British Music Criticism and Anti-intellectualism

George Bernard Shaw, who wrote about the British musical scene throughout his life.

British Music Criticism and Anti-intellectualism

Mark Fitzgerald reviews a new book edited by Jeremy Dibble and Julian Horton that examines musical criticism in Britain from 1850 to 1950 – including discussions of George Bernard Shaw, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Rosa Newmarch and Edward Dent.

Of all the various aspects of the music business, musical criticism and its offshoot musicology are the most ephemeral. Most such writing is firmly bound to its era and fails to transcend the passing of time, changes in fashion and, as far as its engagement with compositional trends is concerned, the ways in which the shockingly new soon becomes the traditional past. Even the strongest work cannot help but be of secondary interest in comparison with the music itself – as one of the subjects of this book, critic Cecil Grey noted, ‘I am inclined to believe that all the musical criticism in the world is not worth one bar of good music.’ However, such writing can provide insight into the cultural context within which musicians and composers worked or that they rebelled against. At its best it can shed new light on music and by times one encounters ideas which have re-emerged as ‘new’ concepts in more recent times.

This volume focusses on a variety of writers from the period 1850 to 1950 with many of the chapters providing a general survey of the subjects’ output and views. Some of the chapters focus more specifically on one aspect of their chosen subject though few of them deal in any specific way with actual music. While some chapters deal with major figures, inevitably with such a subject there is occasionally a sense of well intentioned rummaging in the footnotes of British musical history. What is striking at first glance is that the book deals almost exclusively with male figures. Only a section of Philip Ross Bullock’s chapter on the reception of Russian and Eastern European music in Britain discusses the role of women, with five pages primarily devoted to the work of Rosa Newmarch. Bullock describes how women, excluded from the classical training of the public school and older universities, were able to study modern languages including Russian, and on the basis of the examples given in this essay they were less parochial and more cosmopolitan than their male colleagues. Whatever the limitations of Newmarch’s work, it is more sophisticated than the racist posturing of English composer Hubert Parry who believed: ‘The qualities of races but little advanced from primitive temperamental conditions are even more conscious in the Russian music’, the ‘barbaric’ colour and excitement of the music being ‘natural to the less developed races.’ 

Indeed the ways in which the contribution of women to the shaping of public opinion can be airbrushed out of history is actually demonstrated within this volume: Bullock concludes his survey noting that while Newmarch’s attempts to bring Janáček’s music to the attention of the wider British public did not succeed, she was ‘more successful in promoting the reputation of her close friend Jean Sibelius, who visited Britain on five occasions between 1905 and 1921, and whose symphonies and orchestral works came to dominate concert programmes by the 1930s.’ Two chapters later Séamas de Barra, discussing Cecil Gray’s monograph Sibelius, notes that ‘few contemporary critics shared Gray’s understanding of Sibelius’s importance as a symphonist’ and seems to accept the view that ‘the increasingly sympathetic, intelligent and informed reception of Sibelius’s work throughout the 1930s’ was due entirely to Gray’s book. One suspects that acknowledgement of Newmarch’s work would alter this conclusion.

Rosa Newmarch (1857–1940) –  ‘…the contribution of women to the shaping of public opinion can be airbrushed out of history…’

The ambiguous title of the volume British Musical Criticism and Intellectual Thought could refer to the ways in which some chapters link the work of their chosen subject to wider philosophical or political debates or could be seen as an attempt to draw a distinction between criticism and intellectual thought. In reality the best musical criticism is intellectual in scope and approach, while, as several of the contributions to this volume suggest, the book might well be entitled Musical Criticism and Anti-intellectual Thought.

The editors’ introduction refers briefly to the Brexit referendum and it is probably impossible not to be reminded of Brexit by the underlying defensiveness regarding British composition which surfaces at a number of points and by the writing of many of the subjects of the volume as they fulminate against degenerative and disruptive influences from Europe and laud what are declared to be fundamentally British values. While all criticism and musicological work is rooted in the subjective beliefs of the writer, many of the subjects of this volume prefer to condemn what they dislike on the basis of some supposed natural law, quasi-scientific theory or fundamental aspect of ‘national character’. The reader is indirectly presented with the history of a number of recurring tropes in British writing on music; it is amusing for example to see Schoenberg condemned by Delius because ‘he writes after a system’ in 1912, long before he had invented the serial techniques which were later to be condemned in the same terms by many British writers. The decision to stop at 1950 gives the volume a strong tone of conservatism, not just because there is no discussion of writing on popular music, a field of composition in which Britain was to have far greater international influence. Sarah Collins’ dissection in the book of ‘self-congratulatory British anti-intellectualism’ and brief mention of Peter Maxwell Davies’ demolition of Ernest Gold’s arguments in a 1956 article hints at what the volume might have contained had it gone beyond 1950.

Protect the vulnerable English public
Faced with a range of work that can seem hopelessly dated, Peter Horton’s opening chapter succeeds in giving a useful and interesting overview of the pugnacious, opinionated and conservative world of Victorian musical criticism. It illustrates the critics’ touching belief that they needed to protect the vulnerable English public from the dangers of foreign music and modern sounds, though today’s reader might be momentarily surprised to find Robert Schumann bracketed along with Wagner as a dangerous reprobate. While it is easy to dismiss the critical preference for composers Meyerbeer, Gounod and Sterndale Bennett, what is more interesting is the way in which critical opinion lags considerably behind public approval. Critics might fulminate against the new music of Wagner or the immorality of La Traviata but audiences cheerfully ignored the warnings; then as now musicologists and critics tended to overestimate their importance. Horton’s article also highlights the problems of drawing conclusions from the critical work of people with varied musical ability; one of Wagner’s London concerts was denounced by one critic for his inability to make the orchestra play quietly while another critic at the same concert hailed Wagner’s ability to obtain ‘what is somewhat rare in England, a subdued instrumental accompaniment.’

By contrast with many of the chapters which tend to view their subject sympathetically, Harry White in his chapter attacks what he sees as the ‘malign influence’ of Shaw’s incisively acerbic polemics in favour of Wagner and against Brahms. Taken in isolation, Shaw’s criticism certainly can seem crude, but in the context of the opening chapter one can see that he was merely writing in a style which was typical of the Victorian critic in tone, if not in musical taste. However, even when one disagrees with his conclusions, he has the merit of being considerably wittier than most critics such as when he describes the Brahms Requiem as ‘patiently borne only by the corpse’. By focussing exclusively on Shaw’s evaluation of composers White is able to dismiss English music writer Edward Dent’s opinion that Shaw contributed to the improvement in England’s musical scene in favour of his own sense that he did ‘more harm than good’. White suggests that Shaw’s criticism is psychologically linked to his own development as a playwright and sees in Shaw’s dismissal of Parry and Stanford the insecurities of a man who has yet to successfully carve out a creative niche of his own. As always White’s work is constructed at a distance from the music itself and thus White finds himself describing Shaw’s championing of Elgar as ‘the most perplexing aspect of Shaw’s criticism’ when compared with his treatment of Stanford and Parry. Of course five minutes of listening to Gerontius or the Second Symphony reveals the gulf between Elgar’s work and that of his predecessors and highlights precisely why such music would appeal to Shaw. White’s declaration that Shaw’s assessment is superseded by ‘the decisive reassessment of Stanford and Parry’ by volume editor Jeremy Dibble sidesteps the fact that in the wider European context these are minor, regional talents.

George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) – ‘…even when one disagrees with his conclusions, he has the merit of being considerably wittier than most critics…’

The riddle of modern music
Bennett Zon’s essay introduces Herbert Spencer’s work and traces how it was taken up by figures such as John Stainer and Parry. Spencer’s mix of the concept of progress in music history, crude ideas derived from evolutionary theory and pseudo-theories of racial superiority recur through several of the ensuing essays, as does his belief that while some play of intellect was necessary as part of the compositional process, ‘it is apt to interfere unduly.’ Beyond the section on Newmarch, Bullock’s chapter highlights how irrational racial theories, coupled in the case of Tchaikovsky with homophobic pseudo-psychologising, have fatally marred much British writing on Russian music. He also traces how Dvořák became acceptable in England following his positive reception in Vienna, though Parry still viewed the Czechs as ‘a race more primitive and unsophisticated than those among whom Art had attained to its greatest and noblest manifestations’, among whom he presumably counted himself.

Chapters by Jeremy Dibble on Ernest Walker, Paul Watt on Ernest Newman, Patrick Zuk on Hans Keller and Karen Arrandale on Edward Dent all give concise biographical overviews of their subjects. Ernest Walker’s History of Music in England (1907) broke new ground particularly in its exploration of early music. He clearly entertained a somewhat romantic idea of the composer and deplored Handel’s pandering to the public as opposed to Bach’s supposedly more independent pure-minded pursuit of artistic goals. However, he opposed the chauvinistic approach of those who wished to censor German music during the First World War. Critic Ernest Newman’s 1895 study of Gluck examined the music in relation to both the composer’s life and the wider intellectual milieu of Gluck’s time in an attempt to raise musical criticism ‘almost to the rank of science’ but he warned against one person attempting to write a complete history of music as no one person could ‘have the same imaginative insight into all the varieties of the musical mind’. Zuk’s essay rigorously critiques the pseudo-psychologising that underpins much of Hans Keller’s writing but having effectively demolished much of Keller’s writing Zuk surprisingly concludes that he is ‘very much worth reading’, though this seems mainly to be on the basis of Keller’s inability to engage with the post-war avant-garde.

Edward Dent comes across as a more interesting figure. He believed in the importance of gaining understanding of all music and not just that which corresponded to his personal taste, while Karen Arrandale notes that he never used his position ‘to blot the chances of a young composer.’ Uninterested in what he described as work of ‘the lists of trumpeters at the court of Charles VII’ ilk, he believed that the task of musicologists was to ‘trace the development of the art as a living force.’ The influence of his experience as performer and as producer of operas can be detected in statements such as: ‘No music is new to us more than once. It may be wondered whether those who give up the riddle of modern music in despair have in reality a much more intelligent appreciation of the classics. The difficulty in the case of most of the classics is to warm them into real life, to put ourselves back into a period when they too were new and disturbing.’ He also warned against ‘blind reverence for traditions’ advising that one should subject one’s methods ‘to constant criticism and satire.’ Coupled with the sheer range of his activities – from author of a book on Alessandro Scarlatti to founder of the ISCM – one is left curious to read more.

Edward Dent (1876–1957) – ‘believed that the task of musicologists was to “trace the development of the art as a living force.”’

Julian Horton’s study of Tovey’s writings on Schumann and Bruckner seems like an essay from a different volume as it is the only essay for which an understanding of analytical technicalities is necessary. Horton deftly deconstructs Tovey’s arguments regarding Bruckner’s structures, demonstrating the problematic editions he used and linking Tovey’s understanding of both composers to his privileging of a Brahmsian idea of the symphony over forms derived more closely from Schubert. While the final section may overstate Tovey’s influence today, his suggestion that Tovey’s conclusions ‘sometimes tell us more about the critic’s context than the music’s substance’ could serve as an epigraph for the volume as a whole.

Ideas unchanged
Four chapters dealing with the writings of composers demonstrate how their views are shaped by their personal artistic struggles and are frequently underpinned by pleading for their own composition. Aidan Thomson’s survey of Vaughan Williams’ writings gives a clear overview of the early influences that helped shape his ideas, which remained remarkably unchanged throughout his life. While these include the expected evolutionary ideas, Thomson is quick to point out the problems such beliefs must have caused a man who had no interest in contemporary musical developments. Some of his views seem more modern; the belief that there was no necessary connection between the agency of the composer and the perception of the listener presumably stemmed from his practical experience as both composer and performer. Where Thomson’s account stands out is the deft manner in which he is able to draw connections between the theories and the music, in particular in his thought provoking conclusions regarding the use of Beethovenian models in Vaughan Williams’ Fourth Symphony.

Christopher Mark and Jonathan Clinch survey the more minor figures Constant Lambert and Herbert Howells while Séamas de Barra focusses on Bernard von Dieren, Peter Warlock and Cecil Gray. de Barra demonstrates the interconnections between his three subjects but the eccentricity of some of their views and lauding of minor figures (such as von Dieren) over more important ones suggest a body of work of limited interest, the most interesting elements of which are Warlock’s diverse efforts on behalf of early music, Bartok and Delius. Mark pulls no punches in describing some of Lambert’s pronouncements as ‘thought-provoking for a few seconds, in a theatrical, political-debating kind of way’ and he is quick to point out the technical errors which underpin these poses. However, he seems overly generous in describing the work as occasionally seeming ‘perilously close to racism’. Reading sentences such as ‘the fact that at least ninety per cent of jazz tunes are written by Jews undoubtedly goes far to account for the curiously sagging quality – so typical of Jewish art – the almost masochistic melancholy of the average foxtrot’ or claims that imported European harmony is necessary as ‘the negro’ lacks ‘any innate harmonic sense’ leaves one wondering how much closer Lambert needs to get to become racist. Overall one is left with a strong sense that Lambert’s views on contemporary music, laced with constant attacks on Stravinsky and Diaghilev, are motivated primarily by his own failure as a ballet composer.

Clinch’s title ‘The Challenge to Goodwill: Herbert Howells, Alban Berg and “The Modern Problem”’ might lead one to imagine a focus on Howells’ engagement with Berg’s music, however Berg only gets a brief mention towards the close of an overview of Howells’ radio talks. Placing Howells’ work in a conservative tradition running from Eliot to Scruton, Clinch is defensive regarding Howells’ music and seems to accept at face value the way he positions himself as an ordinary listener, while at one point he states that Howells’ writing ‘constantly reinforces his own down-to-earth, good honest, “democratic” British position.’ Overall the essay would benefit from a sharper critical engagement with its subject.

Ralph Vaughan Williams (1872–1958) – ‘the early influences that helped shape his ideas … remained remarkably unchanged throughout his life.’

Anti-intellectual trends
In some ways Sarah Collins’ essay is the most ambitious, ranging across history to construct a narrative of anti-intellectual trends in British writing from the nineteenth century to the campaigning of the Brexiteers. The essay highlights the fictional constructs of ‘character’ that underpin much of this strain of thought and illuminates its direct contradictions. Just as it was possible to embrace a German royal family as innately British, one could condemn artists for imitating the ‘slavish imitation of Austro-German musical models (following the supposed ‘cleverness’ of Strauss, or the overly ‘cerebral’ Schoenberg)’ while happily writing slavish imitations of Mendelssohn or Brahms. Whereas some contributors are keen to inflate the significance of various British composers, Collins coolly states ‘Anti-intellectualism allowed British critics to cast their native composers as internationally competitive for the very reason that they were not competing according to the same criteria as their Continental counterparts.’ Collins concludes with a provocative analysis of debates regarding music institutes and their ‘lucrative trade of examining’, the ‘obsession with certificates and honours’ and whether music education was fulfilling any artistic or wider educational remit, all of which seems just as relevant today. 

The editors seem to have taken a relatively light-touch approach to the volume and the introduction is a relatively straightforward précis of the chapters rather than a more heavyweight contextual framework. By times one wishes for a bit more intervention; with a lengthy dissection of Dent and the so-called ‘Elgar Hetz’ (a storm in an Edwardian teacup) in Collins’ essay it is a pity the editors did not suggest to Arrandale that she omit this episode from her chapter in favour of detail about some of Dent’s more important activities. Several of the chapters will be primarily of interest to scholars who wish to gain a quick overview of a particular figure’s work but chapters by Collins, Bullock, (Julian) Horton and Thomson deserve a wider audience. Despite the unevenness of the various subjects’ work one can’t help but contrast its forthrightness with many contemporary writers who as Christopher Mark puts it ‘In thrall to postmodernism […] have largely refrained from evaluating compositions and performances […] preferring to devote their attention to hermeneutics instead.’ No one would advocate a return to the vituperative Victorian mode of criticism – we see enough of that in anonymous online commentary – but one comes away from the volume feeling that there is a place for more of what Winton Dean found in Dent’s work: ‘[views] expressed in a vivid and challenging form that forced his readers to reconsider their basic assumptions.’ 

British Musical Criticism and Intellectual Thought 1850–1950, edited by Jeremy Dibble and Julian Horton, is published by Boydell and Brewer. Visit

Published on 29 August 2018

Mark Fitzgerald is a Senior Lecturer at TU Dublin Conservatoire.

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