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.