Going for Green

By Wright, David | Musical Times, Summer 2002 | Go to article overview
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Going for Green


Wright, David, Musical Times


The English musical renaissance 1840-1940: constructing a national music Second edition Merion Hughes & Robert Stradling Music and Society Manchester UP (Manchester, 2001); xxi, 330pp; L47.50 / 15.99; ISBN 0 7190 5829 5/ ISBN 0 7190 5830 9.

DAVID WRIGHT revisits a controversial analysis of a seminal period in English musical history

THE HABITUAL USE of the phrase `English Musical Renaissance' to highlight differences of nature and approach in art music activity between the nineteenth and twentieth centuries gives it a cosy familiarity. Convention has it covering the period from the 1880s to the Second World War, with its focus on the compositional activity of Stanford, Parry, Vaughan Williams and the group of British composers associated or trained by them, many linked with the Royal College of Music. The significance of the change which this view of the Renaissance signals is that from the 1880s British composers no longer had routinely to go abroad (usually to Germany) for their training because of inadequate native provision. But from today's perspective, how useful - or even adequate - is such a composer-centred view as representation of the English Musical Renaissance, particularly in the light of an expanding view of what musicology and music history is about?

Hughes and Stradling (H & S), by profession historians rather than musicologists (and this, they argue helps to account for some of the hostility of the original reception, in 1993, that their work received from the musical press), set a polemical tone that gives this composer-focused approach a new twist. The second edition sees some textual revisions, the reversal of the authors' names on the title page and the addition of a new section which extends its coverage back twenty years from that of the original to take account of Mendelssohn reception in the English press (and so, by implication, taking the arena of the Renaissance further back to 1840). Also added is a postlude in which the authors mount a spirited defence of their position in response to the hostile reception given to the first edition. For as H & S express it:

Eight years on, the authors remain convinced that an English music history that is anchored on the `life and works' paradigm is intellectually exhausted. In this respect, musicology as a discipline has much to do to catch up with other cognate disciplines - most especially literature, film and the fine arts.

In fact, H & S should not have been too surprised by the antagonism they generated as they trundled their tank onto what they saw as the village green of musicology. Preliminary skirmishing (military metaphors abound in the book) took the form of a series of provocative chapter headings ('Foreplay' and `Coda-piece' - homage to Grainger and Warlock - have disappeared from this second edition, but `War, post-war, prewar and more war (1914-40)', and `Being beastly to the Hun' remain), as do some alarmingly dreadful puns (referring to the privileging of the pastoral: `the vocabulary of English music history is so green that the innocent reader might be forgiven for thinking that its subject matter was horticulture rather than High Culture'). And undoubtedly, the continuing pinpricks of H & S's surface manner were in themselves sufficient to prevent several reviewers from perceiving the book's underlying seriousness of purpose. This was to offer a revisionist interpretation that, as some noted despite themselves, made a great deal of sense in accounting for the puzzle of how it was that certain composers and works, once popular or highly considered, could seemingly be airbrushed out of the conventional historical account,

The real business of H & S is to target the notion that music history can be contained, and so set apart, from its wider, non-musical context, and thus to refute the illusion that the generation and reception of music could be felt to be unmediated by social and political orthodoxies as they affect outcomes of its production, dissemination and reception: `Nothing irritated reviewers from the "musicology" camp more than our attempt to assess and interpret the cultural heritage of the Pastoral School from a post-modernist perspective.

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