Sunday, December 08, 2013

International Workers Music Olympiad 1935

In 1935 the International Workers' Music Olympiad, an anti-fascist festival, was held at Strasbourg in France close to the German border. The composer Hanns Eisler helped organise it, and one of the songs he wrote with Bertolt Brecht, the 'Einheitfrontslied' (United Front Song) was 'premièred by a chorus of 5,000 members of the workers song movement'. Also present was the British composer Michael Tippett (1905-1998), who wrote an account of it in 'Comradeship and the Wheatsheaf',  a publication of the Royal Arsenal Co-operative Society in August 1935 (Tippett worked with the RACS choirs).  This was later republished in 'Music of the Angels: essays and sketchbooks of Michael Tippett' (Eulenburg Books, 1980). Here's an extract:

'Over the Whitsun week-end an English choir of fifty voices went, under the conductorship of Comrade Alan Bush, to take part in the first international festival for working-class music organisations at Strasburg. The membership was drawn mostly from the London Labour Choral Union and Co-operative choirs (in particular the Federation Operatic at Abbey Wood). There was a competition piece to sing as well as music for the concerts and demonstrations.

The most numerous entries to the festival were workers' brass bands. Choral singing has not so strong a tradition in France as wind bands. There were choirs from various parts of France and Switzerland. Russian and Dutch choirs were, unfortunately, refused permits to enter the country by the French government. The Czecho-Slovakian contingent was unable to come, and all workers' organisations in Germany, Austria, or Italy only carry on illegally underground under the stress of the three forms of the fascist terror.

The festival was organised principally by the Strasburg Workers' Music League, with the help of other Alsatian music organisations. These musical and sports unions are very strong in Alsace and Lorraine, in Switzerland and France proper. The membership often runs into thousands. Benefits similar to those of our friendly societies are paid to members, and concerts, practices,and gymnastics are organised. All the unions have a political basis and join together for public demonstrations under the name of the United Front against Fascism, which the various socialist and communist parties of France have laboriously built as a weapon in their struggle...

Strasburg is an ideal town for an international festival of this kind. The older men fought in the German army and navy, their sons are conscripted into the French army. The president of the Strasburg Music League fought in the Kiel Mutiny in the German Revolution of 1918. Formerly a communist worker in Germany, he is now a communist worker in France. Working-class international solidarity has been forced on him by blood and war and revolution...

Michael Tippett
At the festival itself one could not help being struck by the delightful air of equality and informality. Everyone was a comrade, whatever language he might speak. It was like a foretaste of a free classless society but for the police ban on street music and the clashes that arose because of it. Over thirty bands marched onto the big festival ground played 'The International' while thousands of  voices sang it in various languages. The children were as free as the grown-ups. They walked onto the the microphone platform, they talked to whom they liked. No one was ordered about. Occasionally someone called for space round the microphone so that we might sing there, or a telegram of greetings be read from a sympathetic groups of workers'

A note in the book states that the London Labour Choral Union shared first prize in the Mixed Choir competition with the Chorale Populaire de Paris.

For more on 'Einheitfrontslied' (United Front Song) see Marxist Theory of Art:

'Und weil der Mensch ein Mensch ist,
drum hat er Stiefel im Gesicht nicht gern.
Er will unter sich keinen Sklaven sehn
und über sich keinen Herrn'

'And because humans are human,
they don't like a boot in the face.
They want to see no slaves under them
And no master over them'

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