A mixture of courage and abandon

Imogen Holst (left) during her CEMA years with Sir Stanley Marchant and Mary Ibberson

Imogen Holst (left) during her CEMA years with Sir Stanley Marchant and Mary Ibberson (Courtesy of the Holst Foundation)

At the moment I am working on Imogen Holst’s personal administrative files and among the routine documents that you might find in any personal collection – the tax returns, the bank statements, the subscriptions to societies – are reports Imogen filed while working as a ‘Music Traveller’ during WWII.

In 1940 Imogen was one of six musicians and educators selected to travel the country for the purpose of promoting amateur music-making during the war.  According to her own later account of this time: ‘No plans were made: no policy outlined. We were told to go where we liked and to do what we liked when we got there.’ While they may have been lacking a Gantt Chart, the Travellers were not short on purpose, which was nothing less than to prevent the erosion of English cultural traditions during wartime.

Imogen was allocated the south-west of the country and over the next two years she travelled extensively through Somerset, Gloucestershire, Oxfordshire, Devon and Cornwall – with occasional forays into London and other counties. This may all sound reasonable enough, but add to this wartime petrol shortages, air raids, cuts in public transport and Imogen’s inability to drive and you begin to get an idea of the challenges she faced. Despite all this she managed to stick to a ferociously daunting and exhausting schedule, often cycling or walking the long distances between villages.

Her reports, particularly those from her first year in Somerset, provide a glimpse into the musical lives of rural communities in the early 1940s, and reveal just how embedded music was in daily life.  Although one villager warned that Imogen would find nobody willing to sing as they would much rather listen to the wireless, she actually found vibrant and enthusiastic communities of amateur musicians – farmers, village children, bank managers, vicars’ wives – who were largely self-taught or practising inherited traditions of music-making.

Imogen herself sums up what she found in an Arts Enquiry report from 1943:

“An astonishing amount of amateur music making goes on in England today that nobody knows anything about, because it happens in small back-sitting-rooms. Statistics are not possible, but occasional glimpses behind these closed doors show remarkable achievements which are due to sheer enthusiasm and perseverance. This mixture of courage and abandon in the ordinary reticent amateur is one of the essential contributions to the musical life of the country.”

And here is an extract from her report of 24 April 1940:

“…Miss Lewin Harris took me to Bishops Lydeard [Somerset] where she was running a social evening of country dancing. About 30 people there, all very young, and actually more men than girls! Several of the young men had formed an ‘orchestra’ for their own delight, and had practised several of the country dance tunes during the winter…The ‘orchestra’ consisted of three mouth organs, two toy side drums, and a couple of tin spoons tied together with a piece of string. This last was played with an astonishingly good sense of rhythm. I took singing for about three quarters of an hour…The result was quite intoxicating: the singing[sic] enjoyed it enormously, while the players, who had never combined with with any other music making before, were in absolute ecstasies and surpassed themselves.

Originally financed by The Pilgrim Trust, the Music Travellers soon found themselves working for the newly formed Council for the Encouragement of Music and the Arts [CEMA], the precursor of the present-day Arts Council of England. The majority of Travellers were of course women and the reports showcase yet another initiative in which women played a prominent role during the war.

Reading through these papers I do find it remarkable (and somehow encouraging) that part of the official war effort included sending dedicated musicians into rural communities to keep people singing, dancing and playing while the bombs fell.

3 thoughts on “A mixture of courage and abandon

    • Hi Jessica, glad you found the post interesting. The other Travellers who started out with Imogen were: Sybil Eaton, Ursula Nettleship, Christine Godwin, Anne Wood and Mary McDougall. There were other Travellers over the course of the war as they tended to come and go. The work must have been quite exhausting – I know that Imogen needed a period of recuperation after she finished working for CEMA.

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