Writing about (Edwardian) music is like…?  

Guest post written by Simon McVeigh, author of Music in Edwardian London.

How you write about music has changed dramatically since I was a student. When I started researching eighteenth-century violinists, I was supposed to write about the intricacies of their concertos, not to raise questions about their role in London’s cultural life. In most music books, ‘social history’ was an afterthought. 

Musicologists didn’t have much to do with historians in those days. But I began to realise that music was right at the heart of a hot topic – the commercialisation of leisure. And that this had been largely missed by the history mainstream.  

Happily, this omission has since been well and truly rectified, but there’s always been a certain wariness here. If historians didn’t know their mediant from their supertonic, musicologists seemed to lack the tools of history-writing, the methodologies of great historical schools. Instead, they simply made it up as they went along.  

Then I came into contact with the late Cyril Ehrlich, the single greatest influence on the field in Britain. An economic historian who knew his music inside out, he recognised that musical culture offered an ideal spotlight on some fundamental socio-economic principles. He also showed how to write an engaging narrative, one that effortlessly illuminated those principles through music as it was lived. 

I’d already decided to leap forward a century. Then, on a plane coming back from a European conference, Cyril and I hatched a research project with Leanne Langley, and the rest is…     

Well, not quite. I agonised for a long time about how to write Music in Edwardian London. I could let the urban musical landscape speak for itself (‘there’s a lot of it about’, as one wag put it). I toyed with the notion of a digital resource that encouraged the reader to plot their own path. Or perhaps a series of personal reflections (the prodigy’s tale, the page-turner’s tale)? 

Latterly I was persuaded to construct a narrative, but not a merely chronological one. I kept the idea of multiple perspectives. There were the unsung entrepreneurial spirits who drove London to the heart of a fast-developing international music industry, the birthplace of musical comedy, and a centre of the recording business. And, though these were rather more elusive, there were also the audiences.  

What could you attend, and how did it feel?  What was it like to share in the new enthusiasm for orchestral concerts at Queen’s Hall – or at the vast Albert Hall? Or to crowd together around bands in the park? What music surfaced at a railway-workers’ social in Clapham? 

Here again – though now perhaps somewhat wiser – I found my topic tossed round whirlpools of historical debate. This time music had already connected directly with some of the big issues of the day – popular nationalism and relations with Germany, state funding for the public good, not to mention the role of women. Cultural historians were finding fertile ground in the way Wagner and women violinists permeated novels and plays. And there’s been belated recognition that music was central to the consumer revolution, alongside the much-vaunted theatres and department stores of London’s West End. 

Yet all this seems curiously at odds with the traditional stuff of British musical history. Here the concentration is (or used to be) on Elgar, Vaughan Williams and the various branches of the ‘English Musical Renaissance’. True, this has been peppered with continental modernism, from Richard Strauss to Debussy and Stravinsky. But reconciling these parallel tracks – history and music – is no small challenge, especially without the sounds of London ringing in your ears. 

So, is writing about (Edwardian) music really like dancing about architecture? What about the music itself?  

It was the holy grail of what became the ‘new musicology’ to blend close reading with cultural analysis. As if that wasn’t challenging enough in itself, there are formidable obstacles in musical notation and in linking recordings to analytical insight, even in our multimedia age. 

I’ve attempted nothing so ambitious, and perhaps my search for a lost social and cultural soundworld was a way of avoiding writing about music that speaks to me so deeply.  So I am leaving the reader to construct their own musical experience. But I hope I’ve conveyed something of the sheer excitement of the soundscape of a new century – whether musical comedies or symphony concerts, military bands in Hyde Park or clustered round the new-fangled player-piano and gramophone. 


SIMON McVEIGH is Emeritus Professor of Music, Goldsmiths, University of London and a Past President of the Royal Musical Association.

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