Magazine article Musical Times

Clubbing Together

Magazine article Musical Times

Clubbing Together

Article excerpt

Clubbing together Concert life in eighteenth-century Britain Edited by Susan Wollenberg & Simon McVeigh Ashgate (Aldershot, 2004); xvi, 299pp; £52.50. ISBN 0 7546 3868 5.

Chearfulness and Goodhumour, Friendship and a Love of Harmony: this description of the Oxford Catch Club sums up the aspirations of countless music societies throughout Britain. The rise of private music clubs can be reckoned among the many benefits the Enlightenment brought to 18th-century Britain. At every level of society these assemblies provided an excuse to indulge in the taste for sociability urged as a duty by Enlightenment prophets. It is perhaps not by accident that 'Love of Harmony came last in the 'desirable Effects', though the clubs were, of course, also an outlet for the widespread passion to take part in musical performance -and to listen, though it is only in the second half of the century that it became the norm for listeners to outnumber practitioners. Private clubs also afforded the opportunity to gratify a contemporary obsession with the formation of rules to define membership, govern attendance and control behaviour.

Public concerts met different Enlightenment criteria: audiences displayed their belief in the perfectibility of man in their relish for virtuosity, especially if allied to some oddity like extreme youth. They were committed internationalists: despite pride in local and national cultural institutions, they were ready to welcome foreigners - except in times of war, when the career penalties for being of the wrong nationality or religion could be severe. In the context of the Enlightenment rediscovery of the classics, music lovers saw themselves in a new relationship with the past, showing an unprecedented appreciation of the music of the preceding generation, which they called 'ancient'. At the same time they were eager to have access to new styles and genres. And their consumption of music was pursued with an extraordinary energy, where a concert might begin at six or seven o'clock in the morning or a society meeting last more than five hours at the other end of the day .

Concert life in eighteenth-century Britain originated in a symposium of the same title. The topics focus on a variety of particular instances, some of them very minor indeed. The editors' attachment to the smaller picture creates problems - the records of provincial music societies do not make the most gripping narrative, though matters are helped considerably by the presence of a local feud as in Roz Southey's lively account of the rivalry between Durham and Newcastle. And sadly the numbers of string quartet performances in London in the last quarter of the century are so few as to make the deduction of trends a hazardous exercise, though having said that, the mouth-watering extracts in Meredith McFarlane & Simon McVeigh's chapter are for me one of the highlights of the book, and I long to hear a performance of some Pieltain quartets in 21st-century Britain. Some of the contributions must have made heavy going as read papers, being dependent on lists, graphs and tables. (A point for editors: there must surely be a maximum distance between columns in a table beyond which legibility is sorely tested: I defy anyone to read table 6.1, p-95, without employing a ruler.) The essays that have translated most successfully into book chapters are those that take a wider perspective.

For all the enthusiasm with which it was cultivated, concert-going had surprisingly little impact on the buildings of our towns and cities before the 19th century. …

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