A Soundtrack for the Silent Era

Well, I am all ears again. After the visual assault described in the previous post, this constitutes a welcome reining in of the senses. Not that the experience is a tranquil one. I am listening to the sounds of war . . . the Great War. Presented by BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner, “The Sounds of Flanders” (available here until 30 November), introduces listeners to a collection of rare phonograph recordings produced for the domestic market in Britain, the “first form of saleable audio propaganda”—patriotic speeches, rousing songs, and soundstaged re-enactments of warfare.

The recordings, which include dramatizations of an air raid on an English coastal town and the attack on the RMS Lusitania made just weeks after the ship’s sinking, were unearthed by broadcast historian Tim Crook, who calls them the earliest surviving example of audio drama produced in Britain.

Not all of it was produced for the local market; apparently, some of these recordings were intended for an American audience in an attempt to rally support for the Great War. It clearly anticipates the shortwave transmissions of World War II, as described in Charles J. Rolo’s 1942 study Radio Goes to War (of which I am fortunate to have added to my library above copy signed by its author). As Rolo put it,

[radio]went to war on five continents shortly after the Nazi Party came to power in Germany. In eight years it has been streamlined from a crude propaganda bludgeon into the most powerful single instrument of political warfare the world has ever known. More flexible in use and infinitely stronger in emotional impact than the printed word, as a weapon of war waged psychologically radio has no equal.

According to Rolo, “Nazi tacticians, unhampered by the deadweight of outdated traditions, had taken to heart the lessons of the last war and were elaborating for the future a strategy of war waged psychologically.” As “The Sounds of Flanders” suggests, those strategies may well have originated in the United Kingdom, even though the audio recordings were apparently not made by any branch of the government (a point in need of clarification).

As in the case of the electrophone wirecasts from the London stage during the reign of Queen Victoria (discussed here), those phono-graphic records antecede the first experimentations in broadcast theatricals, which began in the early 1920s.

Programs like “The Sounds of Flanders” help to restore the soundtrack for a generation that today is largely thought of as silent.

2 Replies to “A Soundtrack for the Silent Era”

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