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Rosemary Golding, Music and Academia in Victorian Britain, Music in 19th—Century Britain Series

Farnham: Ashgate, 2013, 272 p., ISBN: 9781409457510
Gilles Couderc
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Rosemary Golding, Music and Academia in Victorian Britain, Music in 19th-Century Britain Series, Farnham: Ashgate, 2013, 272 p., ISBN: 9781409457510

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Mots-clés :

musique, universités

Keywords :

music, academia
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1‘What shall we do with music and musicians?’ That question, quoted by Rosemary Golding in her Introduction to her searching narrative about the place of music and musicians in Victorian university curricula and society, puzzled British elites during the nineteenth century as the title of Peter Maurice’s 1856 letter to the Chancellor of Oxford University, ‘What shall we do with music?’, clearly indicated. Golding’s Introduction sets out the questions that music, no longer part of university curricula and liberal education, begged in the middle of a century marked by utilitarianism. Was music to be part of an amateur’s achievements, and as such, to be removed from professional musical life, and therefore to remain linked, as more often than not, to the drawing-room and female sensitivity? Should it be considered as an art or a science? Was it a force contributing to the moral and social good of a society, as Reverend Hugh Haweis later in the century attempted to show in his 1871 pamphlet, Music and Morals? What education, training and status should professional musicians acquire? How could music relate to the values of the upper classes and university elites? Should it be part of a university education and entitle its students to degrees and diplomas?

2Golding’s narrative echoes the time’s intense soul-searching resulting from the massive expansion of the ‘music market’, the demand for teachers and performers with the development of choral societies or the piano boom in middle-class homes, which fuelled the demand for a regulated system of accreditation that would lend academic respectability to a profession eager for social status and recognition in a rapidly shifting social context. Music degrees, named B. Mus. and D. Mus., did exist in British universities but brought little of the desired status to their holders as those degrees involved no study of general subjects or of ‘arts requirements’ like languages or mathematics. Nor were music students required to reside in college, hence the impossibility to acquire any of the social and academic status associated with other subjects. Golding focuses on music’s academic identity during the century and on four case studies, the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge and London which were active and central in the development of music as an academic pursuit in the early part of the Victorian Age, and refers to the London conservatoires, music colleges and other universities that awarded musical degrees in the second part of the century. The four main institutions chosen here also embodied different conceptions of what a university should be and of how music should intersect with academia. In the process, Golding traces the roots of modern musicology and sheds light on today’s institutions and musical studies.

3One of the challenges faced by those four universities was to delimit the exact nature of musical studies and the appropriate intellectual approach to them so as to define music as a science, with broad and problematic implications: music was variously considered as one of the ‘liberal arts’, hence as part of a liberal education where learning was for its own sake, and as part of a professional musician’s training. Constructing music as a ‘masculine’ science, fit for university studies, could be obtained through the study of acoustics and the setting up of formal written examinations. The study of music history and aesthetics, as well as the science of fugue and counterpoint, two ‘serious’ genres of compositional practice linked with the sublime, could be taught and examined, and so integrated into the university system. The debates about music and academia took place at a time when the notion of a university education in England was slowly moving away from developing intellectual attributes, character and general knowledge, to providing rigorous academic training so as to contribute to the technological and industrial wealth of the country. The Classics and mathematics were established as the basis of a gentleman’s education. Other subjects like Science, History, English and Modern Languages were only successfully introduced when a canon of textbooks and scholarly methodology were instituted. In the English context, Music had to negotiate both the liberal-professional dichotomy and the strictures of a real academic subject. The Scottish universities, meanwhile, as public institutions dispensing a centralized, professorial teaching, were more subject to public pressure and interest. Practical and scientific subjects were more common in Edinburgh, so music could be introduced as such.

4Music as a genre, and musicians, suffered from the association with female accomplishments, hence its characterization as ‘effeminate’ and the need to make it a ‘serious science’ as universities were then exclusively male institutions. On the one hand, in the early century music flourished with the immense development of choral societies thanks to Joseph Mainzer, John Hullah and John Curwen’s Tonic Sol-fa. It was seen as an agent of self-improvement and social promotion, and was encouraged by the upper classes as the antidote to drink and social unrest, hence the introduction of music classes in elementary school in 1870, and the expansion of music colleges providing professional training in London, like the Royal College of Music founded in 1883. On the other hand, as an academic discipline, music was problematic since professional musicians were clearly divided between those with status and respectability—organists, teachers, chamber musicians—and the others, hence the need for accreditation that would provide recognized professional status as well as social status. Would the new regulative structures, universities and music colleges alike, manage to define an area of ‘cognitive exclusiveness’, a centralized body of knowledge, regulated by a powerful group, leading to clearer definitions of social status?

5As Golding’s study shows, solving the problem of music in academia addressed issues of class, gender, identity and social status. Her analysis opens a window on the powerful social forces that contributed to the identity of the upper classes and on the networks of unresolved social, academic and professional tensions at work in Victorian society. Her conclusion shows that such tensions were never quite resolved and long endured. ‘Cognitive exclusiveness’ proved impossible to fully implement as university degrees often required learning and skills foreign to the work of a composer or a performer. Many college-educated music professionals had mixed feelings about the utility of university music degrees and the dichotomy between music as a profession or as academic pursuit persisted. Many music students were encouraged to read for university degrees that would bring them status, as was the case of composer Ralph Vaughan Williams, even if music’s social status evolved with the increase of music-making by university-going classes. Oxford and Cambridge offering honorary degrees to established, but largely foreign, composers, was a sign that music was slowly accepted as a profession and a serious pursuit.

6Yet the stigmas attached to music as a profession remained. Composition conspicuously remained a ‘masculine area’ while music teaching became a marker for female musicians: who remembers Ethel Smyth or Elizabeth Maconchy today, apart from academics? The old prejudices long endured. The trials of Oscar Wilde, linked in the public’s mind with aestheticism and decadence, as illustrated by Gilbert and Sullivan’s Bunthorne, the ‘fleshly poet’ in their comic opera Patience, did little to improve the image of musicians, considered as ‘effete’ if not ‘effeminate’, since they were particularly sensitive and dealt with emotions. Benjamin Britten long remembered the scathing response, ‘Yes but what else?’ that met his announcing that he meant to be a composer and study as the R. C. M. in 1930. The opposition between conservatoire musical education and university musical education manifested itself in the so-called English Musical Renaissance, with universities often providing backward-looking compositions such as the dreaded ‘English oratorio’, the staple fodder and offering of English choral societies and the bane of G. B. Shaw’s wrath, while the avant-garde of the early twentieth century came from outside academia.

7Golding’s study appears in Ashgate’s Music in the Nineteenth Century Series, which contributes to providing a partial response to the assertion, often used out of turn afterwards, that Britain was a country ‘without music’, a notion put forward in 1866 by Carl Engel, a German music scholar residing in England at the time, in ‘An Introduction to the Study of National Music’, where he wondered at the disregard of British elites for their own folk music. Music cognoscenti will enjoy the four case studies as they provide windows on the British musical world of the time, with the everlasting quest for the perfect Music Professor at Edinburgh University, and the difficulties of academia to deal with an art seen as socially ambiguous and linked with feminine pursuits or as an ill-defined profession, connected to mere entertainment or religious reform, or with established musicians who needed no formal qualification. As Golding shows, some of those difficulties persist today as modern scholars continue to ponder over an elusive musical essence and an ephemeral musical experience and music’s problematic identity as a scholarly discipline remains fragile and susceptible to the demands within or without academia.

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Gilles Couderc, « Rosemary Golding, Music and Academia in Victorian Britain, Music in 19th—Century Britain Series », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 81 Printemps | 2015, mis en ligne le 02 octobre 2015, consulté le 28 mars 2017. URL :

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Gilles Couderc

Université de Caen

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