Benjamin Britten and WW2 propaganda

My choir is singing a lot of Britten this term, as it is his 100th anniversary. Most of our repertoire would be fairly well-known to Britten fans, but one very strange piece came as a surprise to me: ‘Advance Democracy’. It was written in response to the Munich Crisis of 1938, when the Allies, in a failed act of appeasement, permitted Germany to annex the Sudetenland.

Britten, who was deeply committed to left-wing causes at the time, believed that democratic governments had betrayed their people for failing to oppose fascism, notwithstanding Neville Chamberlain’s assurance that the Munich Agreement meant “peace for our time”. The text of ‘Advance Democracy’, written by the left-wing poet Randall Swingler, expresses the subsequent fear and disappointment. Although the text was in opposition to official government policy in 1938, during World War Two it accorded perfectly with British sentiments so I assume it would have been used as an appropriately patriotic propaganda song.

Notwithstanding one or two notable recordings, the piece has largely dwindled into obscurity, probably because of Randall Swingler’s rather dreadful lyrics. The music critic Michael Kennedy attacks both composer and poet, maintaining that “even more expertise [than Britten’s] was needed to give any kind of musical credibility to a setting for Swingler’s dreadful doggerel in Advance Democracy”. Harry Christophers, choral director of The Sixteen, labels the text “almost embarassingly earnest”, notwithstanding his defence of the musical setting as “great fun” and “a real showpiece”. No love lost for Randall Swingler, then.

I would say that, unfortunately, Harry Christophers is right; despite Britten’s best efforts and Swingler’s evident enthusiasm, the sheer awfulness of the poetry cannot be forgotten; it is difficult to keep a straight face when singing, at least in the first few sing-throughs. The high point is surely the call to arms at the end, where the music bursts suddenly into a triumphant C major which ends the piece.

Across the darkened city
The frosty searchlights creep
Alert for the first marauder
To steal upon our sleep.

We see the sudden headlines
Float on the muttering tide
We hear them warn and threaten
And wonder what they hide.

There are whispers across tables,
Talks in a shutter’d room.
The price on which they bargain
Will be a people’s doom.

There’s a roar of war in the factories
And idle hands on the street
And Europe held in nightmare
By the thud of marching feet.

Now sinks the sun of surety,
The shadows growing tall
Of the big bosses plotting
Their biggest coup of all.

Is there no strength to save us?
No power we can trust
Before our lives and liberties
Are powder’d into dust.

Time to arise, Democracy!
Time to rise up and cry
That what our fathers fought for
We’ll not allow to die!

Time to resolve divisions,
Time to renew our pride,
Time to decide
Time to burst our house of glass.

Rise as a single being
In one resolve arrayed:
Life shall be for the people
That’s by the people made!

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