Finding the Meaning of Music and Morality 

Guest post written by Paul Watt who is Adjunct Professor of Musicology in The University of Adelaide.

The ‘go-to’ text for anyone who wants to understand the relationship between music and morality in the nineteenth century is H.R. Haweis’s 1874 book, Music and Morals, despite the fact that it doesn’t deal with music and morality in any substantial way!  

What did the idea of ‘music and morality’ mean to Haweis and to other writers in the nineteenth century?  I went looking. I got lost and distracted along the way, but ultimately unearthed the complexities of the term ‘morality’ in connection with music—as well as social reform in the nineteenth century. 

My research was, at first, frustrating. The usual tracts, pamphlets, books, sermons and other sources of moral outrage were of little interest to me. I was also not interested in writing about ‘the music’ or ‘the notes on the page’ as a means of deciphering moral codes in musical notation.  

In the early days of my research, I was aware of the hold (real or imagined) of Queen Victoria over the morality of her subjects, far and wide. I went looking for the evidence, the connections. The research formally began during a two-month fellowship at Durham University. In the first few weeks, I trawled library catalogues to hunt down weird and wonderful sources that my search term for morality might bring up. I read every biography of Queen Victoria looking for clues. I found none; or, rather, none jumped off the pages at me. I read biographies of British Prime Ministers and religious leaders by the dozen. I was bored out of my brain. Yet, instinctively, I knew there just had to be more compelling, exciting, useful material to be discovered. 

The tide turned when I chanced upon educational material for children in British schools. These books were sold in the tens of thousands and distributed all over the world. By ‘world’ of course I mean the British empire. Instruction manuals for children led me to etiquette books for adults, which led to trans-Atlantic readerships and interests. I returned to notes I had made from previous projects and reacquainted myself with the work of Octavia Hill and economist W.S. Jevons and discovered both individuals— although not writing substantially on music and morality per se—had nevertheless written about the role and function of music, along with a whole swag of other social arguments, promoting the needs of a personal as well as a collective moral and social purpose.  

Slowly, this project was finding its sources, exciting my imagination, taking shape. Best of all, one of the key archives for the project was based in Melbourne, Australia; a 15-minute walk from my apartment. Never, in any of my work on British history, had the archives been (literally and metaphorically) so close to home.  

But ‘music and morality’ was only one half of the equation of my research, as I soon discovered in these rich sources. A moral life, for nineteenth-century writers, was not as basic as simply living a life of virtue (over vice), morality (over immorality) and good manners (over bad manners). It was more nuanced. Leading a moral life required constant self-reflection, self-improvement, self-care. And consequently, a well-formed moral person was of benefit—socially, economically and musically—to the common good. The common good of Britain, certainly in the nineteenth century, extended to North America and around the British empire. A mature, music-loving, pleasure-seeking (within prescribed boundaries), empathetic and reflective being brought about individual morality pursued to not only reform oneself, but society.  

These links between music, morality and social reform are not easily made and are often hidden below the surface, assumed, or merely implied. I hope my research, presented in Music, Morality and Social Reform in Nineteenth-Century Britain has done a fair job of joining the dots between music-making, moral education and social reform. And I hope it provides readers from across the humanities a better way to understand Haweis’s book from 150 years ago.  

Paul Watt 


Paul Watt is the author of Ernest Newman: A Critical Biography (The Boydell Press, 2017) and editor of The Symphonic Poem in Britain, 1850-1950 (with Michael Allis) (The Boydell Press, 2020). 

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