Magazine article Gramophone

Amanda Vickery: The Historian of the 18th-Century on the Poignancy of Butterworth, and Recreating Handel's Messiah at the Foundling Hospital

Magazine article Gramophone

Amanda Vickery: The Historian of the 18th-Century on the Poignancy of Butterworth, and Recreating Handel's Messiah at the Foundling Hospital

Article excerpt

Because my family were chapel--my father's side Welsh Baptist, my mother's side Methodist--I was very used to Welsh music and church music, so hymns were the most dominant thing that I grew up with. But the other classical music I remember hearing a lot, on the radio, was Kathleen Ferrier. Because I grew up in Lancashire, as a girl from Rochdale, Ferrier's greatest hits were always thought to be appropriate listening.

I sang in choirs--I was a mezzo-soprano--when I was growing up, and one of my most beloved pieces of music was Bach's Sheep may safely graze. Bach is far and away my favourite composer. I am interested in the fact that the music comes out of a Protestant context, and it has a sense of discipline about it, and it's one of the few things that I can play when I'm working and writing. And I do think it lowers the blood pressure.

I really love English pastoral music, and I particularly like George Butterworth's The Banks of Green Willow--I enjoy reworkings of folk songs. Butterworth died on the Somme, and this piece is moving as a testament of a generation and its deep feeling for landscape. That Butterworth met his end in the first truly industrialised war in history is very poignant.

Particularly in the early 18th century, music cannot be separated from the social and cultural aesthetic. The interest in Classical harmony is of a piece with ideas of what architecture should look like. If you want your students to understand what a new regime is all about and what raw power is, you play a bit of Zadok the Priest. To give you another example, the female soprano really emerges in the 18th century, usually Italian. But while a lot of the arias are about them showing off their ability to embroider on a theme, in all the commentary on them it's never seen as a kind of genius, or as composing, it's always seen as a natural expression of their prettiness.

I'm very interested in the difference between the cultures of women and men. There were all sorts of instruments that women couldn't play in the 18th century - they weren't supposed to play anything that involved separating their knees. So really the most decorous was always the harpsichord, and then the harp became popularised. It was about showing off the prettiness of the hands, and was key in displays in the drawing room, which were supposed to be private but were an exercise in the marriage market nevertheless. I've been amazed at how many young men's diaries have some reference to playing the violin or the flute. It was about being able to be a part of 'the company'--it's that idea of domestic harmony: that wasn't a dead metaphor, you were supposed to be able to go and get involved and fit yourself in to the company. …

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