The homeworking world is divided. Those who work in sheds and those still in the dining room. Those who work in suits and those who prefer pyjamas. And of course, those who listen to music while they work and those who work in silence. In 1940 the BBC came up with a cunning wartime plan to up productivity. Music While You Work (its marvellous theme tune by Eric Coates was called Calling All Workers) was a non-stop medley of popular tunes which ran until the Light Programme bit the dust in 1967.
Of course the music was strictly monitored. Nothing lethargic or unmelodic was allowed. Slow waltzes were banned for what the BBC called “soporific tendencies". Conversely, ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’ also got the chop because its main clapping motif apparently was encouraging anybody working with a hammer to smash their workbench to bits. The BBC’s plan was to vary the tempo as little as possible, or as the kindly broadcaster put it: “The aim is to produce something which is monotonous and repetitive. Subtlety of any kind is out of place."
Each week I’ll recommend a selection of music while you work. My first suggestion is the work of 16th century songwriter John Dowland. Dowland has a reputation for being rather melancholy, a Morrissey with a lute, but his music remains extremely popular today with recordings by major artists including Alfred Deller, Emma Kirkby and most recently the pop star Sting.
Sting’s new album of Dowland songs, Songs From The Labyrinth, has just been released on Deutsche Grammophon. It’s a marvellous recording and I’d heartily recommend it, especially if you’ve never listened to early music before. His performance of Can She Excuse My Wrongs is particularly good. Before Sunday you can hear an interesting interview and concert he gave at St Luke's in London last week with lute player Edin Karamazov broadcast by the BBC or you can go to DG’s site for some nice clips via their e-player.