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Wars, Dictators and the Gramophone 1898-1945

By Eric Charles Blake

Sessions of York, ISBN 1 185072 29 0 [306 pages]

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Some titles are inadequate for the book they announce. Such is the case here. Far from being, as one might expect, a dry descriptive text, painstakingly researched and written out of enthusiasm, Blake mixes his enthusiasm with a highly readable and lively style.

The book has a wide remit: to capture not only the spirit of the times discussed, place historical events in context, explore economic and political factors, but also to capture the domestic and propagandistic role of the gramophone in the heyday of the development of acoustic, cylinder, 78, 45 and up to early LP formats. You get a real sense of the gramophone at the very heart of things, held in high esteem by parties of all political and social persuasions to spread the message, boost morale, yet provide solid entertainment catering to public demand. Whilst each of these concerns is dealt with in turn, in addition a sense of the personalities both on and behind the recordings comes through. Extracts from diaries and memoirs aid Blake’s task here, particularly with regard to Fred Gaisberg of HMV.

Naturally depth of coverage is an issue in a book of this kind. Earlier sections on the Spanish-American War and Boer War are comparatively slim. They are interesting as a preface to the major topics of the Great and Second World Wars.

When it comes to these two great conflicts and flanking events, Blake comes into his own. There is a thoroughness and authority about his writing, dispatching a tightly-woven and intricate narrative. There have been other volumes in German and French that have explored the role of the Gramophone during this time, but these have been restricted by presentation of documentary material in the original language, divorced from context or commentary. There are small points that might be debated and queried, but these are matched by the excitement of factual discovery and the piecing together of cause and effect as regards the use of the Gramophone. Blake’s own reminiscences complete an already full account.

What is impressive is the inclusiveness of the volume when it comes to the recorded materials discussed, or more accurately, as they are described – classical and lighter music, jazz, military music, opera and operetta, speech and war reporting. Each is treated as seriously as the next. Rightly, Blake allows little room for derisory distinction. For someone with an overwhelming interest in classical music, I came away from the book with a desire to get better acquainted with some non-classical materials that were discussed, if only this were possible.

There are useful supporting illustrations. I particularly like the one of a concentrating Lenin before an acoustic recording horn in 1919. I recommend this volume without hesitation to anyone wanting to get a wider picture of the times. It will be of value to social historians, researchers, music-lovers, followers of the gramophone’s fortunes, and many more besides. They will find much to interest and indeed entertain them.

Evan Dickerson

see also review by Arthur Baker



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