Post-war Britain presented an interesting environment when considering ‘Britishness’ in culture. With a recent and decisive victory at war and a wave of post war socialism, the British nations were enjoying a golden age of Britishness. These issues were juxtaposed on a deeper level by the dissolution of the British Empire and the economic devastation following the war. The Indian subcontinent’s independence in 1947 marked what seemed like the end of Britain’s colonial era and the tough fiscal position following the war meant the nations faced a series of tough decisions. ‘Britishness’ gained traction during the beginning of the twentieth century, and again following the war as a method of papering over the cracks. Government messaging hit home images of great Britannia and our place as dominators on the global stage and the restorers of world peace.
My question is – what does it mean to be British?
(Stay with me here, I am going to get to Wales, and its music, presently.)
Musically, Britishness is represented with the triumphant melodies of Elgar and the subtle musicality of Vaughan Williams. Britishness is ideologically intertwined with British exceptionalism and reduces an island of diverse cultural identities to one of colonialism. Britishness is a cuckoo in the nest of wider British culture, slowly hatching and pushing the plethora of cultures to the extremities and filling the space they inhabited. Post-war propaganda created by the crown film unit and disseminated in cinemas across the UK exemplified this method of othering and consuming the ‘different’ in British cultures.
(This is where we turn to Wales.)
Several cinematic works of propaganda created between 1935 and 1970 demonstrate the way in which ‘Welshness’ was presented as antithetical and incompatible with ‘Britishness’. 1942 marked the beginning of the mid-point of these propaganda films, and two in particular stand out as holding a particular pertinence in crafting these views of ‘Welshness’ and ‘Britishness’. The first film is the 1935 welsh language film the Y Chwarelwr (meaning The Collier) and the second is the 1943 film The Silent Village set in a small town in the Swansea valleys in South Wales. A third film that has a similar effect was the 1967 film Visit Wales, this film does not present a juxtaposition, however, presents the colonialised and sterilised account of Welsh culture following earlier films such as those mentioned above.
Music is the main vehicle through which these juxtapositions are drawn between British and Welsh cultures. Similarly, sound more generally is used in a particularly pervasive way throughout these films.
The Silent Village is the longest and presents the most substantial account for the use of sound in othering Welsh culture. The film deals with the Lidice massacre at the hands of the Nazi’s during the early part of the second world war. The massacre was transplanted from the small village in then Czechoslovakia and translated to play out the atrocity as if at the hands of the Nazi’s in the small village in South Wales. Aside from the obvious issues of cultural insensitivity and general lack of awareness about the relationship of the Welsh people with the British, the musical content of this film presents a particularly strong example of the issues highlighted above.
Following the opening credits where the premise of this Humphrey Jennings feature is laid out, The Silent Village swiftly moves to depict a lazy pastoralism that is commonly associated with the simple farming life of the Welsh valleys. The seemingly non-diegetic choral music floats over these allusions to mid-20th century pastoralism before arriving at the village chapel and the music becomes diegetic to accompany the visuals of the entire village gathered singing hymns. Throughout the film, choral music is used as a leitmotif to symbolise welsh life and simplicity – this becomes more pertinent at the very end of the film. Choral music in the chapel returns sporadically throughout the film to punctuate the arrival of the ‘German’ military and other events of the feature. Similarly, a later scene in the film centres around the men returning from the colliery and singing together in the showers. Most poignantly, the use of choral music at the end of the film relates to the human aspect of the people in the village, symbolising that even once the occupation and atrocities had been committed, the essence of the village – its song – remained. Choral music is used to symbolise community, and essentialises the true value of welsh life at this time.
As people from Wales could surely see, The Silent Village presents a troubling narrative in relation to Wales’ place within a context of Britishness. With the overarching narrative of The Silent Village being “this could be you”, for many people much of what happened in the film had already become a reality. With restrictions on language from the mid 19th century as a method of establishing colonial rule, and later decisions to flood a North Wales valley to create a reservoir to feed fresh water to Liverpool, the irony of this film could not be lost. Choral music is then used as a method of papering over the cracks. Like most features of this film, the use of choral music to symbolise Welsh culture only makes more evident the true extent to how out of touch the government establishment was with the reality of life, and more importantly, in this case, music making in Wales.
Musically, when comparing this film with the contemporary film Listen to Britain, it is clear to see the distinctions being made between British class and Welsh provinciality. Listen to Britain uses music as a way of assuring a sense of wartime national pride, with the twenty-minute feature acting as a smorgasbord of British class and culture. The pinnacle of Listen to Britain features a key performance from the pianist Myra Hess. The film uses Hess’s performance to create a sense of class and suggest a communal appreciation for highbrow art consumption. The two films use space entirely differently to craft a sense of civilised and savage. The musical content in Listen to Britain is displayed in diegetic settings where there is a clear distinction between performer and listener. Similarly, Listen to Britain utilises spaces such as the ornate National Gallery and other defined concert venues. The music in The Silent Village is entirely based in communal settings, with the people acting both as music practitioners and music observers. The distinction between civilised and savage is highlighted even further in The Silent Village with the continued use of the disembodied commandant, with an obviously British German accent.
Music culture, although vastly different in many respects, is striking similar in Wales as it is in England. Throughout this period, performances similar to those in Listen to Britain were also happening in Wales. Orchestral performances were a relatively frequent occurrence in the cities of South Wales, and cabaret performances in working men’s clubs were commonplace through the twentieth century. Similarly, small community inclusive music making was also typical in many small villages across England. This then raises the question of why this distinction was made and what effect did it have?
Whether this is a victim of systematic othering or whether it is simply due to a lack of touch with the reality of culture in the British Isles, it is clear to see that Welsh music was essentialised and othered in a preference for British music and British ideologies. The two films clearly depict a fact of cultural imperialism, whereby highbrow and performed music is inherently civilised and British, and small scale, disorganised community music is Welsh and uncivilised.
I agree that this highly polemic account of these films paints a rather bleak picture when considering the representation of Welsh music in mid-20th century culture. The lasting effects on the othering of Welsh culture has meant that for generations, people outside of Wales (and many inside Wales) believe that all Welsh music has to offer is male voice choirs singing one of three common Welsh hymns. However, the key point in this critique is that Welsh music culture is so much more than what people commonly perceive it to be.
Wales has many long and vibrant traditions of music, from the entirely fantastic tradition of Cerdd Dant to the truly exciting world of Welsh language popular music, Welsh music has much to offer. Bringing your attention to some of the key classical music exports from Wales would be to draw your attention to: The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, The Welsh National Opera, The Cory Brass Band and many other key classical music institutions that have existed since the turn of the 20th century and many before that. Similarly, in terms of popular music, I need not mention many of the plethora of iconic singers and musicians that Wales has exported, from Tom Jones and Shirley Bassey to the Stereophonics and Catatonia – Wales really is not a force to be underestimated in the world of music. Despite what you may already believe.
Please feel free to get in touch with me about this article if you have any thoughts or comments, I would be really keen to hear anything at all!
If you want to watch the films I have discussed they are as follows -
Jonathan Davies, March 2021
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