Academic journal article Intersections

Writing for CBC Wartime Radio Drama: John Weinzweig, Socialism, and the Twelve-Tone Dilemma

Academic journal article Intersections

Writing for CBC Wartime Radio Drama: John Weinzweig, Socialism, and the Twelve-Tone Dilemma

Article excerpt

In 1941, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation hired composer John Weinzweig to write original background music for wartime radio drama. As the first composer hired by the CBC for this purpose, Weinzweig had the unique and vital role of pioneering the genre of radio docudrama music in Canada. Scholars including Udo Kasemets and Elaine Keillor have briefly examined his compositions for radio, calling attention to his use of the twelve-tone technique in these works. Despite their claims, however, a closer examination of Weinzweig's manuscript scores for the CBC radio drama series New Homes for Old (1941) reveals that he uses a modified technique that differs from the twelve-tone approach and modernist language he uses in his concert music of the time. Although his decision to modify his serial approach in his radio works may have been prompted by a variety of circumstances, I believe that Weinzweig's engagement with leftist political ideals during the 1930s and 1940s was an important contributing factor.

Thus, in my article, I will frame Weinzweig's early career at the CBC in light of Canada's socio-political climate and the rise of leftist political movements, notably the Popular Front, during the interwar period. Drawing upon archival material, including original manuscript scores, radio scripts, program schedules, recordings, and biographical documents, I will suggest that Weinzweig's personal, artistic, and political ties with the radical left may have encouraged him to modify his modernist and serial language in these works in favour of a more accessible and simplified musical language that embodied the cultural, political, and aesthetic ideals of leftist socialism, while also embracing the populist values perpetuated by the Popular Front movement. In doing so, I propose that Weinzweig uses radio drama as an artistic outlet to express his leftist political ideals during the war.1


A popular form of entertainment that flourished in Canada during the early 1920s, radio drama is a theatrical medium that combines the musical, theatrical, and literary arts and was created specifically for the art of radio broadcasting. During the Second World War, the production of radio drama in Canada increased significantly as the CBC began producing several popular new wartime radio dramas. These dramas lauded the Canadian war effort and were produced by the CBC in the hopes of maintaining civilian morale on the home front. As a result, many articulated strong patriotic, militaristic, and nationalist themes and were used as wartime propaganda by both the CBC and the government to promote national unity, boost morale, and educate Canadians about the war effort.2

Although radio drama became an important tool for disseminating wartime propaganda, it also became a significant socio-political outlet for wartime artists as well. Notably, the increased production of radio drama offered new creative opportunities for young Canadian artists and composers such as Weinzweig; working for the CBC not only offered them artistic and financial support, but it also granted them access to a national audience for their creative works. More importantly, however, it provided them with a new platform through which they could express, communicate, and disseminate their own socio-political views during the war.

As a radio drama composer, Weinzweig wrote over one hundred scores for several CBC wartime radio docudrama series, including Brothers in Arms, Canada Marches, Comrade in Arms, Our Canada, and The British Empire Series.3 His first radio commission, New Homes for Old, was written by CBC scriptwriter Alistair Grosart and produced by Ian Smith. It is an eleven-week series that depicts the lives of European immigrants who fled to Canada during the war. Based on factual accounts, this series ultimately explores the experiences, traditions, and aspirations of these "new Canadians" who immigrated from countries including Czechoslovakia, Russia, Germany, Ukraine, Poland, Austria, and the Netherlands. …

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