Music for the People

Pageant type


Held for the Popular Front

Jump to Summary


Place: Royal Albert Hall (Kensington) (Kensington, Middlesex, England)

Year: 1939

Indoors/outdoors: Indoors

Number of performances: 1


1 April 1939 at 8.15pm

Name of pageant master and other named staff

  • Chairman, Conductor and Composer [Pageant Master]: Bush, Alan
  • Theatrical Designer: Barbara Allen
  • Producer: John Allen
  • London Labour Choral Union: Meg Boone
  • Chartered Accountant: S.A. Brief
  • Labour Stage: T. Forster
  • Singer: Parry Jones
  • Actress: Margaret Leona
  • Composer: Alan Rawsthorne
  • Painter: Michael Ross
  • Workers’ Music Association and Treasurer: Will Sahnow
  • Poet: Randall Swingler
  • Concerts Manager: W. Wallace Thompson
  • London Co-operative Societies’ Joint Education Committee: W.E.R. Tongue
  • Organising Secretary: Edward Clark
  • Décor and Costume: Barbara Allen; Michael Ross
  • Organ: Arnold Goldsbrough
  • Assistant Producer: Margaret Leona
  • Stage Manager: Jean Scott Rogers
  • Assistant Stage Managers: Joan Howard; Anne Jenkins
  • Properties: H.J. Boxall
  • Lighting Effects: Duncan Watson, Ltd.
  • Narrators: Wilfrid Walter; Ronald Kelley

Names of executive committee or equivalent


Names of script-writer(s) and other credited author(s)

  • Swingler, Randall

Names of composers

  • Austin, Frederic
  • Bush, Alan
  • Beethoven, Ludwig van
  • Chisholm, Erik
  • Cooke, Arnold
  • Darnton, Christian
  • Demuth, Norman
  • Gretry, Andre
  • Lutyens, Elisabeth
  • Maconchy, Elizabeth
  • Rawsthorne, Alan
  • Rubbra, Edmund
  • Yates, Victor
  • Williams, Ralph Vaughan

Numbers of performers


500 singers and 100 dancers

Financial information

Object of any funds raised

To raise money for victims of the Spanish Civil War.

Linked occasion


Audience information

  • Grandstand: No
  • Grandstand capacity: n/a
  • Total audience: n/a

Prices of admission and seats: highest–lowest


Associated events

Part of a wider Festival of Music, including a concert at Conway Hall (featuring the Fleet Street Choir and a Russian Balalaika Orchestra) on 3 April and at Queen’s Hall on 5 April (a concert by the London String Orchestra performing Benjamin Britten’s ‘Ballad of Heroes’ [dedicated to the International Brigade], Alan Bush’s Piano Concerto and John Ireland, ‘These Things Shall Be’).

Pageant outline

Part I

‘Flourish for Wind Band’: Ralph Vaughan Williams.


Music: Arnold Cooke.

After a flourish on brass and drums, the Speaker enters and introduces the theme of the pageant. Music, he says, is not a drug or a world of fantasy to which men can escape from, but a guide and inspiration to their efforts to attain a better world. After him come the Dancers, the Singers, and the Players, each saying something of the origin and the importance of their contribution to the wealth of music.1

Episode I. Feudal England

A village green in England in the 15th century. The men at the tavern are singing an old canon, dating from 1350. The Ploughmen and Reapers enter, singing songs that have lived in the peasant tradition of England for centuries and were only lately collected because they were beginning to be forgotten. The dance that the dancers perform is one of the oldest survivals of the primitive fertility rituals, full of their symbols and imitative action. Finally we have a glimpse of another, lonelier type of peasant life, an age-old spinning song from the Hebrides.

Episode II. The Massacre of the Innocents

Music: Victor Yates.

Here the Players play before the village folk a part of the Coventry Play, ‘Herod and the Innocents’. This play dates from the 15th century, and without doubt its theme and popularity owed much to the memory of the massacres of people after the rising of 1381 and Jack Cade’s rebellion 70 years later. Undoubtedly too, the song which follows it, ‘King Herod and the Cock’, had more than religious significance for them with its theme of the invincible spirit rising again and again against the oppressor. The symbolism of it is linked with the oldest forms of peasant ritual. After the play there is an echo of the continuation in history of the persecution which the play represents, in the entry of a choir of early Christians, singing a hymn of defiance which dates from the second century AD. Finally, another echo, this time from Spain, reminds us of persecutions of our own time, and that ‘the play’s not finished yet’.

Episode III. Peasants in Revolt.

Music: Erik Chisholm.

The scene is some 70 years earlier and carries on the chain of associations aroused by the Coventry Play. This time we see the Peasants massing for the long-planned revolt carried out by the Great Society under the leadership of John Ball and Wat Tyler. They are addressed by John Ball; and after the messenger has brought the code message for action, they march on London to the tune of the ‘Cutty Wren’, one of the most interesting and powerful popular songs in English. The words are cryptic, as indeed they were meant to be, for they hide a design and objective of a revolutionary character. But the music is definite enough in its resolution and realism. After this the scene of Tyler’s meeting with Richard II at Smithfield and his treacherous murder is enacted. All the words spoken in this scene, except for the commentary of the speaker, are taken from authentic records. This episode also closes with an echo, a song of the German Peasants’ War of the 15th century, the text of which is based upon the words of John Ball.


The assembly and organization of the peasants has been broken by repeated massacre. Men who felt that Church and State were leagued against them turned to the witch-cult and celebrated in secret the old communal rituals surviving from the pre-Christian era. The cult was savagely persecuted and forced to exist in the greatest secrecy. But it was cherished as the bond of unity between the harassed peasants.

Episode IV. Soldiers of Freedom

Music: Christian Darnton.

It is now 1649, the year in which the Commons executed King Charles I and in which the different conceptions of the aim of the revolution were fought out. The Levellers were men who aimed at a fuller democracy and freedom than Cromwell was able to establish, and they had a great influence on the rank and file of the People’s Army. A group of Levellers are seen at the tavern, singing two of the songs which were most popular among them. The Diggers were men who actually made an experiment in communal ownership and government, taking over a piece of waste-land on St George’s Hill in Surrey. But the neighbouring landlords banded against them and eventually invoked the law to break up their settlement and drive out the pioneers, many of whom were imprisoned. A group of these are being led off by an escort of soldiery, and while the escort pauses at the tavern, they sing the most famous of the many songs of their leader, Gerard Winstanley, ‘Stand up now, Diggers all’.

Episode V. Village Green to Concert Hall

Music: Frederic Austin.

Here is represented the process which resulted from the growing industrialisation of England. The agricultural communities were broken up and the people drawn into the growing towns in search of work and the barest livelihood. The old forms of musical culture disintegrated, and the commercial theatres drew from these sources the material for their operas and fashionable plays. Here we see how the traditional dances were transmuted into the ‘Beggars’ Opera’ by John Gay in 1728.

Interval of Fifteen Minutes

Part II

Episode VI. Changing Europe

Music: Norman Demuth.

The episode opens with Gretry’s ballet, ‘Le Fete del la Raison’ (orchestrated by Matyas Seiber), written in honour of the French Revolution. It shows here the causes and the outcome of the Revolution, the development of large-scale industry and the changing life of the people…We see here how the music which had been through centuries the secret bond of unity among the peasant people flowered into an open expression of their rights and demands at this historic moment.

Episode VII. The Prisoners

Music: Alan Bush.

As the last of the French revolutionaries disappears from the arena, we become aware of someone who has been witnessing the previous episode. Ludwig van Beethoven descends the rostrum. The words he speaks are taken from the ‘Conversation Notebooks’ of which he made use during the years 1819–1827 on account of his deafness. These uncompromising statements on the situation of Europe substantiate the thought behind the music of his which has become indissolubly associated with the idea of Freedom. As it were in answer to his words, the Chorus of Prisoners enters and sings the famous chorus from ‘Fidelio’, being now the voice not only of political prisoners but of all men in bondage over the earth. And again, as if evoked by them, appears another choir of prisoners, singing a song composed and sung in the concentration camps of Nazi Germany.

Episode VIII. Slaves

Following this train of thought, those people are remembered here who suffered long years in the chains of slavery and still suffer appalling conditions of exploitation and the persecutions of racial prejudice. The Negro people, in work, in captivity, in longing and striving for freedom, have developed as rich and vigorous a musical culture as any people in the world. They enter singing a Chain-gang song, then a Cotton-picking song, and some songs of freedom, led by one of the foremost champions of freedom and international brotherhood, Paul Robeson.

Episode IX. The People Advance

Music: Elizaeth Maconchy.

Linked with the last song of Paul Robeson, ‘Kneelin’ Low’, the chorus sing one of the best known of the songs of the Chartist movement and a historic song of the British working-class, written by the finest of the Chartist leaders, Ernest Jones. This song, ‘We’re low’, must stand here as a token of the widespread musical activity in the early days of the Trades Union movement. Every union had its song, and singing was an integral part of every meeting. It is not insignificant that one of the leaders of the greatest popular movement in English history should have been a poet. This is followed by a song of the later era of Trades Union history, ‘People of England’, written about 1870. Finally, in this symbolic representation of the growth of the organized working class, is recalled the scene of the funeral of Alfred Linnell, who died as a result of injuries received from police brutality at the great Free-Speech demonstration in Trafalgar Square on Sunday 20 November 1887; over his grave William Morris read his poem: ‘Not One, Not One, nor Thousands Must They Slay.’ And the crowd processes off to the Funeral March written to commemorate the fallen in the 1905 rising in Russia, which now commemorates all those who have fallen in the fight for freedom.

Finale. For Peace and Liberty

Music: Alan Rawsthorn.

Now comes the closing scene of our pageant. We have represented in the episodes you have seen certain turning points of history where the spirit of man has striven against and overcome the forces which attempted to destroy its liberty. We have thought to indicate the part played by music in these battles and these victories. The fight goes on and music is part of it. In Germany, in Italy, in China, in Spain, the people ‘struggling to be free’ sing their determination to resist and conquer oppression. We have celebrated the men who led those earlier phases of the as yet unfinished conflict: John Ball, Rouges de l’Isle and William Morris. But the past lives in the present. The Christian ideal of a community of free and equal individuals and the will of man to change the world which animates in creative labour the resolve to defend to the uttermost common human rights—these motives inspire men’s actions to-day. In witness whereof our actors will be joined in the final scene by men who are playing representative parts in the life of our time: a churchman, The Dean of Canterbury; a worker and workers’ leader, Tom Mann; and a soldier, Fred Copeman with a contingent of his veterans of the International Brigade. Each will say his word on the theme of Music and the People. Paul Robeson will then sing ‘Land of Freedom’, a great song of liberated Soviet humanity, and finally all will join in modern America’s song of democracy, ‘Men, Awake! The Day is Dawning.’

Key historical figures mentioned

  • Ball, John (d. 1381) chaplain and leader of the peasants' revolt
  • Tyler, Walter [Wat] (d. 1381) leader of the peasants' revolt [also known as Tyler]
  • Richard II (1367–1400) king of England and lord of Ireland, and duke of Aquitaine
  • Winstanley, Gerrard (bap. 1609, d. 1676) author and Digger
  • Beethoven, Ludwig Van (1770-1824) composer
  • Morris, William (1834–1896) designer, author, and visionary socialist
  • de Lisle, Claude Joseph Rouget (1760-1836) French army officer and revolutionary
  • Johnson, Hewlett (1874–1966) dean of Canterbury
  • Mann, Thomas [Tom] (1856–1941) trade unionist, socialist, and communist
  • Copeman, Fred (1907–1983) English volunteer in Spanish Civil War

Musical production

Owing to the nature of the pageant, music is mentioned in the outline of episodes.

Music was performed by the People’s Festival Wind Band and London Choral Union conducted by Alan Bush. The principal singers were Parry Jones and Paul Robeson.

Newspaper coverage of pageant

Manchester Guardian



Sunday Times

Musical Times

Daily Worker

Book of words


Other primary published materials

  • Festival of Music for the People. London, 1939.

Price: 6d.

References in secondary literature

  • Wallis, Mick. ‘The Popular Front Pageant: Its Emergence and Decline’. New Theatre Quarterly 11, no. 41 (1995): 17–32. This gives a full description of the pageant.
  • Boyle, Sheila Tully and Bunie, Andrew. Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement. Boston, 2001. At 398–399.
  • Craggs, Stewart R. Alan Bush: A Source Book. Aldershot, 2007. At 49–50.
  • Wallis, Mick. ‘Heirs to the Pageant: Mass Spectacle and the Popular Front’. In A Weapon in the Struggle: The Cultural History of the Communist Party of Great Britain, edited by Andy Croft, 48-67. London, 1998.
  • Wallis, Mick. ‘Pageantry and the Popular Front: Ideological Production in the “Thirties”’. New Theatre Quarterly 10, no. 38 (1994): 132–156.

Archival holdings connected to pageant

  • British Library: Copy of programme.

Sources used in preparation of pageant



As Mick Wallis has suggested, pageants were an important political tool for left-wing movements during the 1930s. Although the Pageant of Labour, held in London in 1934, had been a significant failure, this did not dissuade other groups from holding their own pageants (albeit on a smaller scale). The pageant held during the Festival of Music and the People in London, 1–5 April 1939, was one of a number of pageants organised by the Popular Front during the late 1930s, including the Wembley Co-Operative Pageant (1938), the Pageant of Chartism (1939) and the South Wales Miners’ Pageant (1939).2 The Popular Front was an organisation of intellectuals and politicians, including Stafford Cripps, which sought to unite disparate left-wing groups such as the Communist Party, left-wing members of the Labour Party and Independent Labour Party, and subscribers to Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club against fascism. In particular, it sought to give both moral and financial support to the Republican cause in the Spanish Civil War.3 While many dismissed the Popular Front as either wholly ineffective or else largely co-opted by the Communist Party for its own political ends, it was, if nothing else, important in bringing together artists and intellectuals and creating a unity of modernist aesthetics and radical politics.4

The idea of the Festival of Music and the People originated at a conference on ‘Music and Life’ in 1938, with the Times considering the performance to be a ‘bold attempt to carry out the ideals of the conference…namely, to relate our music to the life of our times.’5 The pageant brought together a number of leftist writers, composers, and directors. These included the Communist composer Alan Bush, whose brainchild the Festival was and who acted as pageant master and conductor; Randall Swingler, the Marxist poet, who wrote the scenario;6 and John Allen, who produced the pageant.7 Ralph Vaughan Williams wrote Flourish for Wind Band as the pageant overture,8 while the Communist folk singer and folk expert, A.L. Lloyd, assisted the Workers’ Musical Association in preparing the musical performance.

Perhaps the most significant names associated with the pageant were the famous Welsh tenor, Gwynn Parry Jones, and the black American actor and bass, Paul Robeson. Robeson had become increasingly politicised during the 1930s, visiting Spain in 1938. Music and the People was the first event he appeared at linked to the Communist Party (an affiliation which would plague him in later years when he became a victim of McCarthyite witch-hunts).9 This marked a pivotal moment in Robeson’s career when he came to ally the labour movement to the Civil Rights struggle in America. Episode VIII of the pageant, in which Robeson appeared first, movingly depicted slavery in the American south and the continuing oppression of African Americans, linking it to the wider history of the people’s struggle for freedom from oppression in Britain and Spain. Robeson also sang the ‘Song of the Plains’ or ‘Land of Freedom’, a revolutionary song of the Soviet Union.

The Organising Secretary, Edward Clark, declared the aims in the programme, which are worth quoting at length:

No people is more richly gifted for music than ours in Britain. Every period of our history is reflected in its changing image. Each stage of the people’s advance manifests anew its driving force. At present many obstacles lie in the way of musical production and enjoyment. Masses of people feel the remoteness of much current music-making from their daily lives and suspect it to be a means of distracting attention from the important issues before them. Uppermost in all men’s minds to-day is the thought of PEACE, the question of their FREEDOM as responsible citizens and the problems related to their WORK. What more promising themes than these could musicians have? People do not primarily seek in music a flight from reality. Many look to it for a clear signal, giving courage to attack the difficult situation ahead. That is what we shall attempt to supply in this Festival of Music for the People, which is being organised by musicians of the progressive movement in Britain, in collaboration with many famous musical and theatrical artists. The music chosen deals with matters closest to everyone’s thoughts and will be performed by organisations and individuals associated with our popular musical traditions.10

While the form of the pageant, combining acting and music on an equal footing, was novel, the historical element was well-established within the tradition of radical pageantry. The first part told a story from the Peasants’ Revolt through the Civil War Diggers movement, the Industrial Revolution, and the Chartist and Trades Union Movements, most likely drawing on A.L. Morton’s radical A People’s History of England, which had been published by the Left Book Club in 1938. The second part of the narrative wove together the history of popular struggles against oppression and tyranny with the famous ‘Prisoners’ Chorus’ from Beethoven’s Fidelio (a favourite of many leftists on Desert Island Discs),11 and the contemporary struggle in Spain and across the world.

The press was overwhelmingly hostile towards the pageant. The Times described it as ‘ineffective’ and suggested that ‘the artistic results of this burning zeal may be no more than tepid if artistic principles are abandoned for the sake of pointing a moral, rewriting history, or making political gestures’.12 Randall Swingler, in the reviewer’s mind, ‘ran away with the entertainment… although a pageant is a fairly elastic form of art, it will not stand such incoherence as mixed up a selection of the Coventry mystery play with a procession of early Christians and a lullaby sung by Basque refugee children which the narrator surprisingly said was an echo from far Madrid.’13 Furthermore, there was ‘no artistic unity—each member of the committee appeared to have pressed for the inclusion of his own favourite tune and his special historical episode…[which] passed too slowly before our ears and eyes.’14 The Manchester Guardian, which was on the whole cautiously left wing in outlook, was excoriating, describing it as ‘a Left-wing affair which, according to the syllabus, set out to give the “people” a clear signal in music, “giving courage to attack the difficult situation ahead.” One song the other evening sought to prepare the “people” to “take over”, but no information was added about what they were expected to take over—the Foreign Office, Hitler, A.R.P., Greenwich Observatory, or Littlewood’s pools.’15 The reviewer criticised the pageant’s notion of ‘the people’, lumping together disparate parts of largely unconnected struggles and eliding this with the working class as a whole which, as the paper noted, was generally far more apathetic. The production ‘lacked humour entirely’, with the reviewer asking: ‘Why don’t these people laugh at themselves now and then? Just for fun.’16 The orchestration particularly offended: ‘The piano then entered like a piano-tuner not sure of his touch, with an arpeggio or scale-passage thrown in for appearances’ sake. After this occurrence I decided to leave the scene.’17

In fact, the press was far more appreciative about the two related concerts on subsequent evenings, praising the folk music arrangements performed by the Fleet Street Choir and the Soviet Balalaika Orchestra.18 The reviewers were even more favourable about the final performance (save for Arnold Schönberg’s cantata ‘Peace on Earth’—‘unvocal till verse three, where he suddenly wrote six part harmony for no apparent reason’19), particularly Alan Bush’s Piano Concerto and Benjamin Britten’s ‘Ballad of Heroes’, which was dedicated to the International Brigade. The Observer took this piece to be a sign of Britten’s maturity, hinting at subsequent genius.20 Remarking on the Festival’s conclusion, the Times remarked: ‘The aim of the festival, however, was not crude political propaganda, but to give voice in the language of music to aspirations cherished by persons with certain political sympathies and ideas. For politics has a certain need of music to give it emotional inspiration.’21 Even so, it suggested that the festival ‘only lived up to its own profession and title in its second concert when it gave a programme of folk songs and popular tunes. It was really a festival of ideological music and, as such, achieved a moderate success in a peculiarly difficult field.’22

What is one to make of the pageant? Many of the reviews seem overly harsh concerning a genuine attempt to combine idealist politics with history and contemporary music. While the Popular Front did little to help the Spanish Republican cause, which had surrendered on the day of the pageant itself, or even to avert European war, it nonetheless marked genuine political and artistic expression, seeking to link an often elitist form of art to the popular struggle through pageantry.


  1. ^ All synopses taken from Festival of Music for the People (London, 1939).
  2. ^ Mick Wallis, ‘The Popular Front Pageant: Its Emergence and Decline’, New Theatre Quarterly 11, no. 41 (1995): 29.
  3. ^ Jim Fyrth, ed., Britain, Fascism and the Popular Front (London, 1985); David Blaazer, The Popular Front and the Progressive Tradition: Socialists, Liberals, and the Quest for Unity, 1884–1939 (Cambridge, 1992), chapters 6–7.
  4. ^ Philip Bounds, British Communism and the Politics of Literature (Pontypool, 2012); Andy Croft, Comrade at Heart: A Life of Randall Swingler (Manchester, 2003).
  5. ^ The Times, 3 April 1939, 12.
  6. ^ Croft, Comrade at Heart, 70–75; Andy Croft, ‘‘Young Men are Moving Together: The Case of Randall Swingler’, in Party People, Communist Lives: Explorations in Biography, ed. John McIlroy, Kevin Morgan and Alan Campbell (London, 2001), 169–189.
  7. ^ Allen had previously produced a number of leftist plays, including Clifford Odet’s Waiting for Lefty (performed 1935), and W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood’s The Dog Beneath the Skin (performed 1936). For Allen, see ‘Professor John Allen’, Daily Telegraph, 21 January 2002, accessed 23 May 2016,
  8. ^ ‘Flourish for Wind Band by Ralph Vaughan Williams’, Wind Band Literature, accessed 23 May 2016,
  9. ^ Sheila Tully Boyle and Andrew Bunie, Paul Robeson: The Years of Promise and Achievement (Boston, 2001), 398–399.
  10. ^ Edward Clark, in Festival of Music for the People (London, 1939), np.
  11. ^ Desert Island Discs BBC Archive, Accessed 23 May 2016, However, the piece was also chosen by Edward Heath and Enoch Powell.
  12. ^ The Times, 3 April 1939, 12.
  13. ^ Ibid.
  14. ^ Ibid.
  15. ^ Manchester Guardian, 6 April 1939, 13. A.R.P. stood for ‘Air Raid Precautions’.
  16. ^ Ibid.
  17. ^ Ibid.
  18. ^ The Times, 4 and 6 April 1939, 10.
  19. ^ Manchester Guardian, 9 April 1939, 8.
  20. ^ Ibid.
  21. ^ The Times, 8 April 1939, 10.
  22. ^ Ibid.

How to cite this entry

Angela Bartie, Linda Fleming, Mark Freeman, Tom Hulme, Alex Hutton, Paul Readman, ‘Music for the People’, The Redress of the Past,