Music to galvanise and control: a sonic authoritarianism? Louise Rodgers examines how powerful groups, institutions and individuals throughout history have hitched music to their social programmes.
Music has frequently been an aid to powerful groups and individuals to direct and control others for their own purposes, because “each musical code is rooted in the ideologies and technologies of the era that produces it.” (Burckhardt Qureshi 2002, p.xi). This short essay will illustrate this point with three diverse historical examples:
Charlemagne and Gregorian Chant
“The story of religious censorship therefore is really a dual tale of imposing one type of music while blocking another”(Korpe, Reitov and Cloonan in Brown & Volgsten, 2006, p242).
Liturgy, specifically the rites of the Roman Catholic Church sung in Latin, was a preoccupation of the Emperor Charlemagne (McKitterick, 2008).
In the liturgy plainchant evolved as a vehicle for religious text and the melodies were secondary in importance to the words (Brown and Volgsten (eds), 2006). Sung music is very powerful in a ritual context because not only are the words performed and heard intellectually but singing is somatic because it is both produced and received by the body – some of its immense power and influence is achieved by by-passing the conscious processes of the brain and acting unseen on physiological systems (Phelan, 2017).
So, having felt the power of music within ritual, by his own participation and the observation of fellow worshippers all over his dominion, how did Charlemagne seek to achieve international standardisation and therefore unity?
Liturgical reform was initiated by his father Pippin III following a visit to what is now France by Pope Stephen II in 754. The Frankish father and son had a dynastic vision of power and saw the Roman Catholic religion, the biggest power of all in the Western world at that time, as a useful partner with which to build and unify an empire of diverse people. Pippin’s brother Remigius was the Bishop of Rouen and asked in Rome that an official Roman chant teacher be sent to the Kingdom of the Franks because, as an oral tradition, there was no other way to learn it other than face to face. Some monks from Rouen were sent to Rome to learn the Roman chant. (Hiley, 1993) What the new Frankish dynasty was striving for in liturgy was the authenticity of being close to what they perceived as the source of the chants; they wished it to be what is known now as “Old Roman” – they wished it to have the unquestioned authority of the centre of early medieval Western Christendom, Rome. Not for nothing was Charlemagne the Frank to be called the Holy Roman Emperor.
Charlemagne was a successful warrior and, continuing Pippin’s expansion, made conversion to Christianity or death the choice of many of his conquered peoples. (McKitterick, 2008).
In early medieval Christendom there were various local liturgies and therefore chants. This is known by piecing together surviving documents. The scholarship of early plainchant is complex with many competing theories because although some musical notation has been found in manuscripts dating from 900 AD (Levy, in Forrest Kelly 2009), the neumes or shorthand signs were simply aide memoires for an oral tradition and were not pitch or duration specific. No-one knows what they really sounded like or the vocal techniques employed by the singers and the research of this is outside the scope of this essay. What we do know from the surviving accounts and manuscripts is that there were chants specific to the various regions of fledgling Europe that have been given names such as Beneventan, Milanese, Gallican, Mozarabic and Old Roman – and although there were similarities there were also differences (Hiley, 1993).
In addition to being a great fighter Charlemagne was an unusually well organised administrator and he issued many detailed capitularies containing instructions exhorting religious establishments to stick to Roman practices. He attended church four times a day and, as a peripatetic monarch, listened carefully to chants he encountered on his travels to make sure his instructions were being followed (McKitterick, 2008).
However, the unexpected happened and Charlemagne’s attempt to impose his version of authenticity on Europe met with opposition from an unexpected source – the Frankish and Roman monks instead of teaching and learning in a spirit of co-operation rebelled and fell out with each other. There are two sides to every story and we have versions from surviving accounts. The most interesting part of the story as told by Charlemagne’s medieval biographer Notker Balbalus (also known as Notker the Stammerer) of the influential monastery and centre of chant excellence, St Gallen, was that twelve Roman singers who were sent to the Kingdom of the Franks to teach the official Roman chants deliberately sang incorrectly in order that the Franks would not know the proper versions. Notker attributed this to Roman jealousy of the glory of the Franks. Before leaving this topic it is interesting to note that Charlemagne’s chief liturgical adviser was the still celebrated teacher, priest and academic, Alcuin of York who was neither Frankish nor Roman (Hiley 1993).
Eventually there was a modified version of authentic plainchant in the liturgy and we know it as a hybrid called Gregorian Chant. An oral tradition spread over years, different cultures and hundreds of miles without detailed written transmission could only be an approximate version of Old Roman chant but by side-lining other traditions including the destruction of Milanese (also called Ambrosian) chant books – with the exception of one hidden survivor discovered after Charlemagne relented – there was unity through standardisation imposed centrally. The imposition of a centralised chant at the expense of local chants was a form of censorship. Why does this matter musically or culturally especially from a distance of over a thousand years?
“A culture deprived of its artistic creations and musical heritage clearly loses an important link to its history and identity.” (Korpe, Reitov and Cloonan, in Brown and Volgsten, 2006, p240). And this is what Charlemagne wanted for his Holy Roman Empire – to forge a new identity for millions of people in the present and the future with the aid of everyone singing from the same hymn book.
The Brass Band Movement
Plato famously stated in ‘The Republic’ that the function of music was to harmonise souls and make people good – in other words to change them. The Victorians took a similar stance concerning the study and performance of music and – rightly or wrongly – perceived a relationship between music and morals (Briggs and Lovegrove, 2002).
The Victorian industrial revolution in the UK caused a sudden influx of people from the countryside into towns and cities in search of employment and a better life in the new industries and factories. Living conditions were often squalid and crowded and their employers sought to support improving leisure activities to keep the workforce their fortunes depended on out of pubs and away from the influence of strong drink. (McLaren, 2016). They sought to modify their employees’ behaviour outside of work through music. Indeed it was stated plainly in the 15 April 1855 issue of ‘The Musical Times’ that participation in choirs and bands would “bring together employer and employed elevating the mind above the common pothouse.” (Briggs and Lovegrove, 2002, p 95).
The brass bands did not spring fully formed rather they evolved from town bands, military volunteer bands, church bands, pub bands, circus bands and factory bands; it is worth noting national differences within the UK in that there were no church bands in Scotland because musical instruments were not permitted in the Presbyterian Church at this time and in Ireland there was the addition of political bands. Their instrumentation was varied and could include serpents, ophicleides, keyed bugles and other intriguing instruments no longer seen outside specialist early instrument groups. A recognisable brass band movement came to the fore between 1853 and 1878 (Taylor 1983).
An influence that did not happen in Charlemagne’s day but became a driving force in music at this time was the commercial market due to technical advances in instrument manufacture. In addition there was an effect on musical performance through the bands and the organisations they represented desire to compete with each other. The musical result was similar to Charlemagne’s desire to unify Europe through plainchant. It reduced variation and caused centralised standardisation of instrumentation and repertoire.
The Victorian bands organised competitions and due to the nature of competition regrettable fisticuffs occurred when differently instrumented bands thought they had been slighted in the judgements; like Charlemagne’s argumentative monks, band musicians fell out. A well-documented fight happened at Perth in Scotland when bands physically attempted custody of prizes at a competition in 1863 at the Cavalry Barracks. Band competitions at that venue were banned. (McLaren, 2016).
Competition meant standardisation. Ambition and market forces caused many types of instruments to be no longer wanted as judges wished to compare like with like. Bizarrely at the Great Exhibition of 1851 in London the sole musical judge of a category of exhibits that included both musical instruments and surgical instruments competing with each other was the composer Hector Berlioz. At the Great Exhibition the new valved brass instruments were showcased to advantage. Adolphe Sax – inventor of the saxophone – was a prime mover with his family of variously tuned and sized Sax Horns. Indeed the first prominent band contest held on the 5 May, 1853 in Belle Vue Zoological Gardens, Gorton, Manchester was won by a band comprised entirely of Sax Horns. The new valved brass instruments were mass produced instead of crafted, relatively inexpensive and easier to play. The various sizes and styles of instrument meant that an ensemble could produce a varied yet homogenous sound without the former addition of other families of instruments. By 1878 bands were standardised into a group of 24 players with a set instrumentation. Farewell to the serpent, and the bassoon was banished to orchestras and wind bands. But not to be a complete musical Luddite before moving on this essay acknowledges the touching side of the early brass band movement within the communities they were drawn from, as exemplified by an account by the late Jack Wilson, a well-regarded brass bandsman. When the Old Wrightington brass band, comprised of men who worked down a coal mining pit in the north of England, competed successfully at London’s Crystal Palace in 1902, all heads turned when the band and supporters clattered confidently up the steps to the contest in their clogs. (Taylor, 1983). The sound of clogs at that time was an indication of poverty.
Music While You Work
“Censorship is a form of cultural protection and intended mass behavioural control” (Korpe, Reitov and Cloonan in Brown and Volgsten 2006, p240)
When the Second World War was declared in 1939 the BBC closed down all its regional radio transmitters and programmes in order to broadcast a strictly controlled, centralised National Service for a limited number of hours (Baade, 2012). The Scottish programmes vanished with other regional services because, according to a BBC publication marking the BBC Scotland 50th anniversary, the transmitters were shut down so that enemy aircraft could not use them as a beacon. (BBC Scotland, no date). But that is only part of the story. One of the functions of the young BBC before the outbreak of war was to invent a shared national identity in a newly enfranchised population of diverse classes and cultures (Baade, 2012). With a desperate war and the enemy just across the English Channel and the North Sea this became an imperative and the BBC broadcasts were a weapon in the UK government’s arsenal for all sorts of reasons but this essay will concentrate on the radio programme ‘Music While You Work.’
In addition to recreation, music broadcasting before the war was meant to enlighten the audience in their own homes who were even instructed how to listen attentively and appropriately to the broadcasts (Baade, 2012). However, cultural enlightenment became secondary to the practicalities of winning a war and in 1940 the National Service became the Home Service (later Radio 4) and the new Forces Programme (later the Light Programme then Radio 2) took to the air and was the home of ‘Music While You Work’ (Reynolds, 2006).
In the magazine ‘Radio Times’ of 23 June 1940 there was debate about whether music broadcasts in wartime should be sombre or cheerful; approaches were made by factories to the BBC suggesting that music programmes should be broadcast specifically for munitions factory workers. It is worth pausing here to remember that during the war, if a house was destroyed or colleagues and family members killed or missing, factory hands were still expected to go to work the next day to carry on efficiently with the collective war effort. These broadcasts were intended primarily to modify the behaviour of sleep-deprived, bereaved workers to improve productivity: “Music was a powerful tool in the project of disciplining workers’ bodies” (Baade 2012, p61).
It was decided rhythmic music like sea shanties or work songs would not work because the rhythm was different for each manufacturing process. So it was settled that improving morale and lifting spirits would be a more effective way to keep people working briskly. “A 1942 general directive included a list of benefits:
1. Boosting the tired worker
2. Acting as a mental tonic
3. Relieving boredom, especially that caused by repetitive work
4. Increasing happiness and improving health
5. Minimising talking” (Reynolds 2006, p71)
When the programme theme tune “Calling all workers” by the king of light music composition, Eric Coates was published in 1940 as sheet music the inscription “To go to one’s work with a glad heart, and to do that work with earnestness and goodwill” was on the front page just to make sure that even with an instrumental piece the UK was singing from same hymn book.
By trial and error certain rules were established. The music should be abrasive enough to be heard on a tannoy system over the noise of a factory, there should be no variation in volume, no subtlety, it should be familiar, instrumental and above all brisk and relentlessly cheerful. There should be no breaks in the half hour of music which meant that tuning up between numbers in the mostly live broadcasts was not allowed and those ensembles that did retune were not permitted to broadcast for the series again. Some popular tunes were deemed unsuitable and so not broadcast, notably ‘Deep In The Heart Of Texas’ in case the workers stopped what they were doing to clap their hands at the appropriate point in the melody. Happy singing or whistling along was encouraged as long as the workers hands kept busy (Reynolds, 2006).
As with Charlemagne’s monks and the Victorian bandsmen the spirit of co-operation with the grand plan was not always present. The BBC Military Band – as the name suggests, part of the same organisation – stated that such mundane, unartistic work was beneath them and the BBC ‘Music While You Work’ reply was that if that was how they felt the programme did not want them anyway. At its wartime peak because factories ran 24 hours a day it was broadcast 27 hours a week. That was a sizeable chunk of national exposure for professional musicians to be excluded from for whatever reason (Reynolds, 2006).
‘Music While You Work’ used all the famous professional band leaders and conductors of the day. It was a pre-war fashion for band leaders and soloists to award themselves exotic, usually Italian sounding, stage names but because the UK was fighting the Italian government and interning many innocent Italians living in the UK, these musicians, if they wished to appear on the BBC’s ‘Music While You Work’, were told to change to their everyday names. Alfredo Campoli went back to being Alfred Campbell for example. The stellar Mantovani was the exception and a piece was written in the ‘Radio Times’ explaining that despite his Italian surname he was British – this was not true because he really was Annunzio Paulo Mantovani from Venice (Reynolds, 2006). The ‘Radio Times’ was a BBC publication.
Music is powerful; it can unite or divide groups of people in all kinds of obvious or subtle ways. This quality of music has been harnessed throughout history as part of strategies to control entire populations according to the technologies and ideologies of the era. Charlemagne used it to build an early medieval empire, the Victorian industrialists used it to control the leisure activities and morals of the workforce their enormous new found wealth depended on, and the UK government utilised the music broadcasts of the BBC to improve weapons productivity during World War II. A final thought – who is controlling the Western world through music in this era? Consumers are, via global market forces. Once again standardisation at the expense of variety, creativity and originality is the result, but fortunately that is out with the scope of this essay (Manuel in Buckhardt Quereshi, 2003).
Baade, CL 2012, Victory Through Harmony: The BBC and popular music in world war II, OUP, Oxford, UK.
BBC Scotland, no date, Early days of broadcasting in Scotland, BBC Scotland 50th Anniversary, Glasgow, UK.
Brown, S, Volgsten, U (eds) 2006, Music and Manipulation: On the social uses and social control of music, Berghahn Books, New York and Oxford.
Burckhardt Qureshi, R (ed) 2002, Music and Marx: ideas practice politics, Routledge, New York and London.
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Forrest Kelly, T, (ed) 2009,Transmission in chant, Ashgate, Farnham UK and Burlington USA.
Hiley, D 1993, Western Plainchant: a handbook, Clarendon Press, Oxford, UK.
McLaren, A 2016, The history of Midlothian’s brass bands, Privately published by the author.
McKitterick, R 2008, Charlemagne The Formation of a European Identity. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, UK.
Phelan, H 2017, Singing the rite to belong: ritual, music and the new Irish, OUP, London and Oxford.
Reynolds, B 2006, Music While You Work: an era in broadcasting, The Book Guild Ltd, Lewes, UK.
Taylor, AR 1983, Labour and Love: an oral history of the brass band movement, Elm Tree Books, London.