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Book Review:

Wars, Dictators and the Gramophone 1898-1945

by Eric Charles Blake

pp320; illustrated; laminated cover.

published by Sessions of York, Huntingdon Rd, York YO31 9HS, England


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Despite the descriptive title, I did not really know what to expect when I started to read this book. In fact I found it to be one of the most fascinating books I had come across for a long time. The gramophone record was born in 1898 at about the same time as the US went to war over Cuba. For the first time records were used for morale-boosting patriotic purposes to aid warfare.

This book however is much more than a description of such a use of recording. It provides a detailed and scholarly history of recording in the first half of the last century in the context of the wars that disfigured this time and of the dictators (and their musical tastes) and their effects on recorded music – both popular and classical. It also outlines the technical development of recordings, and the commercial history of the record companies in most of the major countries. This is an astonishingly wide brief and the amount of research that must have been carried out is mind-boggling.

One fascinating characteristic of the book is the recital of strange facts. For example, The Daily Mail persuaded Rudyard Kipling and Sir Arthur Sullivan to collaborate in producing a piece called The Absent-Minded Beggar in aid of dependents of soldiers fighting in the Boer war. This, when recorded, was the first recording over two sides. At one time during World War II, the shortage of shellac was such that when a record was bought you had to trade in two discs for re-cycling! The strange history of the infamous Horst-Wessel song is provided. The music is actually derived from music from Méhul’s opera Josef; an English version of the song was recorded by Decca for use by Mosley’s British Union of Fascists.

Hitler’s influence was illustrated by a description of an exhibition of ‘degenerate art’ that included recordings of music by Mendelssohn (Jewish) and atonal composers, not to mention jazz. By contrast, Mussolini’s musical tastes were comparatively civilised. The description of the progress of the various wars is illuminating but concise. The author’s own experiences in post-war Germany were very interesting.

The book is well written and has good illustrations; it is strongly recommended.

Arthur Baker


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