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THE ENGLISH MUSICAL RENAISSANCE AND THE PRESS 1850-1914: WATCHMEN OF MUSIC, by Meirion Hughes, Ashgate 2002: xi, 248pp ISBN 0-7456-0588-4 £49.50 hardback

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Meirion Hughes, a freelance historian, is especially interested in the relationship of music and politics, particularly as it applied during the evolution of the late-nineteenth century English Musical Renaissance.

The present volume - which appears as something of an Appendix to his earlier The English Musical Renaissance 1840-1940 - Constructing a National Music (Manchester University Press, Second Edition 2001), written in collaboration with historian Robert Stradling - aims to explore that relationship as it existed in England between 1850 and the outbreak of the First World War, in the particular sphere of national-newspaper and journalistic music criticism.

In the period under discussion there were only two ways for people interested in new music to experience it: either directly, through attending first performances (second or subsequent performances were, then, as now, rare), or indirectly, through reading critical notices of those performances. (The gramophone played little part in the dissemination of new, serious music until after the Great War; and radio broadcasting did not start until late-1922.) Consequently the power of music criticism and journalism in the Victorian and Edwardian periods was enormous, and vital to the reception-history of new music in that period. Indeed the term ‘Renaissance’ was first used, in September 1882, by the eminent music journalist Joseph Bennett, chief critic of the Daily Telegraph. As Meirion Hughes says:

...critics and criticism had come a long way in the Victorian age. As the second half of the nineteenth century unfolded, critics were increasingly seen as cultural curators and high priests. The critic in turn elevated art to the status of a religion, making the artist into the new god of an increasingly sceptical age. The educated classes experienced culture through the prism of criticism. In this respect, the watchmen of music were just as important as composers and performers. In a very real sense they were the arbitrators of the future of English music.

This book is in two parts, deriving its structure from a quotation of John A. Fuller Maitland, formidable writer on music, editor, and chief critic at The Times for two decades at the turn of the twentieth century:

Those whose duty it is to stand like watchmen on the walls of music, have special advantages for noting the pace and manner of approach in those who would fain to enter the citadel.

Part One: Watchmen and Watchtowers, surveys the influence of eighteen watchmen of their day on the making and breaking of contemporary musical reputations, through their written judgements and pronouncements in four leading national newspapers and periodicals: The Times, The Daily Telegraph, the Athenaeum (‘the most eminent literary-cultural journal’) and the Musical Times. In most cases, the basis for praising or damning a composer or new work depended on the critic’s alignment along the wider front of European musical debate: if he were of a classically German, Schumann/Brahms persuasion, English versions of that idiom, however watered-down, were favoured; and creative endeavours of the Liszt/Wagner/French and Russian camp were duly disdained.

A typical example is Maitland himself. Attracted as a student to the German ‘classical’ tradition, he rejected to the end of his career Wagner’s vision of the ‘music of the future’. Thus he championed the Parry/Stanford/London-musical-academies axis as the foundation on which the new Renaissance was being built, and in the process welcomed warmly in his pages, alongside Parry and Stanford, such composers as Mackenzie, Walford Davies, Coleridge-Taylor, Somervell, German and Vaughan Williams. On the other hand, men like Sullivan, Cowen, Elgar, Delius, Bantock and Boughton were rejected as basically ‘un-English’ (for the latter read variously ‘frivolous, Jewish, Catholic, Wagnerian, or personally immoral’). Maitland also elevated Bach at the expense of his country’s beloved Handel, whom he denigrated as a ‘musical dead-end, a squalid composer businessman wedded to a decadent age’.

Part Two, The Watched, explores the relationship between the press and three important English composers identified by the authors’ research as of particular interest to the watchmen: Arthur Sullivan, Hubert Parry and Edward Elgar. It is fascinating and often amusingly ironic, to read here in the final decade of the nineteenth century, of the critical denigration of Arthur Sullivan, despite his vast public popularity, for apparently abandoning the cause of ‘serious’ music in favour of theatrical and financial success, and the elevation of Hubert Parry as the ‘saviour’ of English music: each of course to be eclipsed by the triumph of Edward Elgar in the first decade of the Edwardian era. One example will suffice:

Parry apparently ‘never learned to get on with the watchmen and rarely solicited their support or good offices’. He was nevertheless gradually embraced by them, once he had seemed to reject his earlier Wagnerian tendencies, as the quintessentially ‘English’ composer of his day, a key representative of the nation’s musical life. Joseph Bennett’s first usage of the term ‘Renaissance’, mentioned earlier, appeared in his review of the premiere of Parry’s Symphony No.1 in G, which was generally welcomed at the time as a watershed in English music (though even then, at least one critic, in the Morning Post, wished the symphony had been ‘less German, more English’). Later, however, when Parry’s fortunes had waned in the light of Edward Elgar’s largely self-made triumph - the latter was a skilled manipulator of the watchmen, and notably used the press in the advancement of his career, as these pages show it became necessary to reinvent the older composer, to ‘rediscover’ his earlier enthusiasms as the Wagner/Strauss revolution took hold in the land:

The advent of Elgar therefore was the essential element in the rediscovery of Parry’s Prometheus. The Worcester composer and the RCM professors had failed to develop a strong and enduring relationship. Elgar was a self-made musician whose career had developed outside the ambit of the music academies and universities. With his sensational successes at home and abroad during 1898-1904, he had propelled himself to the leadership of the national music owing no debt or allegiance to the Grove-Parry Renaissance. Although relations between the Worcester composer and the South Kensington professors remained cordial enough for a while, in 1904 Elgar and Stanford quarrelled and a complete breach occurred between them. Thereafter, Elgar would have little to do with Parry’s RCM. By 1906-07, Elgar was widely understood to be at work on a symphony. Where then might that leave the achievements of the Grove-Parry branch of the Renaissance? Might the successes of the RCM professors in the 1880s and 1890s become mere footnotes to the ‘true’ Elgarian Renaissance? A birthday’ had to be found for the Musical Renaissance remote enough from the earliest Elgar triumphs. It had to be a work by Parry, the ‘English’ master, but which one? ... Prometheus therefore had to be unbound so that the notion of Parry as founder and ‘master’ of the Renaissance could be promoted. And strenuously promoted it was up to, and far beyond, the composer’s death. (Hughes pp158-59)

Thus was Parry’s Scenes from Shelley’s ‘Prometheus Unbound’, a critical and public flop from the day of its first performance in 1880, resuscitated in the early years of the new century by both Fuller Maitland and Ernest Walker, as heralding the ‘birthday’ of the English Musical Renaissance. Of such stuff, apparently, are musical reputations made and unmade.

John Talbot

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