While biographical studies of British composers’ experiences in the Second World War abound, little attention has been paid to how the demands of ‘total’ war impacted on music’s ideological status. This article sheds new light on how composers and critics negotiated the problematic relationship between art music and politics in this period. John Ireland’s Epic March – a BBC commission that caused the composer considerable anxiety – provides a case study. Drawing first on the correspondence charting the lengthy genesis of the work, and then on the work’s critical reception, I consider how Ireland and his audiences sought to reconcile the conflicting political and aesthetic demands of this commission. With its conventional musical style, Epic March offers an example of a ‘middlebrow’ attempt to bridge the gap between art and politics.