Writing (British) Concert History: The Blessing and Curse of Ephemera

By Bashford, Christina | Notes, March 2008 | Go to article overview

Writing (British) Concert History: The Blessing and Curse of Ephemera


Bashford, Christina, Notes


It has probably not escaped librarians' notice that since the mid-1990s there has been an upsurge in intellectual interest in the history of musical life in Britain from the eighteenth century onwards. This has produced a range of journal articles, books of essays, monographs, databases, and Web sites on this once highly marginalized topic. Ashgate Publishing has a series, Music in Nineteenth-Century Britain, edited by Bennett Zon; Boydell & Brewer has recently launched another, Music in Britain, 1600-1900, edited by Rachel Cowgill and Peter Holman; and the North American British Music Studies Association (NABMSA) (1) publishes a newsletter, hosts an electronic mailing list (for members only), and holds biennial conferences, and maintains an online bibliography of recent publications--to name only a few of the more visible examples. Within this broad area, concert history has become one of the more popular fields of investigation, offering opportunities to combine studies of the social, cultural, and economic structures of British musical life with the concerns of performance and reception history in their broadest senses. Among the several scholars who have contributed to this field are Jenny Burchell, Rachel Cowgill, Cyril Ehrlich, Christopher Fifield, Leanne Langley, Meredith McFarlane, Alyson McLamore, Simon McVeigh, Michael Musgrave, Roz Southey, and David Wright. (2) Collectively they have embraced many areas of inquiry, mostly concerned with art music and high culture, and ranging from the development of repertoire and patterns of taste to socioeconomic aspects of concert life, and from the functions and meanings that concerts had in people's lives to the development of ideologies about music and codes of behavior in the concert hall, some of which remain with us today.

Along with all this has come a solid demonstration of the crucial importance of ephemera--that is, the "detritus" left after the performance event--as source material for serious concert history. Its artifacts comprise not just concert programs, but handbills, posters, tickets, newspaper advertisements and reviews, administrative records, contracts with performers, and so on--any documentation, in fact, that was associated with the business of putting live music before audiences. And the resultant concert history has strikingly demonstrated the value of ephemera, as James B. Coover put it, to illuminate "those people, those events, those organizations," and to vivify the history of music. (3) Admittedly, once upon a time only a few librarians and archivists bothered preserving such materials; but disdain for ephemera has long been on the wane. By 1991, Coover reckoned that the adage "today's trash, tomorrow's treasure" was being taken on board by "most of us [American librarians]," (4) just as five years earlier he had called for definitions, taxonomies, a national survey of holdings, and systems for bibliographic control. (5) In all this he held the view that British librarians had been ahead of the game in the value they placed on ephemera collections and the groundwork they had laid in this field. (6) Certainly, in the early 1990s much concert ephemera was lying in wait for British musicologists, in such collections as the John Johnson Collection at the Bodleian Library, Oxford, and--notably--the Portraits Collection (now the Centre for Performance History) at the Royal College of Music, London, and some of the first significant publications in the field were produced around this time. Since then, much more material has come to researchers' attention, as the value of concert ephemera to the scholarly community has continued to be demonstrated. Important archives (both public and private) have been purchased and opened up--witness the Royal Philharmonic Society's archive, bought for the nation by the British Library in 2002; or the papers of the musical artists' agency Ibbs and Tillett, now at the Royal College of Music's Centre for Performance History; and the archives of the Wigmore (formerly Bechstein) Hall, London, and the BBC Promenade Concerts, to which scholars have recently gained access. …

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