‘Let the People Sing’ : J.B. Priestley and the significance of music

Article English OPEN
Fagge, Roger (2016)

In a writing life that spanned the 1910 to 1970s, J.B. Priestley engaged with a variety of subjects, across various literary forms, ranging from politics, popular culture and Englishness through to theories of time. However it has rarely been noted that he also wrote passionately and knowledgeably about music, with the latter playing an important role in key novels, plays and nonfiction. Priestley also promoted chamber festivals, wrote the libretto for an opera ‘The Olympians’, and even occasionally performed himself. Priestley’s writings on music fitted into his concerns about the rise of an Americanised mass order, and his mistrust of commericalised musical forms was shared by other critics of the time. However, Priestley’s work is more significant than a binary high/low low cultural validation of classical music/dismissal of more popular musical forms. He was often critical of jazz and ragtime, but more positive about popular music that was produced in, reflected, and empowered the individual and community. Priestley’s writings on music marked a genuine attempt at understanding the role of music in culture, and contributed to his democratic critique of the mass society.
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