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Timeline: World War II, Musical Propaganda

U.S. Public Domain
This photograph has become connected to the history of D-day. It shows Allied troops approaching Omaha beach.

As World War II began to rage across Europe and the Pacific, communication technology had spread to most of the world. Radio and recording allowed a unified soundtrack of the conflict shared across continents and oceans. Both sides of the war began to practice the art of propaganda in an effort to inspire their people or demoralize their enemies. Music played an important role in this effort to control the hearts of the populace as each country strove to find their musical voice during the war.

The war era saw the birth of many pieces in the “Great American Songbook”. The power of American popular music in the late 30s and early 40s cannot be ignored. Jazz, swing and the big band sound became a part of the culture in both hemispheres. And the United States was in a unique position as its artists and musicians were seemingly in agreement with their government to see the conflict end quickly and bring their soldiers home.

Credit U.S. Public Domain
Clarinetist Benny Goodman was called "The King of Swing", a style of American pop music that became popular around the world during World War II.

The United Kingdom was, in some ways, forced to embrace the dance, jazz and big band music that was coming from across the pond. They began to relax the programming of the BBC so that their young soldiers were not seduced by the radio waves coming from German-occupied Europe.

Germany enforced a strict ban on anything the Nazi party considered “unfit” for its people. Works of modernism, impressionism or expressionism were forbidden as the Nazi regime sought to project German art as the pinnacle of society. They approved of the works of German masters such as Beethoven, Bruckner and Wagner and demonized the music of Korngold, Schoenberg and Webern, largely on racial lines.

However, even in Nazi Germany there was an undercurrent, a subculture that embraced the jazz and big band sound coming from the west. By the end of the war, Goebbels commissioned a Nazi swing band called “Charlie and his Orchestra” in an effort to win the propaganda war.

Japan and Russia both embraced the power of the vocal song as a lyrical expression of patriotism. Japan also utilized radio broadcasts as means of demoralizing the Allies in the South Pacific, creating a personality the troops called “Tokyo Rose”. Stalin arranged to have Shostakovich’s "7th Symphony" performed behind enemy lines and broadcasted during the siege of Leningrad.

The power of music to influence thought and culture has been long understood. But the 20th century allowed for a single song, a single performance of a single song, to be broadcasted to every corner of the globe. After World War II the world of music was much smaller giving way to the explosion of popular music in the next few decades.

Timeline is an exploration into the development of Western music. Listen through the Timeline on our new web app.

James Stewart is Vermont Public Classical's afternoon host. As a composer, he is interested in many different genres of music; writing for rock bands, symphony orchestras and everything in between.
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