Britain, 70 years of Workers Music Association

Workers' Music Association

From London daily The Morning Star:

70 years on

(Wednesday 01 March 2006)

AUBREY BOWMAN celebrates seven decades of song and struggle by the Workers’ Music Association.

IT was on March 1 1936 that the Workers’ Music Association (WMA) was set up at a specially convened meeting which took place in a workers’ cultural heartland – the Whitechapel Art Gallery.

The meeting was attended by representatives of various workers’ music organisations including the London Labour Choral Union, the Co-op Education Committees and the Co-op choirs.

Some of those who had taken part in the great pageant of labour mounted in Crystal Palace two years previously were present.

Taking a leading role in the inaugural meeting of the WMA and in all the work leading up to it was the youthful and energetic composer Alan Bush, who will be remembered by many readers of the Morning Star and its predecessor the Daily Worker.

The new organisation owed its socialist roots to the aims of the labour movement and practised a broad church to encompass musical attainments achieved at that time.

The WMA is the only organisation of its kind in the whole world.

Drawing on the influence of Hanns Eisler [see also here] and his collaborator Bertolt Brecht, whose independent style of workers’ song-drama had taken Germany by storm in the period of Weimar Republic, Alan Bush was able to infuse a new sense of purpose into the British workers’ music movement.

Hitherto, music had been thought of as having to be brought “to” the workers, to “elevate” them and immerse them in the “beauties” of song and so alleviate the drudgeries and miseries of work and everyday living.

It could, as one 19th century writer cogently put it, help stave off disaffectedness and revolution.

But, in the WMA, there was a complete reversal. A revolution, in fact.

Instead of music being brought to the workers, it is the music of workers’ struggle, of workers’ battles and of their triumphs which is brought to the musical arena.

From its inception, the venture was a resounding success.

There were opponents, of course, as there always are when anything having genuine revolutionary content takes hold.

For many, the transition to music with a social purpose was not easy.

However, the new WMA, nourished by its convictions, swept on from success to success and from one triumph to another.

First, a number of new songs were published.

These were followed by the Left Song Book in 1937, part of Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club series.

There were concert-demonstrations in support of republican Spain.

The Royal Albert Hall was taken for the Festival of Music for the People, as was the Wembley Arena and other venues for further concerts and celebrations over a period of a decade or so.

Apart from Bush, various composers and conductors, arrangers and other musicians, as well as writers, ploughed enthusiastically into this new movement of music with social significance.

The choirs multiplied, orchestras were formed and operas for children were performed.

The WMA choir travelled abroad for international youth festivals. Collaboration with Unity Theatre took place.

A particularly high water mark was the production of Bush’s opera Wat Tyler at Sadlers Wells Theatre in 1974 and an annual summer school of music was set up which celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

There have been radio and television appearances of WMA and affiliated musical groups’ activities, among which is the Birmingham Clarion Choir, which recently also marked its 60th anniversary.

Such names both past and present, as Pete and Peggy Seeger, Ernst H Meyer, Georg Knepler, Matias Seiber, Benjamin Britten, Geoffrey Corbett, Gwendoline Mullings, AL Lloyd, Gladys Ritchie, Ewan McColl, Joan and John Horrocks, Bernard Stevens, John Amis, Dmitri Shostakovitch, Irene Armitage, John Jordan, Charles Ringrose, Will Sahnow and many others have made notable contributions to the development of the WMA.

Indeed, the WMA has a history of which it can be proud.

Producing music which stimulates and enobles the struggles of our day, from the convoys to aid the Soviet Union during the war, through the anti-apartheid struggles and the peace movements of recent times – WMA singers at the Hiroshima Day commemoration last year received BBC news coverage – the organisation is seen to have kept to its early promise of support and stimulation of all progressive causes through music across these seven decades and more to follow.

• Aubrey Bowman is a founding member of the Workers’ Music Association

Making the “voice of the people” heard again: 70 years of Topic Records: here.

A PEACE choir in Birmingham is inviting new singers to join them as they prepare to celebrate the 80th anniversary of their foundation. There are no auditions or requirements for previous experience, but a willingness to attend practices, Birmingham Clarion Singers (BCS) has said. BCS is a campaigning choir, singing for “Peace and Justice” locally and nationally: here.


13 thoughts on “Britain, 70 years of Workers Music Association

  1. Thank you for your excellent piece about the WMA. Just to let you know that the Birmingham Clarion Singers are still very active, and have just set up their very own website! We would be delighted if you would link to our new site. I am their secretary, and Aubrey Bowman is our president. We recently celebrated our 65th anniversary, and hope to have many more years singing for peace and solidarity.

    [UPDATE March 2011: site link changed, adapted now]


  2. Well Versed

    (Wednesday 31 October 2007)

    POETRY: Poem of the week
    edited by JOHN RETY

    POEM OF THE WEEK: Hymn to Friendship by Mozart.

    Let us now by friendship guided,
    By no creed or race divided,
    Sing of peace,
    Our right from birth.
    As good-will and friendship bind us,
    Thoughts of ill left far behind us,
    Be it so over all the earth,
    Be it so over all the earth.
    Pray that strife and sorrows perish,
    Render thanks for joys we cherish,
    Which from Nature’s bounty flow.
    May these blessings be extended
    To all people and never ended.
    So may health, grace, goodness flow
    So may health, grace, goodness flow.
    Honour, truth and justice ever,
    Wisdom love and high endeavour
    Be our duty and delight.
    East to West, each human being
    Live in peace and plenty seeing.
    Friendship fair and heavenly light,
    Friendship fair and heavenly light.

    Translated by Frida Knight
    About the Poet

    This is one of the songs which will be sung by the Birmingham Clarion Singers, augmented by a contingent from the Workers Music Association, at 7.30pm on November 10 at the All Saints Church, Kings Heath, Birmingham.

    The concert is in celebration of the life of a past conductor of the choir Katharine Thompson, whose sister Frida Knight translated this beautiful hymn expressing Mozart’s credo.

    Knight also wrote the libretto to Aubrey Bowman’s opera William Morris in 1980. It would be good to hear this on the stage after so many years.
    Another rarity which will be sung is by Randall Swingler, the still very topical final song from Freedom on the Air, an operatic drama with incidental music by Alan Bush which was banned at the last moment by the BBC in 1940.

    The first four lines read: “Oh, now strike hard, this year, this day, this hour/Death’s rule is broken and life shall come to flower/And over the fence of fear let courage vault/For truth is on the march that none can halt.”

    John Rety of Hearing Eye Press and Torriano Meeting House is a former editor of anarchist paper Freedom.



  3. Quite good, hit the nail on the head in regard to Bush and why Iraq is not vietnam, lately though I find it interesting that when the military men were punished under the Clinton administration for critisizing the President, it was said they were excercising freedom of speech. However now that military people are speaking up, the right wing is coming damn close to calling them traitors. These are the same people who ask why the German Officers durring World War II stayed silent and did not protest to Hitler, I guess they are saying a “Democraticly ELECTED REPUBLICAN President” is taboo to critisize? But it’s OK to slander Democratic Presidents? Unless and until the world stands up, it will by it’s silence give consent to the Iraq Occupation. At this point in time I am shocked to see many of my fellow military men going to Canada to protest this unjust (in their opinon war) quite frankly the idea of invaiding Iraq after 9/11 makes as much sense as invaiding Australia after Pearl Harbor in 1941. Of the 19 highjackers there were how many Iraqi’s? hmmm clever these Iraqi’s to have disguised themselves as Saudi and Egyptian Nationals…..
    I urge all who read this to write Canada to provide sanctuary to the war resistors who are going North. Because in the end that is the only option. The Amaerican founding fathers said when an comissioned officer disagrees with national policy he should resign, however WHEN Lt Watada tried to do so….
    SO the only options left is to apply for CO status or travel North, kind of like Pre Civil War United States when escaped slaves would go north for freedom? Oh you say soldiers are NOT slaves? Hmmm then why do we say “I can’t be fired-slaves are sold!” Sold to keep the world safe for Exxon repeating the crimes done as Marine General Smedley Butler pointed out in his writing “War is a Racket”.
    Rise up for freedom!
    Today it is Iraq
    Tomorrow it will be YOU! IF you have natural resource the american corperations need.


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  8. I am a past student of Alan Bush and at the behest of the Alan Bush Music Trust have prepared into print more than 20 of his works which were left in manuscript. IU am as member of the Orpheus Choir of North Herts and in June we are presenting a concert of summer music. I have a copy of Alan’s arrangement of SUMER IS ICUMEN IN which our choir would like to perform. Would there be any problem if I were to photocopy this work for our poerormance?

    Martin Leadbetter


  9. Wednesday 4th October 2017

    posted by Morning Star in Arts

    ANDY CROFT recommends an excellent new book on communist composer Alan Bush

    Alan Bush, Modern Music and the Cold War
    by Joanna Bullivant
    (Cambridge University Press, £75)

    THE COMMUNIST composer Alan Bush (1900-95) is usually described as a man of unresolved contradictions, an Establishment figure who was also a dissident, the outsider who enjoyed the comfortable life of the insider.

    Bush was Professor of Harmony and Composition at the Royal Academy of Music for over half a century but, on at least two occasions, he was blacklisted by the BBC. When his first piano concerto was performed on the BBC Third Programme in 1938, Adrian Boult led the orchestra and choir straight into the national anthem in order to “balance” the revolutionary implications of the chorale finale.

    And, although his first opera Wat Tyler won the 1951 Festival of Britain opera competition, it was only performed once in Bush’s lifetime in the UK. Like all his operas it was premiered in the GDR.

    Joanna Bullivant’s newly published book, the first full-length study of Bush’s life and music, is long overdue and wholly to be welcomed. Despite the inexcusable cover price and a sometimes over-academic introduction, anyone interested in Alan Bush’s music should get their local library to stock it.

    The author works hard to rescue Bush from the usual modernist and anti-communist orthodoxies that compare his work unfavourably to composers Benjamin Britten and Michael Tippet, or which routinely claim that he sacrificed his talent for his political commitments. Trying to separate Bush’s music and his politics is impossible, she argues, as both were bound up with his sense of his musical and moral responsibilities in an era of crisis.

    At the heart of the book is an account of the many projects in the 1930s and 1940s — most notably the 1939 Festival of Music for the People — in which, working with the London Labour Choral Union and the Wokers’ Music Association, Bush tried to take classical music out of the concert hall.

    There is an excellent discussion of Bush’s Cantata The Winter Journey in relation to Tippet’s A Child of Our Time and Britten’s A Ceremony of Carols and a suggestive comparison of the ritual elements in The Winter Journey and Britten’s Peter Grimes.

    Bullivant explores the various competing influences on Bush’s thinking and practice, from Hanns Eisler to Arnold Schoenberg and Christopher Caudwell to Paul Hindemith.

    And, among Bullivant’s accounts of his four operas, is a fascinating study of the musical components of The Sugar Reapers, his opera about the Guyanese liberation struggle.

    She is also good on Bush’s relations with those German composers such as Eisler, Georg Knepler and Ernst Meyer who came to London as political refugees after 1933. And, instead of the usual caricatures of Bush being a pawn of the GDR authorities, she argues that it was the other way round — Bush’s thinking and practice had a significant influence on the socialist state’s musical culture.

    And, for those critics who have dismissed Bush as a “Stalinist,” Bullivant reminds us that there were two sides to the cold war. According to Bush’s recently released MI5 files, during the so-called phoney war the secretary of the communist party’s William Morris Musical Society was an MI5 agent and when he was co-opted onto the party’s national cultural committee in 1950, his nomination papers were intercepted by MI5 and,in 1957, it prevented Bush travelling to British Guiana in order to research local musical traditions.

    The book might have benefited from less theory and more biography, especially concerning Bush’s relationships with his principal librettists‚ among them Montagu Slater, with whom he wrote the Communist Manifesto Centenary pageant in 1948, Randall Swingler, who wrote the text for his first piano concerto and his wife Nancy, who wrote the words for three of his operas.

    Nevertheless, Bush emerges from this book as a major figure, one whose professional and political life was dedicated to creating a participative musical culture that was accessible, educational, enjoyable and radical.


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