Modernism/modernity 10.2 (2003) 393-394
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Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876-1953. Jeffrey Richards. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001. Pp. x + 534. $74.95 (cloth); £17.99 (paper).
In Imperialism and Music, Jeffrey Richards presents a fascinating account of this truly cross-disciplinary subject. He approaches it as a cultural historian, interpreting the force and significance of a wide range of music in shaping and reflecting the attitudes of different strata of British society. It is one of the achievements of this richly suggestive account that Richards conveys a vital engagement with the music and artistic personalities he covers, something which imbues the text with a sense of energy despite the extensive listing of material. The period covered runs from the 1876 Royal Titles Act (creating Queen Victoria Empress of India), to the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II in 1953, the last to be also an imperial occasion. Richards challenges a variety of established views. He argues that the enthusiastic reception of music carrying imperial sentiment among the mass of the general populace shows that there was a wider interest in the notion of Empire among the population than has been generally assumed. He suggests that the idea of Empire was a more potent and direct inspiration for the music of Sullivan and Elgar than is often allowed. His fresh examination of Victorian hymn texts, a genre he characterizes as "a leading form of popular verse" (369) shows that they represent a strikingly powerful and ubiquitous vehicle of Empire through their entwining of Christian symbolism and imperial metaphors. Finally, Richards challenges current perceptions as to the extent of the strength of anti-militarist and anti-imperial feeling after the First World War.
Professor Richards sets before the reader an invigorating congeries covering the musical evocation of empire, drawing out selected ceremonial occasions, musical genres and artists for closer investigation. What he demonstrates is the extent to which there is clear interdependence and continual cross-fertilization between music and the ritualistic choreographing of imperial occasions, something encouraged by the networks of those involved. And in building his case, he emphasizes the importance of music's role in securing strong "hearts and minds" involvement across British society in attitudes to Empire. He discusses the music heard in pageants and ceremonies (coronations, jubilees, tattoos) and describes the musical commitment to Empire evidenced in works by Sullivan and Elgar. But, and perhaps more importantly, Richards suggests something of the plethora of unremembered composers (and their poets) who celebrated Empire through hymns, songs and marches. From another perspective, he also highlights performers whose songs seemed to personify sentiments held in common across the breadth of the Empire—the remarkable female trio of Albani, Melba and Butt, and the "troubadour of Empire," Peter Dawson. Given the wealth of empirical evidence he brings to his interpretations, Richards is over cautious in his presentation of some of the aesthetic arguments regarding "programme" and "absolute" music. For what he makes clear from a wealth of judicious quotations, is a belief (shared by composers, commentators and audience alike) in the added dimension wrought by the carefully tailored musical experience. There is an arresting quality about the remark of a female Lancashire factory worker in her thirties to a member of Mass-Observation [End Page 393] reporting on the broadcast of the 1937 Coronation, "[t]his music is most stimulating. It upsets and stirs me but I like it" (115).
The start date, 1876, coincides with the English Musical Renaissance. Unfortunately, in following the traditional, composer-centred view, Richards downplays the real engine of the English Musical Renaissance, which was the drive by George Grove and others to professionalize music in Britain, something that involved a sea-change in concert life and musical taste, performance activity (both professional and amateur) as well as training and education. In all this welter of activity, composition, viewed specifically in terms of the production of exemplary works comparable artistically to those of the Austro-German canon, played perhaps the tiniest part. But on the wave of this upsurge of a new public enthusiasm for music...