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Reviewed by:
  • Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876–1953
  • John Springhall
Imperialism and Music: Britain 1876–1953. By Jeffrey Richards. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2001.

This heavyweight (534 pages) contribution to the influential Studies in Imperialism series for many years edited by John MacKenzie is written by an academic otherwise known as a productive and well-informed historian of the British cinema and various aspects of British popular culture. The volume under review, however, highlights Jeffrey Richards’ standing as a musicologist for it presents a unique and encyclopaedic survey of a wide range of musical forms that gave expression both to British national identity and its extension overseas through an ethos of imperialism. During the period covered, the music of Empire, the author claims, was everywhere in Britain. It could be heard in music halls, concert halls, churches and cinemas; at coronations, jubilees, pageants, exhibitions and tattoos; in the park, at the seaside, on the wireless and gramophone (record player).

Overall, this book is part of the historical trend to contextualize music and in particular to relate it to the ideological cluster that represented British imperialism in its heyday: hero-worship, Protestant Christianity, monarchy, Empire, chivalry, and the romance of war. Music was supposedly employed to dramatize, illustrate and reinforce these cultural images. It was also used, the author claims, to emphasize the British sense of ‘multiple identity’ by stressing the contributions of England, Scotland, Wales, Ireland and the Dominions to the inclusiveness that together made up the imperial project. Those who believe that music is autonomous (‘pure form’) rather than representational (‘about something’) will not find this thoroughly comprehensive but at times inexorable study sympathetic.

Imperialism and Music opens with an account of the imperial music of outstanding composers Sir Edward Elgar and Sir Arthur Sullivan and the arrival of an imperial musical idiom. Interestingly, Sullivan’s weakest operatta with librettist Sir William S. Gilbert, Utopia Limited (1893), satirises imperial Anglicization. Next follows a sequence of chapters that incessantly catalogues the patriotic music composed for or utilized by official occasions: coronations, jubilees, exhibitions, tattoos, Armstice Days, Remembrance Sundays and Empire Days. Then the untiring author examines the imperial content of a wide range of musical forms: opera, operatta, ballet, films, music hall songs, ballads, hymns and marches. The closing chapters discuss several practitioners of imperial music: Sir Henry Coward who with his Sheffield choir embarked on a musical tour of the dominions in 1911; the Empire divas Emma Albani, Nellie Melba and Clara Butt; and the popular Australian baritone Peter Dawson. On the basis of the cumulative empirical evidence presented here, Jeffrey Richards is convinced that he has challenged a range of received views: the theory that neither Sullivan nor Elgar was inspired by the Empire; the assumption that the masses were uninterested in the Empire; the idea that Victorian hymns were not imperialistic; the belief that Britain after the First World War was anti-militarist and anti-imperial.

There is space here to consider only the second challenge to ‘received’ opinion. For there is a general supposition not only in this particular study but in the MacKenzie series in general that imperialism was, for most of the period covered, a popular ideology that embraced the British working classes as much as the middle and upper classes. Hence the author assumes that the expression of nineteenth-century patriotism in music hall songs or popular ballads that appealed to and were sung by the working classes, ‘embraced not just Britain but the Empire’ (40). The rather concise section on popular jingoism and the halls evades the issue of whether or not the working classes could have been genuinely patriotic (a vague belief in British racial superiority) while remaining apathetic towards imperial enthusiasms, such as the Jameson Raid or Mafeking Night, that aroused the fervour of the lower-middle and middle-classes. There is ample evidence that -isms, political ideologies like imperialism and socialism, exercised little appeal to the mass of the British population who, then as now, were more interested in the important everyday business of feeding, warming and clothing themselves and their families.

The chapters that deal with music in popular culture — operatta, film music, popular ballads and the imperial...

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