Tag Archives: music

‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’

In this guest blog, Meic Stephens explores the history of a popular war-time song which made it from a concert to the front in a matter of weeks.

KeepTheHomeFiresBurning1915Ivor Novello (David Ivor Davies; 1893-1951) was not yet at the height of his fame as a man of the musical theatre when, one wet evening in the autumn of 1914, the Welshman sat down at his piano in his Aldwych flat and played the first few bars of a melody that he’d been humming to himself for the past few days. He was still only twenty-one and, although he had had a few small successes as a composer of light music, his was not a household name and he was living quietly with his mother as the war entered its first winter. All that would change overnight: he was about to become the celebrated author of a song so popular that it summed up the stoicism of the British people during the crisis and was to live on as one of the best-loved songs of the years entre deux guerres. There were to be other songs inspired by the war, and Ivor wrote some of them, including ‘The Laddie in Khaki’ and ‘When the Great Day Comes’, but none would take off like ‘Keep the Home Fires Burning’, and all are forgotten now. Only ‘Tipperary’ could rival it in popularity and poignancy. Ivor’s creation was different from the rest in that it avoided outright jingoism and expressed the yearning of the civilian population for peace rather than the martial prowess of those on the front line.
There is more than one version of how Ivor came to write his masterpiece. According to one of his biographers, W. Macqueen-Pope (1951), the song was prompted by his ambitious mother, the formidable Clara Novello Davies, music teacher and choir-mistress, who pestered him to write a patriotic tune that she could promote at concerts and in the music-hall where her own compositions found an outing. When he didn’t comply, she wrote her own song, ‘Keep the Flag a’Flying’. Ivor found it embarrassing and so he wrote his own tune which he thought was passable. Now he needed the lyric to go with his first line, ‘Keep the home fires burning’. He had a friend, Lena Guilbert Ford, an American long resident in England, who was the first to hear Ivor singing the opening phrase and some of the chorus. She was asked to go home and come up with the lyric for his tune. When she rang a few days later and heard her sing the verse:

Keep the Home Fires Burning,
While your hearts are yearning.
Though your lads are far away
They dream of home.
There’s a silver lining
Through the dark clouds shining,
Turn the dark cloud inside out
Till the boys come home.

he knew he had the makings of a hit song. There are other versions of how the song came to be born, including one in which the composer bade the maid bank up the fire in his sitting-room with the words, ‘That’s right, my dear, we must keep the home fires burning . . .’ but the collaboration between Ivor and Lena G. Ford are not in dispute.

The song still had to be launched and this was where Mam played her part. Accompanied by Ivor, a young Welsh singer and pupil of his mother’s called Sybil Vane, brought the house down during a Sunday League Concert at the Alhambra. To his great astonishment, the composer heard the audience – mainly working-class people with whom he felt a special rapport — joining in and, to the wildest applause, they kept on singing the words over and over again, even as they made their way out of the theatre and into the street. Within weeks the song had swept the country and reached the Front. Its popularity showed no sign of waning, especially after the Americans entered the war. The composer’s mother, ever eager to boost his reputation, is said to have paid organ-grinders to play the song in the streets of London. A year after its first performance, it had earned Ivor the nice fortune of about £15,000, which helped set him up as a man of the theatre for many years thereafter. Only Lena G. Ford, who shared his triumph, did not live to enjoy the wealth she had helped him earn: she was killed, with her son, in an air-raid over London in 1918. Ivor Novello would go on to write musicals set in Ruritania that included Glamorous Night (1935), The Dancing Years (1939) and King’s Rhapsody (1949) and to enjoy a career as ‘King of Make Believe’ like no other.

Performed by Frederick Wheeler for Edison Records in late 1915

The song’s immense popularity has outlived its creator. Recorded many times by singers such as John McCormack and, in our own day, Cerys Mathews, it has been featured in films such as Oh, What a Lovely War (1969), Chariots of Fire (1981) and, more recently, Gosford Park (2002), in the last of which the country-house guests are entertained by Jeremy Northam acting the part of the composer as he sings ‘The Land of Might-have-been’ at the piano.

As part of Glamorous Night: A Celebration of Ivor Novello, Sir Mark Elder leads the Hallé and Toby Spence (tenor) in Keep The Home Fires Burning.


The sound of pipes on the Western Front

In this guest blog, Professor Trevor Herbert (Open University) considers the role of military music both at home and on the front. Trevor Herbert will be sharing more of this research at Cheltenham Music Festival on the 6th July 2014.

By 1914 British military music had been in existence for a century and a half. The military was the largest employer of musicians in Britain and their role was unambiguous: they were the private, mess-room bands of the officer class, and they engaged with the populace and other ranks in ways that were deliberately strategic.  Public concerts and the integrated deployment of bands in military display and ceremony were so conspicuous as to have become essential. Lessons had been learned from the shambles that ensued from bad planning of state ceremony in the mid-Victorian period, and resources and training were put in place (not least the establishment in 1857 of a Royal Military School of Music) to ensure that the sight and sound of marching musicians was so impressive that they would be immediately understood as symbols, not just of the army, but the British state itself.  Put somewhat differently, the well-choreographed image of soldiers marching to step to inspiring music conveyed a potent sense of invincibility to everyone who witnessed it.

In 1914 it was necessary to deploy every propaganda device the state could muster to promote patriotism and to legitimize a conflict that few ordinary people properly understood and of which yet fewer could have predicted the grim consequences.  The heady atmosphere of the almost continuous parades that marked the departure of troops to the continent always had military bands as their soundscape, creating as they did a mist of optimistic pride, romance even, that made it all seem worthwhile.

For those left behind, military music was routinely deployed to sustain half- understood notions of a ‘virtuous war’ and engender hope through the apparently abstract but nevertheless potent meanings that music can convey. Georgina Lee, a mother with a nine-month-old child, wrote in her diary of the ‘five or six thousand’ outside Buckingham Palace on 9 August 1914, who watched as ‘these splendid fellows filed past to the strains of The British Grenadiers’.

WW1 piperIn the trenches of course, it was different. Military musicians famously act as medical auxiliaries in fields of conflict; also, and to great effect, they actually perform – not military marches, but popular and often romantic tunes, to attentive audiences whose sense of mortality could hardly have been more heightened. In 1914 it took little time for them to be rendered silent; many were killed, and there was an unrelenting need for bandsmen to carry comrades to the field hospitals. However, one sector of the military’s music was indomitable.

One soldier, resting with his battalion near Arras, wrote in his diary of Scottish troops, who were sent into battle as the advanced force, and who had retained their pipers even when other regimental bands were lost or had given away to medical duties – ‘The 51st Division had just come out and I used to hear their bagpipes in the morning.’ There are many accounts of these pipers, and several were cited for astonishing acts of bravery.  Behind the front line, on route marches and in rest camps, their piping maintained morale and raised spirits – ‘The bagpipes have a wonderful effect if you feel tired’ wrote one young lieutenant.  One wonders what the effect of this music was on those who lay on the other side of the line, equally exhausted and contemplative of loved ones far away – did it intensify their fear, or did they perhaps share something of the sustenance offered by the pipers who walked behind the British lines?

Professor Trevor Herbert

Trevor Herbert is Emeritus Professor of Music at the Open University and was the principal investigator of the AHRC-funded project ‘Military sponsorship of music in Britain in the nineteenth century and its relationship with the musical mainstream’. One of the outputs of the project, the book Music and the British military in the long nineteenth century (co-authored with Helen Barlow) is published by Oxford University Press.