Classical Music Radio in Wartime Britain

Classical music was an important and revealing feature of radio during the Second World War. It is difficult nowadays to imagine classical music being such a central issue in times of national crisis. However, it was very much the soundtrack to World War II: Hitler ordered that the overture of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger should introduce each of the Nuremberg rallies; Stalin arranged the broadcasting of Shostakovich's seventh symphony across the front line of the siege of Leningrad by flying in the orchestral parts to the beleaguered city; Oliver Messiaen composed modernism’s seminal Quartet for the End of Time while imprisoned in the Stalag VIIIa prisoner of war camp; and Laurence Olivier commissioned Walton's Agincourt music for his wartime film of Shakespeare’s Henry V.

For the BBC’s classical music radio broadcasts – and much other programming – there were challenges and issues to confront, good and bad solutions adopted and both creditable and discreditable results. Such music raised issues about the playing of works by ‘enemy composers’; the position of ‘new’ music; the significance of émigré refugees in British musical life; and the impact of de-nazification on British radio broadcasts after the war.

BBC radio, which faced substantial competition during the 1930s from commercially-funded stations beamed in from the near continent – Radio Luxembourg, Radio Normandy, and many others – regained its domestic monopoly of broadcasting when the Panzer divisions rolled across Belgium and northern France. For better or worse, it was the dominant voice of Britain and in Britain throughout the Second World War. The pre-1940 system of one National Service, a range of Regional Services on separate frequencies and the BBC Overseas Service was soon changed into a Home Service and a service known as either the Forces Service or the General Forces Service. In all of those, classical music – or ‘serious’ music as the BBC preferred to call it – played an important part.

The significance of classical music on UK radio was enhanced by the role that such music played within a society at war, symbolised by Myra Hess’s lunchtime concerts at the National Gallery in London. The wartime government created the Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts (CEMA) in 1940 to promote musical activity on the home front, while the Entertainments National Service Association (ENSA) was not just about comedians and variety, but brought a good range of concerts and live music to the troops at home and overseas. Many people speak about a ‘cultural renaissance’ during the later years of the war that carried forward into peacetime. Among its fruits was the Arts Council, the successor to CEMA, and in broadcasting, the introduction of the Third Programme in September 1946.

During the war, to the dismay of many purists, BBC radio included many more gramophone record programmes than would have been permitted before the war. Nevertheless, the main source of programmes was the BBC orchestras, which regrouped as wartime pressures permitted. The BBC Symphony Orchestra itself was evacuated to Bristol on the assumption that it would be safer there than in London. The bombing of the Bristol docks from June 1940 onwards put paid to that idea. Kenyon has written about how ‘as the raids increased, it became progressively more difficult to justify moving about at night. Concerts began to be recorded in the afternoons and broadcast by the engineers at night.’ Its next home was Bedford, where the orchestra (but not its administration) was to remain from June 1941 until the end of the war.

Despite all the upheavals, a typical Sunday on the Home Service in 1942 included three live orchestral concerts, two live chamber music recitals and one on ‘gramophone records’, plus a talk by BBC critic Ralph Hill on ‘the essence of Brahms’. The rest of this sample week indicates a similar pattern and volume, a level of output which was sustained almost until the end of the war, when both resources and manpower shifted the emphasis more towards commercial recordings. From 1940 until the end of 1943, classical music accounted for around fifteen per cent of the Home Service output and nearly four per cent of the Forces Programme, with Home Service output slipping to ten per cent only in the last year of the war (when the General Forces percentage actually rose). The audiences for classical music programmes reached levels that were never to be achieved in peacetime. On a randomly sampled Friday in May 1945, a lunchtime performance of Beethoven’s fifth symphony was listened to by one and a quarter million adults, while an evening concert of music by Gilbert and Sullivan reached a remarkable three and a half million.

The BBC orchestras and others also played concerts in cities around the nation. Malcolm Sargent, who was to take over as chief conductor of the Henry Wood Promenade Concerts in 1947, at least partly made his popular reputation in this way. Garnham explains that ‘his blitz tour with the LPO, bringing orchestral music to the music halls and variety theatres of major provincial cities, then suffering heavily under the bombings, had been a tremendously popular contribution to the war effort’.

The Proms themselves were dealt a shattering blow when their traditional home, the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place, was destroyed by firebombing during the night of 10-11 May 1941. The photograph of Henry Wood standing amid the ruins of the hall became, in Doctor’s words, ‘a powerful symbol of defiance and survival in Britain during the Blitz’. The Proms were relocated to the Royal Albert Hall. Once the BBC resumed running the Proms in 1942, these concerts – along with the recitals of Myra Hess – gave London some cultural continuity in a time of change and horror. The Proms had to be suspended late in June 1944 after a near miss with a V1 flying bomb, but resumed in time for the dying Henry Wood to complete his final performance ‘with a forceful and memorable broadcast of Beethoven's seventh Symphony’ on 28 July.

Beethoven’s music was everywhere, notably in the aural symbol of wartime resistance, the opening notes from his fifth symphony. That happened despite debate about the playing of ‘enemy music’. This is subject to some academic disagreement, but what is clear is that the BBC was reluctant to broadcast the works of living German, Italian or Finnish composers on the grounds that their royalty payments would be destined for hostile nations (or could at least be collected once the war had ended). Some academics have suggested that the BBC operated a much more jingoistic process of exclusion, especially of German composers, although the dominating presence of Beethoven and Bach confounds any suggestion of a policy of ‘racial’ exclusion. The composers for the sampled week in 1942 were overwhelmingly the late masters of the nineteenth-century classical canon, with the March from Wagner’s Tannhauser in the Forces Programme striking a German, martial note.

The real impact was felt on ‘new’ music (which represented and continues to represent only a small proportion of radio broadcasts, albeit one which attracts disproportionate attention from music and media academics). Arthur Bliss, who succeeded Adrian Boult as the BBC’s Director of Music in 1942, held the view ‘that in wartime, the BBC ought to give special support and encouragement to British Empire composers’. As a result, ‘the period from 1942 was one in which the new music heard on radio almost exclusively originated from countries allied to, or sympathetic to, the cause of Britain in the war’. In the sampled week, no non-British ‘new music’ was broadcast.

From a modern perspective, we might assume that Wagner’s work would be at the centre of any such exclusion, knowing his role in writing what Rose has called ‘arguably the seminal text of modern German antisemitism’, and the fondness of the Nazi leadership for his music. In the event, many of his works were played regularly. The first concert in the BBC Symphony Orchestra’s 1940 series ‘boldly devoted its entire second part, which was broadcast, to extracts from Wagner's operas’. In response to a letter of complaint, the Bristol Evening Post’s music critic expressed the majority and the BBC view that ‘by their unstinted applause, the audience gave the lie to the fantastic myth that the music of Wagner cannot or should not be appreciated by civilised people at war with Germany’.

Much more difficulty surrounded the work of Richard Strauss as a consequence of his willingness to accept musical posts in the Third Reich; and, for a while, broadcasts of Sibelius’ Finlandia, because of its nationalistic tone relating to a country at war with Britain’s ‘ally’, the Soviet Union. Even Max Bruch, banned by the Nazis for his presumed Jewish ancestry, was put by the BBC on the list where ‘the Corporation wishes to limit the performance of [their] works … to a minimum far below their appearance in peace time’ because the royalties payable for performances of his works would mean less available for “British, Allied and friendly composers”. It was a dubious distinction he shared with Verdi, Puccini and others.

What was actually broadcast largely exonerates the BBC from any claims that it was excluding musical works of value on a jingoistic basis. However, the British Government is much less easily defended over the internment of so-called ‘enemy aliens’, many of whom were actually refugees from those countries with which Britain was at war. Foremost among them was Hans Keller, a Viennese Jew who was to become one of the dominant forces in British music radio after the war, but he is simply the best known of dozens of musicians detained in camps on the Isle of Man and elsewhere. Senior BBC figures – notably Adrian Boult and Arthur Bliss – were active in agitating for their release, often but not always with some success. Keller himself was released from internment on 23 March 1941.

The role of BBC figures in challenging the government in this respect was especially creditable given what is now widely acknowledged as the extensive antisemitism within the BBC generally at the time. The Corporation’s own historian, Jean Seaton, has written that ‘the BBC displayed, both before and during the war, views and decisions that were quite simply anti-Semitic’, although there were clear exceptions as the efforts of Boult and Bliss on behalf of internees illustrate. Before the reality of the death camps was known – or at least truly comprehended – there was an evident wish to stay out of what was thought to be simply a ‘domestic issue’ for Germany; even, on occasion, to avoid addressing any issues relating to the Jews in that country for fear of making their situation worse.

In Germany itself after the war, classical music became a tool of reconstruction and de-nazification, an ironic riposte to the use which the Nazi regime made of the Austro/German music canon. Under the influence of American musicologists, the annual Ferienkurse (summer school) at Darmstadt from 1946 became the central event of modernist music, featuring composers such as Schoenberg, Berg and Webern, and their successors including Milhaud, Varese and Honneger. This approach was to dominate musical scholarship – though not usually radio output – for much of the rest of the century.

It is reasonable to conclude that, in its wartime broadcasting of classical music, the BBC struggled with side issues while fudging the central ones. In practice, BBC radio broadcast a great deal of Beethoven and Mozart, some Wagner, plenty of Elgar and Vaughan Williams and even in the end some Richard Strauss – a recipe for radio programmes that played a valuable and valued role in sustaining and uplifting those on the home front and overseas. As a result, classical music radio at least kept Britain firmly at the heart of the European Enlightenment, even as that was reaching its dreadful apotheosis.

By Tony Stoller



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