Here at MusiCB3, we were sorry to hear last week of the death of Dame Vera Lynn, at the grand old age of 103. Lockdown seems to have been a time for old folk doing extraordinary things – the achievements of Captain (now Sir) Tom Moore spring to mind. During his wartime service, Tom Moore spent time in Burma, and was a big fan of UK Forces’ sweetheart, Vera Lynn.
Many big name entertainers travelled to remote outposts to provide entertainment during the Second World War, but few ventured as near the front line as Dame Vera. Post-war she was deeply involved with Forces welfare and fund-raising for childrens’ and military charities, and it was for her charity work that she was awarded her “Damehood” in 1975.
Vera’s poignant song, We’ll meet again, has gained a place in the heart of 21st century Britain too, during this most peculiar of times.
Dame Vera was one of the best known musical names who joined ENSA (Entertainments National Service Association), but she was by no means the only one. And with the passing of one of the last of the wartime entertainers, and following so shortly upon the anniversary of VE Day, it seemed an appropriate time to celebrate the work of wartime musicians.
As early as 1939, shortly after its formation, ENSA had also received a less-fitting tribute for its acronym “Every Night Something Awful”. This was unfair on the organization though, which struggled to find members as quickly as possible, under difficult circumstances. Although some may have been of less than stellar quality, most were exceptionally talented. Post-war radio and TV comedy owed a lot to ENSA and to wartime service. Although to some outside the service, providing entertainment may have seemed like an easy option, many members of ENSA risked their lives. Young dancer, Vivienne Fayre was the only member of ENSA to have been killed in action, when the truck in which she was travelling in the Netherlands in 1945, hit a land mine. Considering the circumstances in which they worked, and the nearness of many performers to the front line, it’s remarkable that there were not more fatalities.
For many travel seemed to be an interminable part of the work of the organization. Comedienne, actress, and singer, Joyce Grenfell travelled the length and breadth of Britain with her accompanist, the composer, Richard Addinsell (now best known for his film work including the Warsaw Concerto, and the score for Goodbye Mr. Chips) throughout the early years of the war, before heading on to Europe and Burma; and wrote about her travels extensively in her diaries.
Alongside Joyce, some of the biggest stars of British popular music of the day joined ENSA. The most notable additions were George Formby and Gracie Fields, two of the highest paid British performers of the period. As well as George and Gracie, many dance band leaders and their orchestras provided popular music. Indeed Mantovani, who would soon become a big name in classic pops, played at the first big ENSA concert, which took place in London in 1939.
Heading ENSA’s light music entertainment division was band leader, Geraldo, who combined his already well known, popular dance band with members of the London Symphony Orchestra to produce Geraldo’s Concert Orchestra, a staple of many an ENSA broadcast. Later in the war they would include performances by violinist, Alfredo Campoli, doing his bit for the British war effort, despite being originally cast as an enemy alien. (Alfredo’s bust can be seen post-lockdown in the Anderson Room, where it resides benevolently along with his personal library of performance scores and parts. Copious amounts of sellotape bear witness to his heavy use of some works).
Walter Legge, then working for HMV, and who would go on to found the Philharmonia Orchestra post-war, was put in charge of the classical music side of ENSA, and established a council of musicians including William Walton and Malcolm Sargent. They were the driving force behind taking classical music across the country, and later worldwide, to wherever it was needed.
Soon Campoli was playing his part within this framework, broadcasting for the BBC and ENSA from secret locations across the country; playing Mendelssohn, Bach, and Paganini from factory canteens to the splendour of the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. Although it could sometimes seem like relatively easy work, danger was never far away. The author, of the fascinating The Bel Canto violin: the life and times of Alfredo Campoli (M501.c.95.626), David Tunley, was reminded of this by a throwaway comment 20 years later praising Campoli’s courage, when he continued to play the Mendelssohn violin concerto, despite an air raid. Although currently unavailable as an e-book via Cambridge University Library, the section dealing with Campoli’s wartime experiences may be found on Google books, and is worth reading.
Another musician involved with ENSA, and with connections to the UL was Hedli Anderson, whose music archive also resides in the Anderson Room. She was often heard accompanied by Benjamin Britten, sometimes singing the Cabaret Songs written for her by the composer.
Alongside ENSA, another organization flourished. CEMA was the Committee for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts. It paid rather better than ENSA, and had rather higher ideals. If ENSA’s primary objective was to get entertainment to the masses – be it comedy, juggling, or classical music; CEMA, which was later submerged under the umbrella of the Arts Council, was the sort of organization that always spoke of Art and Music in capital letters. Their enthusiam was stunning, and they swiftly appointed “music travellers” to go across the UK, encouraging local music making, and art, with the support of the Carnegie Foundation, UK, who played a vital part in UK wartime amateur music making. These “travellers” were principally women, and as part of their work were often sent to bomb damaged cities at exceptionally short notice to provide musical consolation in the immediate aftermath of an air-raid. That they provided sterling performances in exceptionally difficult circumstances was nothing short of miraculous.
Based wholly in the UK, CEMA was also responsible for the maintenance of a number of orchestras including such big names as the London Symphony Orchestra, the Liverpool Philharmonic, and the Halle. They also took over much of the funding for the incredibly popular National Gallery concerts, which were initially set up independently by Dame Myra Hess.
CEMA, like ENSA, was a hotbed for new talent. Kathleen Ferrier, pre-her first appearance on stage, was recruited by CEMA, and it was through her work for the association that she had a propitious meeting with conductor, Malcolm Sargent, who recommended her to Ibbs and Tillett, the renowned music management company.
Many musicians worked for both CEMA and ENSA at different stages of the war, with CEMA becoming largely responsible for civilian concerts, drama, and art; while ENSA primarily dealt with Forces’ entertainment, both in the UK and overseas.
Both organizations were imaginative in their use of equipment. ENSA converted a bus to provide a concert platform for a chamber orchestra, while a fleet of vans were converted by CEMA, just big enough to take a musician, a driver, a piano, and a record player, so that concerts were possible in the most remote corners of the British Isles.
Alongside live performances, and thanks to Walter Legge’s contacts with music giant HMV, ENSA had a gramophone library of over 2,000 records, that were shipped out to wherever they were needed. The range of work of both CEMA and ENSA were reflected in the Musical Times, which reported that in November 1940 CEMA was responsible for nearly 300 live classical music concerts in rest centres, air-raid shelters and factories; while ENSA’s gramophone library staged 12,000 “virtually live” concerts a week.
There were also big projects – UK orchestras managed to tour despite wartime restrictions, while illustrious ballet companies such as the Rambert and Sadler’s Wells (later to become the Royal Ballet) travelled and performed in minute spaces across the land. The Old Vic theatre company, who had been bombed out of their London base, toured extensively, including spending several weeks in a mining valley in S. Wales, where the actors were billeted with delighted locals. It was no wonder in light of this that the work of the Arts Council was so enthusiastically received post-war.
Independent of both of these, the BBC continued to work with the arts, broadcasting CEMA and ENSA concerts, and, despite the loss of Queen’s Hall during the Blitz, the Proms continued. A full Prom from 1943 may be heard on this delightful strand on YouTube. Note the performance of the Sorcerer’s Apprentice, surely a nod from Sir Henry Wood to Disney’s masterpiece, Fantasia.
The enthusiasm of Lockdown audiences for virtual concerts, and theatrical performances is nothing new. As CEMA and ENSA could have told us, where there is music an audience will gather, and in the most difficult of circumstances music binds people together.
In memory of Dame Vera Lynn and Vivienne Fayre.