Gramophone magazine: a history – the 1940s

James Jolly
Thursday, January 11, 2024

Reading the correspondence pages from the early 1940s is to be genuinely moved by not only the absolutely essential nature of music in the lives of so many soldiers, sailors and airmen, but how The Gramophone had created its own tight-knit community

The only group photo of the founders, Christopher Stone, Compton and Faith Mackenzie, with Cecil Pollard (standing) at the Silver Jubilee party in June 1948

The most striking fact that emerges from the history of The Gramophone during the war years, is how central a part of so many people’s lives the magazine had become. Reading the correspondence pages from the early 1940s is to be genuinely moved by not only the absolutely essential nature of music in the lives of so many soldiers, sailors and airmen, but how The Gramophone had created its own tight-knit community.

‘JNG’ wrote in October 1941: ‘Some of us can remember the grandeur of Beethoven when the bombs were thundering down. We were grateful for the depth of the emotion that swallowed up our fear’.

Driver MC Moore, writing from the Stalag XXB prisoner of war camp, told how gramophones and records were supplied to working camps of 100 men or more, 30 records being the average. More often than not, the discs were of Beethoven, Bach and Mozart. ‘A fit subject for a Bateman cartoon is the POW who wanted to listen to Bach. I personally have been told in no uncertain terms, just where to go when attempting it. The war cry was “Give us Bing”. At the main camp of this Stalag is a large cabinet Electrola, bearing the unmistakable signs of Hayes, Middlesex.’

There was a letter from Lieut RJ Perfitt of the RNVR bemoaning the impossibility of getting hold of recordings (‘But time and repetition don’t stale our precious discs; they make them even more precious’), and Arnold Levy of the Signals wrote in December 1944 to inform readers of how the paddy fields and bamboo huts that were their homes in Arakan in modern-day Myanmar (then Burma) would ring out to the sound of recorded music, thanks to the Army Educational Corps. ‘I have left behind me many music lovers who in every jungle, paddy field and basha form what must be the largest club of its kind – the Arakan Gram Club’.

Levy’s letter prompted a response in February 1945 from Drivers L Williams and JW Taylor of the RASC with their experiences on the Western Front where, when they reached a new town, they ‘lost no opportunity of visiting local shops and in this way acquired an Imperial recording of the Linz by the Vienna Phil; the Haydn 96th on Polydor; a wartime recording of the first movement of the Choral, on Electra, by the Saxon State Orchestra under Böhm … Till Eulenspiegel by the Brussels Conservatoire under Defauw, and an Ouverture à Grand Orchestre by Mozart on HMV, and much more besides.’

Clearly the troops had no problems listening to music by German and Austrian composers. Back home things were somewhat different, which led Mackenzie to pen a number of editorials in 1940 on the subject of German music and its performance in Britain. The final salvo came in the December issue under the title ‘Lunatics at Large’ where he tangled with the BBC’s proposal to ban ‘old works that can be interpreted in terms of modern Germany (such as Brahms’s Triumphlied and Wagner’s Siegfried)’ and the Corporation’s suggestion that ‘German and Italian songs must be sung in English or not at all’. ‘An ass’s bray,’ thundered the Editor, ‘is the same in English, German and Italian, but the beauty of a song depends on it being sung in the words to which it was set. Cannot the officials of the BBC understand that behaviour like this drags us down to the level of what we are fighting against?’ (About this time, Mackenzie was also tussling in the pages of The Times with the composer Sir George Dyson who, as President of the Incorporated Society of Musicians, had lobbied successfully to have German and Austrian immigrants banned from any kind of musical employment. Mackenzie found the idea repellent – and he had strong allies in the likes of Dame Myra Hess, who mounted many concerts featuring ‘enemy aliens’ including the newly formed Amadeus Quartet.)

War service had reduced the staff of The Gramophone, and in response to this, as well as to keep costs down, the offices were moved to a room in Cecil Pollard’s house in Kenton, in north London. As well as overseeing the business side of the company, Cecil also assumed the role of London Editor. It says much for his acumen that throughout the entire war, not a single issue of The Gramophone was missed, even given the reduction in the number of records released, as well as the need to conserve paper as rationing was a major issue. Of necessity, the wartime magazines were considerably slimmer than before the war (January 1939 saw an issue of 44 editorial pages and 18 advertisements, while the January 1945 magazine was 11 and eight). A key member of the staff during the war was Nellie Pollard, Cecil’s wife and Anthony’s mother. Quickly she took on liaising with subscribers, undertaking typing and other administrative duties, lessening Cecil’s workload and playing a major role in ensuring that even during the height of the hostilities it was business as usual. She remained central to the smooth running of The Gramophone for the next six years.

Another major concern was the imposition of a Purchase Tax in October 1940 on ‘luxury’ goods – this included records which were taxed at 33⅓ per cent. Mackenzie reached for his pen: ‘if this country has sunk to conditions in which music and literature are to be stigmatised as luxuries the quicker we are to be shaken into sanity the better’. (Actually, books were exempt because it was suggested that the Chancellor, a devout Christian, could not find a way to impose a tax without also taxing the bible.) The tax remained in place until 1969, prompting a letter from Peter Barker, published in April that year, pointing out with cool logic the absurdity that ‘a book written by a Beatle is not subject to tax, but a Beatle recording is taxed’.

One initiative to save paper saw HMV taking the lion’s share of the magazine’s front cover as an advertisement, something that remained in place until May 1969.

The core reviewers during the war years were Alec Robertson, WR Anderson and Edgar Jackson. Geoffrey Howard-Sorrell took over the ‘Miscellaneous and Dance’ reviews while Roger Wimbush was away in the Royal Norfolk Regiment, and also took on the role of Technical Editor. WA Chislett and Harold Rosenthal (later the Editor of Opera) wrote less, but one major addition to the editorial pages were the frequent articles by Fred Gaisberg, who’d retired from The Gramophone Company in 1939. His successor Walter Legge would also contribute occasional articles to The Gramophone for the next 30 years.

Following VE Day in May 1945, Compton Mackenzie thanked everyone from the loyal and business-savvy Cecil Pollard, to the magazine’s advertisers and its staff and printers, concluding that he looked forward ‘to the time when we can fatten it up again’. A year later saw the arrival of a second generation of Pollard in the company, Anthony, who joined in July 1946 and remained onboard, in ever senior roles, for the next 53 years. Other new names to appear in the magazine regularly were Lionel Salter (who remained a contributor until his death, aged 85, in 2000), Edward Sackville-West and Desmond Shawe-Taylor who would each contribute a regular ‘retrospect’ article that offered a second opinion, and from across the Atlantic, Harold C Schonberg, who would pen a ‘Letter from America’.

The industry, too, entered a period of renewal: John Culshaw joined Decca in November 1946 and would go on to become one of the most significant producers of the day; Walter Legge founded the Philharmonia Orchestra in August 1945, primarily as a recording ensemble, and embarked on a remarkable series of releases, many of which retain classic status to this day. In 1947 in Germany, DG launched its Archiv label, under the guidance of Dr Fred Hamel, to focus on music from Gregorian chant to about 1800. In the USA, RCA released the first 78rpm pressed in vinyl (June 1945) and Columbia Records Inc issued its first 33⅓rpm long-playing record. (The situation was somewhat complicated in 1948 by what came to be seen as ‘the battle of the speeds’ as RCA introduced the 45rpm disc. Despite its use as a classical EP, it became the disc of choice for pop music – the single or 45 – and enjoyed a long and colourful life.)

Toscanini’s glorious Indian Summer was captured throughout the war years by NBC, who created an orchestra especially for him, and, by the end of a decade which gave us some extraordinary audio recordings, his rehearsals and concerts were regularly being filmed.

The stage was set for one of the most transformative decades in the record industry’s history: the 1950s.

Gramophone in the 1940s: Timeline

October 1940 The Chancellor of the Exchequer introduces Purchase Tax on records. Initially 33⅓ per cent on the price to the retailer

November 1940 Fantasia, with a stereo soundtrack, released

May 1941 Cecil Pollard is appointed London Editor of The Gramophone

April 1942 EMI takes advertising space on the front cover of The Gramophone (this continues until 1969)

June 1942 Capitol Records Inc is founded in the USA by Glenn Wallichs, Johnny Mercer and Buddy DeSilva

September/November 1943 First recording sponsored by the British Council made by EMI: EJ Moeran’s Symphony in G minor, by the Hallé Orchestra and Leslie Heward

June 1944 Decca commences the use of Full Frequency Range Recording (ffrr), with Ernest Ansermet and the Suisse Romande Orchesstra in Stravinsky’s Petrushka the first major release to use the system

June 1945 RCA in the USA releases the first 78s pressed in vinyl

August 1945 Walter Legge founds the Philharmonia Orchestra primarily as an ensemble for recordings

October 1945 George Mendelssohn founds Vox Records in New York

July 1946 Anthony Pollard joins The Gramophone

September 1946 EMI make its first recording with Herbert von Karajan and the VPO (Beethoven’s Symphony No 8)

September 1946 Beecham founds the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra

November 1946 John Culshaw joins The Decca Record Company

August 1947 Deutsche Grammophon inaugurates its Archiv Produktion label, devoted primarily to music pre-1800

April 1948 The Gramophone celebrates its 25th birthday with a party in London for the industry

June 1948 Columbia Records Inc introduces the first 33⅓rpm long-playing record in the USA

October 1948 EMI introduces the use of magnetic tape for a number of its sessions

February 1949 RCA Victor introduces 45rpm records in the USA

April 1949 The Haydn Society releases its first 78s in the USA

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