5 Books to Read on British Music 

From the emergence of conducting as a profession, to composer Elizabeth Maconchy making a name for herself in a world dominated by her male peers, to the phenomena of music exhibitions across the British Empire, the history of music in Britain is vast and varied. Here, we pull together 5 books that explore British music in its cultural, social and political setting.  

By Erica Siegel 

The British-born Irish composer (Dame) Elizabeth Maconchy (1907-1994) is best known today for her cycle of thirteen string quartets, composed over five decades. And yet, her oeuvre ranges from large scale choral works, to ballets, operas, and symphonic scores. Having studied with Charles Wood and Ralph Vaughan Williams at the Royal College of Music, many of her compositions also garnered accolades from peers and established musical figures such as Gustav Holst, Donald Francis Tovey, and Henry Wood, among others. 

“Siegel traces her life from early childhood through her student days and then establishing herself as a serious composer of both large and small-scale works; all within the social and political context of her era. Her story is testimony to Maconchy’s tenacity and resolve in a world dominated by male peers.”  


Book jacket image: The Life and Music of Elizabeth Maconchy

By Simon McVeigh 

The dawning of a new century saw London emerge as a hub in a fast-developing global music industry, mirroring Britain’s pivotal position between the continent, the Americas and the British Empire. It was a period of expansion, experiment and entrepreneurial energy. The book envisions a burgeoning urban culture through a series of snapshots – daily musical life in all its messy diversity. While tackling themes of cosmopolitanism and nationalism, high and low brows, centres and peripheries, it evokes contemporary voices and characterful individuals to illuminate the period. 

Engagingly written, Simon McVeigh’s groundbreaking book reveals the exhilarating transformation of music in Edwardian London, which laid the foundations for the century to come. 

Book jacket image: Music in Edwardian London

By Fiona M. Palmer

Drawing on many archival findings, this book considers the emerging function and status of orchestral conductors in Britain, and the nature of the opportunities available to them, from the late Victorian era until the outbreak of World War I. The conducting activities of Julius Benedict, William Cusins, Joseph Barnby, Arthur Sullivan, Frederic Cowen, Alexander Mackenzie, Dan Godfrey and Landon Ronald provide a lens through which the evolution of conducting as a profession is traced. 

“A thoughtful and well-written book. It is a distinctive addition to scholarship on British musical culture.”  


Book jacket image: Conductors in Britain, 1870-1914

Edited by Jeremy Dibble and Julian Horton 

British music between the mid-nineteenth and the mid-twentieth century reflected changes and developments in society, education, philosophy, aesthetics, politics and the upheaval of wars, often signifying a distinctively British national history. All of these changes informed the published work of contemporary music critics. This collection provides an in-depth look at musical criticism during this period. 

“A well thought-out publication and a substantial contribution to an as yet under-represented area of British music studies.”  


Book jacket image: British Musical Criticism and Intellectual Thought, 1850-1950

By Sarah Kirby  

International exhibitions were among the most significant cultural phenomena of the late nineteenth century. This book explores music at international exhibitions held in Australia, India, and the United Kingdom during the 1880s. At these exhibitions, music was codified, ordered, and all-round ‘exhibited’ in manifold ways. Displays of physical instruments from the past and present were accompanied by performances intended to educate or to entertain, while music was heard at exhibitors’ stands, in concert halls, and in the pleasure gardens that surrounded the exhibition buildings. 

Book jacket image: Exhibitions, Music and the British Empire

35% off any of these featured books with promo code BB897 

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