the Festival recalled the event. Joan Horrocks, a Supporter of the Trust, who was a close friend and colleague of Alan Bush for many years and a leading member of the Workers' Music Association, and now the Administrator of MANA (Musicians against Nuclear Arms), had joined the Hendon Left Singers as a very young girl and took part in the Pageant. She described the scenario of the Festival as based on fact, and included episodes on the Peasants' Revolt in 1381, the French Revolution in 1789, Prisoners with music by Alan Bush, which recalls the Chorus of Prisoners in Fidelio, and one on Slaves, with music sung by Paul Robeson, and a Negro choir - the BBC programme included an excerpt from Paul Robeson's splendid and rousing contribution; Vivian Picksmeer, a member of another labour choir, also recalled the excitement she felt at taking part in such an event.
The programme referred to the formation of the Workers' Music Association in 1936. Alan Bush was Chairman of the WMA 1936-1941 and became President from 1941 until his death in 1995. Aubrey Bowman, a former composition student of Alan Bush at the Royal Academy of Music, and a longstanding friend and colleague, is now the President of the WMA. In an interview, he spoke of the importance of the WMA in bringing socialism and music together. John Amis, a Patron of the Trust, who knew Alan Bush well described him as "a marvellous man. Had he been born twenty years earlier, he would have gone into the church; in the 1930s he became a Communist".
To illustrate the fact that music has not disappeared entirely from socialist politics, the programme referred to The Burning Road, which recalls the Jarrow March, and features all the towns through which the marchers passed. The close association of music with the desire for political change has not entirely disappeared.
This programme was a welcome reminder of the pre-war period and brought to life many of the events of the 1930s. It recalled very vividly and with many well-chosen musical illustrations and interviews with people who remembered those composers - Alan Bush, Rutland Boughton and Michael Tippett - and the part they played in bringing closer together music and socialism at that time.
© 2002 Rachel O'Higgins Alan Bush Music Trust