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ABRSM: the war years

5 years ago


In the latest in a series of articles marking our 125th anniversary in 2014, historian David Wright looks at the impact of the two world wars on ABRSM

Preparations for marking the centenary of the First World War have made us much more curious about what life was really like in 1914, and the years that followed. Some interesting new political and social histories have added a welcome new context to the established military accounts.

Bedford Square, the former home of ABRSM

Something which has especially interested people is the impact of the war on everyday life, and how events affected not only the soldiers in the trenches, but civilians too. Keeping morale high by maintaining as much as possible of pre-war life was seen to be an important objective, and ABRSM worked very hard to continue its normal examining throughout each world war. Inevitably though, wartime circumstances meant that it had to adapt and adjust, sometimes in unexpected ways.

The First World War

Each war affected ABRSM in different ways. In the First World War, despite the bombardment of coastal towns and some Zeppelin raids, disruption to civilian life was not huge in relative terms. However, the Second World War with its devastating air raids on British cities involved the civilian population very directly in enemy action.

In the 1914–18 conflict, ABRSM’s UK examining largely carried on as usual, despite the tragic human cost of the war. However, the public ceremonies for distributing certificates which then took place in different parts of the country were suspended until 1919. There was a decrease in senior grade candidate numbers, predictably so given the prospect of war service for older age groups. For them, sport and fitness may well have seemed more essential than acquiring skill in classical music. But the number of junior grade candidates continued to grow, surging strongly after the war. Ironically, the biggest threat to holding exams was the disruption caused by the 1918 influenza epidemic.

Anti-German feeling

There was very strong anti-German feeling across the UK, and ABRSM reflected this. Two of its senior examiners, Oscar Beringer and Hans Wessley, volunteered to step-down and their offer was accepted, though both continued to sit on the Governing Board. They resumed their examining in 1919. ABRSM changed its publisher from Augener to the more British-sounding Joseph Williams. However, this arrangement turned out to be much less satisfactory and prompted ABRSM to establish its own publishing company after the war. ABRSM’s wartime syllabuses also tried to avoid pieces by German composers other than the Classical masters, or identifying them by German genre-labels – the Phantasiestűck by Woldemar Bargiel was simply listed as ‘Bargiel, op.32, no.1’. More bizarre was a demand for ABRSM to make a patriotic gesture by abandoning ‘continental’ fingering – with fingers numbered from 1 (the thumb) to 5 – and changing to the ‘British’ system – numbering the fingers from 1 to 4 and indicating the thumb by a cross. This demand was declined.

A new role for women

For ABRSM, the biggest consequence of the first war came about through social change. Pre-war it had an all-male workforce, but the effects of conscription meant it soon began to employ women. That, however, did not mean equality of employment. Female office staff were paid much less than their male equivalents. Helen Benson was appointed Assistant Secretary on half the salary of the man she replaced, but after four months her wage rose from £150 a year to £200. By October 1916, the pay of the eight female employees increased from 25 shillings a week to 30 shillings, which gave them parity with the lower paid male staff.

The peaks in workload caused by the three exam periods were met by employing temporary staff and paying overtime and bonuses, which resulted in an overall increase in wages. Combined with wartime inflation, these additional wage costs put considerable economic pressure on ABRSM which meant that the post-war growth in candidates came as a great relief.

The Second World War

As mentioned, the conditions facing the civilian population in the Second World War were very much more difficult, with constant danger to civilians from air raids. This disruption made it hard to maintain exams in the UK. Concerned to preserve its income as far as possible, ABRSM added to the difficulties facing examiners by reducing their fees and cutting their rail travel from first to third class.

Looking back, it is astonishing that so many examiners continued. The experience of the distinguished keyboard player Thornton Lofthouse illustrates the hazards. He was bombed out when examining in Plymouth in March 1941, narrowly escaping with his life. He lost all his possessions and his exam results, and not surprisingly, felt unable to continue examining. His daughter remembers the shock of her father coming home with his overcoat all blood-stained. The candidates came out of this rather better than he did, because they were all deemed to have passed. Meanwhile, although ABRSM expressed sympathy with Lofthouse’s predicament, it decided that it would not pay compensation to examiners for losses caused by enemy action!

Maintaining exams overseas proved a logistical nightmare that required examiners to brave the U-boat war in the Atlantic and the Japanese forces in the Pacific. Some stayed out in Australia and New Zealand for extended periods in order to combine two examining tours. The exams in Malta were cancelled in 1941 when the island was under severe attack in the Siege of Malta, but as early as 1943 ABRSM’s Representative there, the doughty Miss Briffa (who had suffered the destruction of her own home), was urging their resumption. This happened in 1944, using the 1940/41 syllabus.

Building a post-war future

Perhaps the most surprising outcome of the Second World War for ABRSM was the near doubling of exam entries, which rose to over 82,000 in 1945. This happened within a broader, national, cultural context. The morale-boosting potential of the arts had been recognized as an important contribution to the war effort, and public subsidy, from the predecessor of today’s Arts Council, was supporting music and theatre performances, both amateur and professional. But this growth in the number of candidates also demonstrates how strongly music exams had come to symbolise ‘normal’ life for parts of society. Encouraging young people to learn an instrument was therefore very much part of the collective determination to build for a post-war future.

The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural HistoryDavid Wright was formerly Reader in the Social History of Music at the Royal College of Music. His book, The Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music: A Social and Cultural History, is available in paperback from or in hardback from Boydell and Brewer.

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