David Rowland

Contexts and issues

‘Listening’ can have a range of meanings, from barely-conscious ‘hearing’ of sounds that daily surround us to the intensely-concentrated experience of those who set aside dedicated time for listening to concerts or recordings in controlled surroundings. Small wonder, then, that this range of activities is studied in so many different ways and in so many seemingly disparate academic disciplines. The field of ‘sound studies’, for example, examines the impact of sounds (including musical ones) made by vehicles, machines, humans and other agents on environments such as cities, workplaces and homes.1 Within studies relating to music, a variety of lines of enquiry have emerged. Experiments with human subjects have provided evidence for psychologists and neuroscientists, who study the effects of listening on behaviour and on the brain.2 Observation (including participant observation), interviews and questionnaires provide the evidence used by anthropologists, ethnomusicologists, social scientists and musicians.3 Social and cultural historians and musicologists use texts such as diaries, correspondence, published reviews, theoretical writings and the music itself in the course of their studies.4

The musicological literature of listening goes at least as far back as 1874, when Hugo Riemann published his dissertation ‘Über das musikalische Hören’.5 Riemann was followed by Heinrich Besseler in the first half of the twentieth century,6 but neither prompted any great awakening of interest in the scholarship of listening, and their texts encouraged listening in the context of understanding the structure and characteristics of a work. As Alexander Rehding puts it:

Riemann’s musical thought was centrally concerned with the aesthetic perception of the work under the category of a structural ‘musical hearing’. This form of hearing is presented as a logical activity – and a strenuous one at that, which requires the full concentration of the listener.7

Arguably, the musicological literature of listening goes back further still, for example, in texts that were designed to educate audiences in how to listen. Christina Bashford has published a number of works on the role of mid-nineteenth-century musicians who set out to inform individuals about the music to which they were listening by means of programme notes and other educational tools.8 But here again, the focus was on listening as a means of understanding the musical work.

It was much later, in the 1990s, that musicologists began to direct attention to the listeners themselves, in particular the emergence of silence as a context for listening, as well as how listening was shaped by listeners’ mind-sets and environments. One of the most important texts that emerged at this time was James Johnson’s Listening in Paris (1995),9 which highlighted a significant change in the behaviour of audiences from 1750 to 1850 studied in their social and aesthetic contexts. Johnson’s claim that audiences of the nineteenth century began to listen more intently provoked extensive comment in reviews and sparked debate elsewhere. William Weber’s article ‘Did people listen in the 18th century?’ questioned whether listening habits had changed in the nineteenth century as radically as Johnson had suggested.10 This article was itself part of an Early Music11 issue published in 1997 and devoted to an exploration of historical listening which took into account a variety of physical (buildings), religious and social contexts. In the same year another journal, The World of Music, focused a whole issue on listening practice, including articles on a wide variety of geographical and cultural repertoires.12 A year later the Musical Quarterly went a step further still with a double issue concentrating on early western music.13

Striking though this scholarly activity was, it failed to provoke a flood of new ideas in the years that followed. But there were some exceptions, such as Matthew Riley’s 2004 monograph Musical Listening in the German Enlightenment: Attention, Wonder and Astonishment, which examines the aesthetic behind the way that intellectuals believed music should be experienced in the period.14 Leon Botstein, who had edited the special issue of the Musical Quarterly in 1998, published The History of Listening: How Music Creates Meaning in 2005,15 while in 2010 a special issue of the Journal of the Royal Musical Association was published, edited by Nikolaus Bacht and entitled ‘Listening: interdisciplinary perspectives’. This collection draws on a 2006 conference of the same title at the University of Cambridge. In his introduction to the journal issue Bacht welcomed the developments of the 1990s which ‘effected a change of perspective from the object to the subject of listening’, while claiming that the current field ‘is split into two camps that have not reached any kind of consensus, with music psychologists and cognitive scientists on one side, and social and cultural historians on the other’.16 The conference and journal article was an attempt to bring some of those disciplines together. Bacht now runs the History of Listening Research Group at the Humboldt University of Berlin, not far from where the conference, The Art of Listening and its Histories, was held at the University of Potsdam in 2012, which included papers by a number of contributors to the 1990s debates.

In 2013 the Listening Experience Database (LED) was established. Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC), and including researchers from The Open University and the Royal College of Music, its aim is to facilitate the study of historical accounts of listening. The research of the LED project is based on empirical evidence gathered together in a Linked Data database.17

The LED project

The first phase of the LED project focused on two main research questions: how has listening to music been experienced by individuals, and how can a substantial body of evidence be used to increase our understanding of the position of music among individuals and societies? ‘Music’ was taken to mean any form of organised sounds, written or unwritten; and ‘listening’ was interpreted as any experience of music that had left an impression on the mind of the hearer. The project was launched on the premise that a mass of hitherto unassembled evidence existed which would provide the raw materials from which an investigation of listening could take place, using new methodologies, facilitating more traditional close reading of sources and producing systematically-driven studies that were qualitatively different from some of the more limited research that has been produced to date.

A number of basic assumptions underpinned the design of the database. These included: the ability to record accounts from any historical period, any culture and any musical genre, and to capture ‘fuzzy’ (imprecise) data; the intention that the data resulting from this process should be openly accessible under a Creative Commons (CC) licence; and the ability to accommodate varying levels of contributor expertise, so that the database would not be an exclusive, academic domain.18

It is a truism that a database is only as useful as the data it contains, and in the initial stages of the project it was important to define the nature of the evidence to be included. At the outset it had been agreed that the project would not focus on listening experiences that were written in order to influence public opinion, such as those published by critics or music theorists, or on sources gathered from questionnaires. Instead, the focus was to be primarily on private, personal and unsolicited sources, such as diaries and correspondence, notwithstanding the fact that some of these sources have been written with posterity in mind. A further complicating factor was that life writing (diaries, letters, memoirs, biographies) is to a greater or lesser extent fictionalised – used as a way of constructing a version of the subject, and compromised by the unreliability of memory. The Project Team decided nevertheless to include all of these types of source, leaving it to readers of the extracts to evaluate their usefulness in addressing the project’s main questions.

A further thorny issue was the possible inclusion of fictional accounts. Many novelists describe the reactions of their characters to musical performances, and these ‘imaginary’ listening experiences are often virtually indistinguishable from their ‘real’ counterparts. However, irrespective of the idea that such writings are at heart autobiographical, the Project Team formed the judgement that they did not have a place in the database. These and other debates crystalised into an outline of the ‘protocols’ for inclusion of material in the database.

The initial AHRC funding period came to an end in December 2015, and a new AHRC-funded project, ‘Listening and British cultures: listeners’ responses to music in Britain, c.1700–2018’, began in 2016, with the collaboration expanding to include the University of Glasgow. The main aim of this project is to place the listener at the centre of investigation into British musical life between c.1700 and the early twenty-first century. In the process, digital humanities methodologies are being developed which will have relevance beyond the confines of the subject material of the LED project. For instance, one of the issues is the identification of relevant data in large datasets including digitised collections and social media archives. Simple searches using keywords such as ‘listening’ or ‘music’ rarely yield useful results – ‘listening’ is a word that does not generally appear in descriptions of listening experiences, and ‘music’, while it may yield relevant results, also buries them among many more that do not relate to listening experiences. However, an analysis of the language used in entries found in the database is being undertaken with a view not only to understanding historical listener responses, but also to interrogating large datasets effectively. This technique, when it is fully developed, will be of relevance to other projects that use evidence from large datasets.

In the autumn of 2015 the LED project sponsored a conference, selected papers from which form this collection. Given the online, open-access nature of the project as a whole, it made no sense to take the traditional hard-copy publication route with this collection. Rather, the decision was taken to publish in a format that would enable the openness, accessibility and interactivity that had been built into the project as a whole. Accordingly, the publishing platform is interactive, allowing feedback from readers and access to online resources, including audio and video.

Listening to music: people, practices and experiences

When the conference was planned, contributions from well outside of the historical and cultural interests of the LED Project Team were solicited; the Project Team wanted to attract as many different fields of interest as possible around the core idea. The invitation to the keynote speaker also signalled this intent; Simon Frith’s sociological and popular music background was in contrast to the music-historical backgrounds of many of the Project Team. In the event, the papers, many of which are included here, came from sociological, ethnomusicological, musicological and cultural-historical backgrounds. They included studies of a very wide range of cultures, repertoires and listening circumstances, from North India to the British fairground, from devotional music to pop, and from outdoor music in Shanghai to performances heard on hand-held listening devices.

Critical to any study of listening is an understanding that listeners listen in fundamentally different ways. A number of scholars have categorised listening experiences by type,19 and in the first chapter Simon Frith develops these ideas, as he distinguishes between serious listening, participatory listening and secondary listening, describing the characteristics of each.

What emerges from the chapters that follow is the universality of these categories; listeners have always listened in a wide variety of ways according to their temperaments, cultures and backgrounds. Of course, the evidence for historical accounts of listening is in diaries, correspondence and other sources, and we may question whether these sources faithfully record the details of the ways in which people actually listened and how they reacted to what they heard. But accepting that caveat, the consistency with which any particular author expresses him or herself, and the radical differences that exist between individuals’ descriptions, strongly suggest that people have always varied in their experiences. My own chapter, for example, highlights the very different experience of two eighteenth-century gentlemen, John Courtney and Thomas Twining: the former makes evaluative comments on what he hears, as well as making observations about his cultural and physical surroundings, but scarcely, if ever, betrays any emotional engagement with music, whereas the latter sometimes describes very intense reactions to what he hears. Helen Barlow’s chapter highlights the experience of the Bunsens, a husband and wife who similarly express contrasting degrees of emotional engagement with music. The twentieth-century listeners discussed by Fiona Richards, both composers, have widely diverse reactions, described in the first instance in factual language, but in the second much more poetically. These historical observations are mirrored in the experiences of modern concert attenders, whose reactions have been collected by quite different means (pictorial, survey, interview) in the chapter by Stephanie Pitts, Jonathan Gross, Lucy Dearn and Sarah Price, or in Chloë Alaghband-Zadeh’s chapter, which describes varying listener reactions within a single North-Indian musical tradition. In these various accounts we see very clearly a good deal of common ground between listeners across cultures and time.

What makes this observation so striking is that it questions some of the stereotypes of the listening literature. So when we read of a substantial shift of nineteenth-century audiences towards what Johnson calls ‘absorbed listening’, or when we consider prevailing aesthetic, educational or cultural traditions such as those described by Riley or Bashford, we should not imagine that all of the listeners in a given era, or at a particular performance, reacted to the music in accordance with some cultural or aesthetic norm. Rather, we should expect to find a range of responses arising from a multitude of contextual and personal factors.

The discussion around ‘absorbed listening’ should perhaps be balanced by a similar debate around what may be termed ‘casual’, ‘background’ or, as Simon Frith puts it, ‘secondary listening’ – listening to music when that act of listening is by no means the primary focus of experience, and is overshadowed by one or many other activities. This collection contains some clear cases of this sort of listening, for example, Ian Trowell’s discussion of the role played by music in fairground rides. Are these experiences similar in principle to those of earlier listeners for whom music was just one element of a more complex social experience? Did eighteenth-century listeners (for example) have an equivalent to the kind of ‘secondary listening’ that developed with radio and other electronic media in the first half of the twentieth century? Or are these more modern experiences essentially different from those of a pre-recording era? The comments on a band of fiddlers made by The Honourable John Bing, Fifth Viscount Torrington, are suggestive in this regard:

Sorry I am to own that such musick is to me as delightful as the opera band or [J.C.] Bach’s concerts; for I think no musick is pleasant, but when you can chuse your distance, or time of attention; otherwise I suffer worse than a young fiddler’s elbow.20

Did he drift between ‘absorbed listening’ and ‘secondary listening’? It seems quite likely. And if he did so he would have been in tune with others in an era during which the purpose of attending musical performances was only partly to listen to the music; attention otherwise would typically be on the surroundings, or on other audience members. This collection contains other examples of less-than-fully-absorbed listening from several eras.

An important theme that arises out of this collection is the problematic nature of the evidence with which we work, particularly those of us whose focus is listening as evidenced in historical sources. Pepys, discussed in Janine Wiesecke’s chapter, was clearly knowledgeable about music, yet his comments about the musical performances he heard in the theatre are often minimal. The Harris papers described by Donald Burrows contain only occasional detailed accounts of listening. Many other authors, whatever their methodology, struggle with evidence that paints an apparently minimal, or at best partial, picture of listeners’ experiences. Sometimes, but certainly not always, the lack of information in the evidence arises from the limited vocabulary of the listeners (assuming that a listener describes the listening experience in words).21 This, in turn, raises issues about how listeners are educated to listen – where and from whom do they learn how to articulate their experiences? – questions posed by Donald Burrows in relation to his aristocratic subjects.

But problematic as the evidence is, this is what we have to work with, and it is incumbent on those who study it to understand, in as much detail as possible, the context – both personal and societal – in which the evidence is produced.

If this all sounds negative, we can nevertheless take some comfort in the fact that the nature of the evidence sometimes pushes us in directions we had not previously considered. Simon Brown’s chapter on Benjamin Britten is a good example. Britten, like many other listeners mentioned in this collection, often wrote in his diary what many would consider to be ‘peripheral’ details of his listening – the venue, the names of the performers, members of the audience, his companions, and so on – rather than his personal reactions to what he heard. Systematic study of these details offers the possibility that Britten’s listening habits and preferences may be illuminated in previously unanticipated ways. Similarly, authors of other chapters have discovered that there is much to learn from comments about the context of an individual’s listening, as well as from their accounts of their own reaction to it; indeed, sometimes the listening context becomes the main study.

If there are problems with evidence provided by members of society who wrote diaries, letters and other documents, there are much bigger difficulties posed when attempts are made to study groups that generally left no documents. Among these we may include the illiterate, those social classes who had little time for writing, and children. The experiences of these groups are, at best, often accessed second-hand. At worst, it proves impossible to gain any idea of how they listened. Within the current collection there is almost no mention of these groups; there is clearly much more to be done towards understanding their listening experiences.

Listening in the context of religious observance is a major area for potential study. In this collection there are just two chapters, but they are written from very different view standpoints. Helen Barlow’s chapter explores the listening accounts of two very different personalities from different backgrounds who were nevertheless married to each other, and who often listened to music together. The chapter illustrates the difference that personality and heritage can make to the way in which music is appreciated and understood. In contrast, in his study of Methodist listeners of the long nineteenth century Martin Clarke’s chapter deals with the subject of identity as expressed in the experiences of the group, as well as of the individual. This area, with its intriguing mixture of personally-driven and group-oriented listening motivations, offers great scope for further study.

A particular set of listeners on whom a number of authors in this collection concentrate is practitioners – composers and performers. A fuller investigation of practitioner listening is needed, but the chapters in this collection which use both written and recorded texts suggest that such a study would reap rich rewards. An important focus of these studies – though not an exclusive one – is the experience of both performers and composers of hearing the results of their own practice played back to them on recordings. This, of course, is a relatively modern phenomenon, and students of recordings critically need to take account of the circumstances of recording production, described by Day, Philip and others.22 In addition, these chapters show something of how practitioners learn from recordings of other composers and performers.

The evidence used by those who play early instruments includes written texts as well as recordings, especially tutors and other educational materials left by practitioners of the past. Today’s performers on early instruments are used to applying a healthy dose of scepticism as they read this material, generated as it is from the motivation to tell others what to do, rather than always reflecting how the authors themselves played. Ingrid Pearson’s chapter, with its focus on twentieth-century clarinet playing, amply demonstrates the difference between what the literature says and what actually happened as evidenced in recordings, particularly with respect to vibrato. It provides a salutary reminder that those who rely solely on the written record need to apply critical techniques to their reading of these texts if they are to understand the performers of previous eras.

Listening in cross-cultural contexts poses its own challenges and has been the subject of a number of previous studies,23 as illustrated in some of the chapters in this collection, but particularly in the chapter by Irene Pang in her study of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra. Here, an audience is faced with a style of music that is literally and aurally foreign to them. Pang assesses from contemporary documents how that audience reacted, raising further questions about how listeners cope with the experience of unfamiliar styles.

Future directions

The experience of the 2015 conference and of compiling this collection for publication has raised many questions about the methodologies and the subjects for future research. But at least one thing is abundantly clear: an interdisciplinary approach is likely to yield results, as others have argued. The common ground in the conclusions of chapters written from very different perspectives is striking and argues for future collaboration across fields of enquiry.

One of the big themes that emerges relates to typologies of listening. How relevant are established categories to the study of listening across eras and cultures? Do they illuminate our understanding of listening in, say, eighteenth-century London, or cross-cultural listening in early twentieth-century far-eastern societies to the same extent as they help us to evaluate the experiences of listeners to late twentieth-century popular music? Allied to these issues are other questions: to what extent has the experience of listening changed over the centuries, particularly in view of the development of recording and broadcasting technologies, and how far are the experiences of modern listeners essentially the same as their earlier counterparts?

Another major theme relates to the nature of the evidence for listening. How can we use to best advantage the ‘peripheral’ data that is so often part of historical listening accounts? Will the analysis of large quantities of this data reveal new things to us about listening practices? Small steps have been taken in this direction, but the hypothesis that the study of large quantities of data will help us reach significant new conclusions about listening has yet to be tested fully.

It is abundantly clear from the studies presented here that listeners react in a wide variety of ways to music. But to what extent does this depend on social, cultural or educational background, and to what extent is it a function of personality? Will the available sources be able to help us to answer this question? Certainly, the sources will shed light on the effect of religious mind-sets on individual responses to music – there is a wealth of sources that can be used in this area. We will probably also be able to assess whether the provision of educational materials made a substantial difference to the way in which concert audiences heard music, since at least some sources show evidence of the impact of these sorts of materials on individual listeners.

The fact that these questions are yet to be answered in the literature of listening shows how much work there is to be done in the area of historical listening. The evidence is problematic, but progress is being made and future research will undoubtedly help us to understand more fully how listeners of the past engaged with music.

Select bibliography

Journal issues devoted to articles of listening:

Early Music 25/4, 25th Anniversary Issue, ‘Listening Practice’, 1997.

The World of Music 39/2, 1997.

Musical Quarterly 82/3–4, 1998.

Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135/Special Issue 1, 2010.

Other literature:

Bashford, Christina. ‘Learning to listen: audiences for chamber music in early-Victorian London’, Journal of Victorian Culture, 1999.

Bashford, Christina. ‘Not just “G.”: towards a history of the programme note’, in George Grove, Music and Victorian Culture, ed. Michael Musgrave. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003.

Bashford, Christina. The Pursuit of High Culture: John Ella and Chamber Music in Victorian London. Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2007.

Besseler, Heinrich. ‘Grundfragen des musikalischen Hörens’, Jahrbuch der Musikbibliothek Peters für das Jahr 1925. Leipzig: C. F. Peters, 1926, pp. 35–52.

Besseler, Heinrich. Das Musikalische Hören der Neuzeit. Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 1959.

Born, Georgina and Hesmondhalgh, David (eds). Western Music and Its Others: Difference, Representation and Appropriation in Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

Clarke, Eric. Ways of Listening. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2005.

Clarke, David and Clarke, Eric (eds). Music and Consciousness. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Clayton, Martin, Dueck, Byron and Leante, Laura (eds). Experience and Meaning in Music Performance. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

Corbin, Alain. Village Bells: Sound and Meaning in the Nineteenth-Century French Countryside. Translated by Martin Thom. New York, 1998; orig. French ed. New York; Chichester: Columbia University Press, c.1998.

Daughtry, J. Martin. Listening to War. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015.

Ellis, Katherine and Weliver, Phyllis. Words and Notes in the Long Nineteenth Century. Woodbridge: Boydell and Brewer, 2013.

Johnson, James. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

Merriam, Alan P. The Anthropology of Music. Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1964.

Morat, Daniel. Sounds of Modern History: Auditory Cultures in 19th and 20th Century Europe. New York: Berghahn Books, 2014.

Pinch, Trevor and Bijsterveld, Karin. The Oxford Handbook of Sound Studies. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011.

Riemann, Hugo. ‘Über das musikalische Hören’. Leipzig: C. F. Kahnt, 1874.

Riley, Matthew. Musical Listening in the German Enlightenment: Attention, Wonder and Astonishment. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.

Stockfelt, Ola. ‘Cars, buildings and soundscapes’, in Helmi Järviluoma (ed.) Soundscapes: Essays on Vroom and Moo. Tampere: Department of Folk Tradition, University of Tampere and Institute of Rhythm Music Seinäjoki, 1994.

Weber, William. ‘Did people listen in the 18th century?’, Early Music 25/4, 1997, pp. 678–691.


Ways of listening

More than meets the ear: on listening as a social practice

Simon Frith

Simon Frith is Tovey Professor of Music at Edinburgh University and a Fellow of the British Academy. He has been a leading figure in the academic study of popular music since the publication of his first book, The Sociology of Rock, in 1978. As a music journalist he wrote for many magazines in Britain and the USA before becoming rock critic of the Sunday Times. He chaired the Mercury Music Prize from 1992 to 2016, and is presently writing a history of live music in Britain. The first volume, covering 1950–1967, was published by Ashgate in 2013.


Listening is something we do for ourselves. Sounds reach us through our ears but the musical experience happens inside our heads; it is something to be studied by psychologists and neuroscientists. In this chapter, though, I approach listening as a sociologist, treating it as a social fact. In doing so I address a number of issues.

First, there are many different ways of listening to music: silently, noisily, individually, collectively, by participation and dancing. Second, the differences between ways of listening are often the effect of different listening ideologies. This is well illustrated in social histories of the classical world’s notion of ‘proper’ or ‘serious’ listening, but in popular music studies too we are familiar with the ideological assumptions shaping the different listening conventions of jazz, folk and rock clubs, stadium rock shows and Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals. In both public and private spaces listening disputes are routine. Third, listening is not just what happens in people’s heads. It is a form of social behaviour: to listen is to perform ‘listening’.


I have spent much of my life saying to people – parents, friends, colleagues, readers, students, partners, children – ‘listen to this!’ (this being a piece of music). And the question that interests me here is: when we ask people to listen to music what are we asking them to do?

In the context of this chapter, I need to draw a distinction between listening as a musicological skill – to be taught, acquired and assessed, a technical form of musical appreciation, as developed by Donald Francis Tovey, in whose honour my Edinburgh chair is named – and listening as a kind of social skill.24 Implicit in saying to someone ‘listen to this!’ is the command ‘listen to this as I listen to it!’

‘Listen’ here means ‘listen properly’, but this does not necessarily refer to musicological listening. To say to someone, in exasperation (something else I’ve done repeatedly throughout my life), ‘you’re not listening properly’, is not to refer to what is happening in their heads but, rather, to their inappropriate listening behaviour. In social situations ‘listening’ is not an activity that you hear but that you see.

In thinking about listening in this general way, there are three obvious analytic problems. First, listening to music is both a very strange and an absolutely taken-for-granted aspect of human behaviour. Second, there are very many things going on when we are listening: biological, physiological, neurological and psychological, as well as musicological, sociological, and so on. Listening is thus a topic that can be addressed by a variety of disciplines, methodologies and hypotheses. Third, what listening involves cannot be disentangled from the question of who is listening (their knowledge, experience, purpose, personality, and so on), in which places and circumstances. Music listening, in short, involves so many different kinds of activity that any generalisation about it is dubious.

That said, I am a sociologist and generalising is what I do! Let me begin, then, by referring to T. W. Adorno. In his Introduction to Music he wrote:

Asked to say offhand what a sociology of music is, one would probably start by defining it as knowledge of the relation between music and the socially organised individuals who listen to it.25

In practice this meant, as Peter Szendy suggests, that Adorno treated the sociology of music as, in effect, a typology of listening attitudes. This typology depended in turn on a history, ‘the history of the progressive emergence of the notion of a [musical] work.’26

Adorno thus distinguished between the expert listener, the good listener, and the fallen listener. The expert listener is characterised by ‘entirely adequate hearing’:

He would be the fully conscious listener who tends to miss nothing and at the same time, at each moment, accounts to himself for what he has heard … Spontaneously following the course of music, even complicated music, he hears the sequence, hears past, present, and future moments together so that they crystallize into a meaningful context. Simultaneous complexities – in other words, a complicated harmony and polyphony – are separately and distinctly grasped by the expert.

This fully adequate mode of conduct might be called ‘structural hearing.’27

Next we have what Szendy calls a degraded version of the expert listener, the good listener:

Under the prevailing social conditions, making experts of all listeners would of course be an inhumanely utopian enterprise … This is what bestows legitimacy on the type of the ‘good listener’ as opposed to the expert. The good listener too hears beyond musical details, makes connections spontaneously, and judges for good reasons, not just by categories of prestige and by an arbitrary taste; but he is not, or not fully, aware of the technical and structural implications. Having unconsciously mastered its immanent logic, he understands music about the way we understand our own language even though virtually or wholly ignorant of its grammar and syntax.28

And, finally, we have the fallen listener (actually Szendy’s term), for whom music is simply entertainment. These listeners pay no attention to ‘the work’ whatsoever, and it is with reference to fallen listeners that Adorno bemoans the decline of the good listener: ‘The tendency today is to understand everything [the expert listener] or nothing.’29

As many critics of Adorno have pointed out, Adorno’s argument here depends on his particular ‘objective’ concept of the music work, rather than on any kind of study of the subjectivity of listeners themselves. He was uninterested in ‘scientific’ studies of what happened to listeners as they listened (increasing pulse rates, and so on) as leaving out the aesthetic, and would have had even less interest in the Listening Experience Database (LED), dismissing sociological methods based on people ‘verbalising their own musical experiences’ since ‘verbal expression itself is already pre-filtered and its value for a knowledge of primary reactions is thus doubly questionable.’30

I have some sympathy with this view, to which I will return, but, nonetheless, Adorno’s overall argument does point to the conclusion that what listeners do does not much matter, a view he shared with the composer he most admired, Arnold Schoenberg, who famously said he had few if any concerns for the listener or potential listener to his music:

I have as few for him as he has for me. I know only that he exists and that, to the extent that he is not ‘indispensable’ for acoustic reasons (since an empty hall does not resound well), he disturbs me.31

In Adorno’s typology I am certainly a fallen listener both because of my interest in popular music, or entertainment, and because I’m musically illiterate, incapable of listening structurally. But as a sociologist I do find Adorno’s approach useful for raising the three issues that I want to discuss further.

  1. First, he suggests that there are different ‘ways of listening’ to music, and that these can be organised into typologies, even if not those determined by Adorno’s concept of a musical work.
  2. Second, he shows that the differences between different ways of listening are the effect of different listening ideologies, different ideas of what music is for.
  3. Third, he describes listening as a form of social behaviour. Listening, that is to say, is something performed according to particular cultural conventions and as an effect of particular social and technological conditions of listening possibility.

For the rest of this chapter I will explore these issues, though not in such a schematic order. But I’ll end this introductory section with a quote from the wonderful autobiography of Prince Rupert Loewenstein. In 1968 Loewenstein, a merchant banker, was approached by Mick Jagger to see if he would be willing to act as the Rolling Stones’ financial advisor. Loewenstein had no interest in rock and pop music at all. This is his account of listening to the Stones. He had come across the Beatles when, in his words:

we stayed with some cousins in Kitzbühel and as a gift Josephine brought along the latest Beatles LP for our hostess, Sunny Auersperg – later to become, after remarrying, Sunny von Bülow – who was delighted to have it. Sunny played the record while we were there and so I had heard some of the Beatles’ music. Their music was sufficiently harmonic to be acceptable to people like me who only liked classical music. I only really took against rock’n’roll when I heard the Stones.

One of the first times I heard the group play live was very shortly after meeting Mick, at one of the theatres in London’s West End which had started putting on rock concerts … I remember being amused by one aspect of the show that night. At a point when Mick was completely energised and excited, he told the audience, ‘What are you all sitting down for? Get up and let us know what you think.’ How odd, I thought. Surely he must be impressed by us sitting here in silence to admire and take in everything that was going on, rather than getting on our feet and not being able to see properly.32

Ways of listening

Adorno’s typology of listening was determined by his theory of the musical work. Mine is determined by the research I’ve been doing for the last decade on the history of live music in Britain since 1950, involving, among other things, interviews with music promoters. One of our questions was what they thought they were selling as ‘a live music experience’ and how this had shifted over time. One of the things that emerged from their answers is the significance of ideologies of music listening. What promoters have to organise is a musical event that enables audiences to listen to music in an appropriate way. What’s appropriate depends, in turn, on the type of event and the type of music, but what interested us were the circumstances in which this becomes a matter of dispute. Such disputes can take various forms and their resolutions have had significant effects on how events are presented, staged, performed and received.

Our research suggested that there are two different (if overlapping) areas around which most listening arguments have taken place over the last 70 years. The first can be understood as silence versus noise; the second as watching music versus dancing to it. It is from these disputes that I derive my own typology of listening: serious listening, participatory listening and secondary listening. I will discuss each of these in turn.

Serious listening

Serious listening is akin to Adorno’s good listening, but, whereas for him the ‘good’ listener is taking the musical work seriously, for me the ‘serious’ listener is taking the work of listening seriously, which, from a promoter’s perspective, means removing distractions to the listening process. Serious listening is listening in silence; distractions from this, of whatever sort, can thus be described as ‘noise’. This is obviously the ideology of listening in the classical music world and has been much written about, with reference to concert hall behaviour, how serious listening was learned, and so forth.33 I don’t need to go into these arguments here, but will draw from them a couple of points.

First, this is a very self-conscious way of listening; it involves listening to oneself listening. (This is sometimes characterised as ‘musical’ as against everyday listening, but I think this is misleading.) Second, serious listening actually describes listening behaviour – or listening etiquette – rather than what actually may be going on in people’s heads. What matters here is that, whatever is involved in such listening, it must seem to happen in the head. This is the meaning of ‘autonomous reflexive listening’, an understanding that the proper music experience is entirely individual even when it is happening in a public place.34 Such listening has to be displayed for us to know that it is happening, although, from looking at other people listening, we don’t really have any direct knowledge of what is actually going on internally. Eric Clarke describes this well in relation to ‘serious’ listening to the early gramophone in the home:

… the predominant physical attitude in this kind of listening is of people’s eyes fixed to the floor or the elevated middle distance, or closed. Not only does this solve the problem of where to look, but it also reproduces the quasi-religious demeanour that is seen in representations of the audience at concerts and salons in the early nineteenth century, and thus persuades others in the room (who may glance surreptitious around for reassurance) of the significance of each listener’s inner experience.35

But while distractions – noise – can be removed from the listening event, distractions in the head, so to say, can and almost certainly do happen. Listening involves a flux of different degrees of concentration and awareness – consider, for example, Max Richter’s eight-hour work Sleep and people’s accounts of listening to it. From this perspective, ‘serious’ listening is not so much opposed to ‘distracted’ listening as another way of dealing with or thinking about it.

For Adorno, the ‘goodness’ of good listening was determined by the quality of the musical work being listened to, and there is a tendency among classical world people to assume that ‘serious’ listening goes with what they call ‘serious’ music. This is clearly not true. Twentieth-century music technology made possible serious listening to all kinds of music, getting rid of distractions through electrical rather than acoustic means. Radio was thus the key medium in training listeners who were not concertgoers how to listen seriously, and records of popular music could be and were listened to seriously, silently and individually – even in public places. The original jazz clubs in the UK, for example, were places where people gathered to listen to records in silence, before earnestly discussing them.36 More recently, headphones can be understood as a new technological way of making the listening experience private, in the head, even in public. Nowadays, indeed, we don’t even know what someone else is listening to, let alone how they are listening to it. I don’t know of any research on this, but it is surprisingly difficult watching someone on a bus, say, with headphones, to tell from their behaviour what kind of music they are listening to (or, indeed, whether there is any sound coming out of their headphones at all).

Two final points on this.

First, Keith Negus has written an entertaining article on the suspicions of the classical music world (Benjamin Britten, for example) of classical music on television, on the grounds that television was inherently distracting, both as a visual spectacle and as an uncontrollable domestic environment. Britten suggested to the BBC that it would be impossible for listeners to listen seriously to music on television, a point made equally vehemently by a later generation of rock performers and critics.37

Second, colleagues on the Live Music Project, carrying out research on concert audiences at the Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh, found surprisingly little difference between audiences for different kinds of music in their accounts of what makes for a good event or a special musical experience (in terms of being emotionally moved, ‘taken out of oneself’, and so on), despite very different accounts of what counted as being ‘distracted’ from the music (in terms of noise, movement, audience set up, performance space, use of lighting, and so on).38 ‘Serious’ music listening and its counterpart, distracted listening, is not just a feature of classical music ideology, but also an aspect of listening ideology in all music worlds.

Participatory listening

Participatory listening is listening by participating in music-making. This covers a range of activities, from the most direct to the most indirect kinds of participation. Most directly, participatory listening is the listening done by musicians when they are making music – listening to themselves, listening to the other performers, in orchestras, choirs, folk groups, rock bands, and so forth. Note that such listening is an aspect of all music performance, but is indicated differently in different genres and circumstances.

But audiences can also have a sonic participation in musical events, which means that they too listen as musicians, as in the case of call and response, rhythmic clapping and movement, joining in the chorus, or even taking over a verse completely (as at some rock gigs). And there’s also what we might call emotional participation through noise – whooping, screaming, cheering, oohing, shouting, and so on. Again, this is both conventionalised and learned behaviour: such ‘noise’ is not noise in the sense of an interference with the music. This depends what kind of noise is made when: the musical appropriateness or not of the noise made by listeners participating in a musical event depends on the musical genre involved.

Let me cite two examples from other people’s research, published in a special issue of Social Semiotics on live music. Karen Burland and Stephanie Pitts’ concern in their paper on ‘the rules and expectations of jazz gigs’ is what it means to listen to music ‘as a jazz fan’, that is with a particular kind of identity which is brought by an audience to a jazz club but also learned in – and shaped by – their jazz club experience.39 Burland and Pitts suggest that appropriate listening at a jazz club involves: a combination of commitment (fans need to indicate their commitment to jazz as a musical form by their continuous response to what they hear); the right level of comfort (provided by the promoter) with good sound and sightlines, sociable seating and easy access to and from the bar; and connection, a sense of a tangible relationship with both performers and other audience members. What seems to matter most to the jazz audience is that a gig has the right ‘atmosphere’, something that is determined by how the venue is organised and managed, by the behaviour of other audience members, and by the ‘quality’ of performance in terms of its direct engagement with the audience as well as its skill.40

Burland and Pitts’ research also suggests that jazz audiences, at least, must expect a degree of improvisation in how they listen, must decide when to be silent, when to be noisy, when to be still, when to be exuberant – ‘serious’ listening occurs in a context of a deliberate display of emotion. There is thus more audience dissatisfaction at jazz than classical gigs, more irritation with people in the next seats, more grumbling about organisers’ carelessness, more criticism of musicians for misjudging the occasion (whether being too introverted or too extroverted). Participation at a jazz gig is, like improvised music itself, a more unreliable pursuit of musical expectations than attendance at a classical show.

By contrast, Lucy Bennett’s paper on audiences and social media examines the construction of listening behaviour from a quite different angle. Bennett is concerned with a new kind of ‘live’ audience that has emerged in the last decade for pop and rock events, an audience which is present at the events not bodily but via mobile phone access to the internet and on social networking sites.41 For such listeners physical absence from the show itself is compensated by a more intense engagement with what is going on, expressed through a running commentary on the music as it is played. This is an exceptionally noisy audience, but it can’t be heard at all in the auditorium itself. Online, though, such audience exchanges are conventionalised: this kind of fandom involves a strong sense of what is appropriate to say and what kind of fan knowledge gives one the right to say it. The meaning of a musical event has always been shaped by anticipation and recollection; social media both socialise and formalise this temporal arc, condensing the process and making even the most individual emotional flow a matter for public policing. Because this virtual audience can’t be seen listening, their musical response has to be continuously articulated in words. For an absent audience, silence is not an option.

The final kind of participatory listening I want to consider is dancing. Dancing is probably the most important way of listening to popular music; it is certainly the way of listening that is least understood or studied. Anthropologists have always understood that music and dance in many societies cannot be understood as separate activities – see John Blacking’s work, for example42 – but popular music studies have tended to ignore dance altogether or to associate it with particular genres or to treat it as just an interesting but not very significant adjunct to their business of making sense of the music itself. In fact, though, the history of popular music in Britain cannot be disentangled from the history of dance – who dances, where, when and how – this is certainly true of pop music since the 1950s and, indeed, for the whole of the twentieth century.43 I don’t have space to go into this in detail here, but will focus on the consequent listening issue that I have already mentioned, the dispute between people dancing to music and people watching it.

The most familiar of such disputes occurred in the 1950s and 1960s when rock’n’roll acts were put on in all-seater cinemas or town halls; these were the routine battles between ushers and youthful members of the audience, the former trying to stop the latter from standing up and/or dancing in the aisles (although I suspect there were other sections of the audience who would also have liked people to sit down).

But there were other kinds of dispute too. 1950s jazz promoters began to distinguish between two kinds of audience for jazz: those who wanted to watch the band and those who wanted to dance to the music. Having both audiences in the same place – dance halls, for example – caused problems. The watching audience cluttered up the space for dancers and promoters had to decide what sort of venue would best suit a particular act, while some performers (Humphrey Lyttelton, for example) might put on shows for the different audiences in different venues on the same or successive nights.

Note that, while the tensions here (between ‘trad’ and ‘modern’ jazz, for example) might have involved the emergence of serious listening to serious music (the issue therefore still being silence versus noise), initially this was not the primary issue which, rather, concerned the spectacle of performance, sightlines and audience engagement with the musicians on stage rather than with their other audience members on the dance floor. ‘Noise’ was still shorthand for inappropriate listening, but what was being described involved, equally, inappropriate movement.

This was an issue for the new kind of pop idol/record star too. As Melody Maker reported, acts were not always happy about being moved from theatres to dance halls. Bobby Darin, for example, complained that ‘British audiences were the noisiest I have played to anywhere in the world’, making it difficult for him to perform; Heinz gave up playing ballroom dates altogether because he felt their audiences ‘just want a sound’ rather than the ‘visual’ performance he was trying to put across; The Hollies complained that ballroom audiences were too noisy and thus incompatible with the kind of musical experience the band wanted to create. Group members Graham Nash and Eric Haydock preferred the cabaret scene:

I know that the fans like to see us in ballrooms where they feel they can get closer to us, but I would like the future of the Hollies to be in the field of cabaret. We recently played a week in cabaret at Mr. Smith’s Club in Manchester, and we feel we did very well. It gave us a chance to play things like ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’, ‘Stewball’, ‘Taste of Honey’ – numbers we could never do in ballrooms.

‘When we work cabaret it’s different altogether,’ said Eric. ‘Proper dressing rooms, and lighting – and attentive audiences who have come along to listen, and to applaud what they like.’44 The implication here being that in ballrooms fans are not there to listen or, rather, not there to listen in the right way.

For dancers the long-term solution was technological, discos and dance clubs, in which the only performer, the DJ, is usually not there to be seen. Indeed, as Peter Szendy suggests, the DJ’s art may imply ‘less a knowledge of how to play than a knowledge of how to listen’ (just as orchestral conductors are, in effect displaying their listening expertise).45 One could certainly describe the club dance floor as a public performance of a particular kind of music listening.

In the broad shift of dance venues in the 1950s and 1960s, from dance hall to dance club, there were disputes that involved not just generational conflicts, as the needs of young dancers began to inform commercial decisions, nor simply new kinds of etiquette for new kinds of dance – jiving, for instance. The big change was, rather, the rise of dancing as individual expression and the decline of the authority of the dance band leader and dance teacher, the end of dancing as a matter of following formal, collective rules of how to move. The established dance halls felt this as a threat of disorder though, in practice, as autobiographical accounts of Northern Soul make clear, such individualised dancing took place in spaces with new social conventions of listening and dancing that had to be learned.46

Secondary listening

I’ve been discussing listening as watching and I need to clarify this concept, given that all live music involves performance, involves something to see as well as something to hear. To put it too simply, one could say that, for serious listeners, sound is more important than sight (it doesn’t seem odd for a member of the audience at a classical concert to listen to the whole thing with their eyes shut). For participatory listeners, sight and sound are equally important, although musicians may not be the sight or performance that matters as against, say, other members of the audience or, indeed, the use of lights in a club.

For secondary listeners, by contrast, what’s heard is subordinate to what is seen. This is most obvious in the way we listen to music while watching a film in the cinema or programme on TV, but there is a long tradition in popular culture of music listening being related to spectacle, whether as an aspect of popular entertainment such as circuses and fairgrounds or in popular theatrical forms such as melodramas and vaudeville (and, of course, both opera and musicals remain problematic for ideologues of serious listening, whether from classical or popular music studies). These are the kinds of musical performance in which direct communication from star to audience is most apparent. For serious listeners of all sorts, the trappings that make a musical performance spectacular – the ‘show’, the ‘got-up-glitter’, the ‘vulgarity’ to use Hubert Parry’s words – are what makes certain kinds of music trivial or corrupted, what leads them to be dismissed as ‘entertainment’.47

Parry was contrasting music hall to ‘true folk-songs’ (though his argument is not dissimilar to the punk-inflected critique of the stage excesses of post-prog rock bands in the 1970s), but the point here is that spectacle doesn’t take anything away from ‘real’ musical experience; rather, it offers a different sort of musical experience, in which the pleasure lies in the sensual overload (as, for example, in the contemporary stadium show, with its complex lighting board, sound design and use of video). It is impossible to describe what it means to ‘listen’ to a performance by Pink Floyd or Beyoncé, by Muse or Madonna, without simultaneously describing what is seen.


I want to end on a different note, by returning to the issue of serious or musical listening and the suggestion that the musical experience is something that happens inside the head. For all the analytic problems of this argument, it remains the common sense of much academic and non-academic discussion of what we are doing when we are listening to music.

Now, in one sense, a sociologist is not well equipped to explain what happens in people’s heads, although there is such a thing as phenomenological sociology, but I can say something about the social and ideological conditions that enable music listening to be understood like this, in terms of self-analysis, and the cultural conditions in which the musical experience becomes so closely related to our sense of identity. To put it simply, it was the development of societies in which the sense of the individual self was important that has created our ability – and the necessity – to listen to music this way, as a means of self-analysis.

Still, in reading various accounts of music ‘in the head’ I have been struck by the vagueness of the descriptions. The philosopher Peter Szendy writes of the importance of a certain inattention, a wavering of concentration, to the way in which we make sense of music. The music psychologist Eric Clarke describes the listener’s ‘contemplative perceptual attitude’ in terms of the ‘inner reality of virtual structures, journeys, narratives and action.’ The popular music scholar Franco Fabbri describes music listening as akin to the Italian concept of dormiviglia, a mental vigil in between consciousness and sleep. In each of these accounts there is, then, a suggestion that listening to music is something like dreaming, something apparent in LED too.48

One aspect of this is something that Adam Smith described, the analogy we draw between the movements of sounds as we listen to music and the movement of the mind as we experience or express different feelings.49 Hence the way that the musical experience is often made sense of in terms of emotions, in language of feeling into which the musical experience is translated, as it were.

The pleasure of music for Smith was that it gave us a way of reflecting on our own emotions and the brain work that they required, without the usual distractions of cause and consequence, and Smith was, after all, a key figure in putting individual self-consciousness and desires at the heart of moral philosophy and political economy. Following his lead, one could certainly argue plausibly (if against the usual critical approach) that all those people sitting in silent intensity through, say, a Mahler symphony are actually thinking about themselves rather than about Mahler.

But this doesn’t feel quite right. If serious listening to music is like dreaming, then it is with a clear sense that something – the music – is in control of that dream, even if we are peopling it with our own vague feelings and imagery. I take from Szendy’s work the implicit suggestion that, while listening is not reading, a comparison between the two can shed light on both. We can point, for example, to the historically parallel emergence of ‘serious ‘or ‘literary’ reading as also being something silent, concentrated, in the head. We find too in reader-response theory the suggestion that reading, like listening, involves the use of the reader’s own imagination, what is being imagined triggered by the words out there but filled out by our own imaginative work in the act of reading.

Novels, poems and pieces of music thus all involve a myriad of individual forms of ‘completion’, which explains how we can feel that a performed version articulating someone else’s imagination of the work – a TV adaptation, a particular arrangement or performance, has got it wrong (which is why the listening accounts in LED tell us things about the listener rather than about the music to which they were listening).50 But there is an indication here too of the differences between listening and reading. What we hear is music as performed by someone else; as readers we perform the work for ourselves (and this is, of course, also the difference between novels and plays).

There is much more to be said about this, and about the possibilities and the difficulties of applying reader-response theory to musical experience. But my final point concerns another difference between music and literature or, rather, between music-without-words, instrumental music of all sorts, and literature and other word-bound art forms. Instrumental music is not obviously or even essentially about anything; listening does not necessarily involve a relentless pursuit of meaning.

Adorno’s ‘expert’ listener apparently rebuffed this suggestion by saying that the meaning of the music, what needs to be understood, is its structure. The ‘work’ has to be heard in order to understand what we are hearing. Such analytic listening is possibly a way of listening necessary for composers, conductors and certain kinds of musicologists, but I don’t think it describes what serious listening means as an aesthetic experience, as something pleasurable.

Serious listening, unlike other forms of musical listening, for me involves putting myself in a position to be able to listen to music without thought, not trying to control what’s happening in my head but, rather, letting the music do that. Perhaps, to return to the typology of listening, ‘serious’ listening should be retitled as ‘thoughtless’ listening, listening without the distraction of thought.

Select bibliography

Clarke, Eric. ‘The impact of recording on listening’, Twentieth-Century Music, 4(1), 2007.

Szendy, Peter. Listen. A History of Our Ears. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.

Social Semiotics (Special Issue on Live Music), 22(5), 2012.

Listening in historical contexts

Samuel Pepys and his experiences of music at Restoration theatres

Janine Wiesecke

Janine Wiesecke is a researcher at the music department of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt am Main, Germany and, simultaneously, works on her PhD thesis on Listening to Music as Both Experience and Evaluation in Late Seventeenth-Century Urban England at the University of Potsdam, Germany.


Restoration London was replete with opportunities to listen to music, even before the first public concerts were established. The Restoration theatre was one of the venues where Londoners had ample opportunity to listen to the newest compositions performed by professionals. But how did listeners write about their experiences? What did listeners notice? What categories were chosen to describe a listening experience? On the basis of the diary of Samuel Pepys, an enthusiastic music lover, the complex issue of early modern writing about listening is approached and analysed in more detail.


Music was woven into everyday life in Restoration London. Even despite the absence of modern playback technologies and the resulting dependence on performing individuals in the moment of listening, early modern Londoners engaged in music listening at many different venues.51 While they did not necessarily produce music themselves, they nevertheless had ample opportunities to listen to others. The theatre was only one of many such places.

One of those Londoners, Samuel Pepys (1633–1703), a well-known figure of the Restoration period, left among his extensive library a diary (which spans the period between 1660 and mid-1669),52 containing numerous clues about his varied daily experiences.53 Himself a naval administration officer, he was an enthusiastic amateur musician rather than a professional. His enthusiasm for music infused many aspects of his daily routine and, as a result, is captured in his diary, which also coincides with the beginning of the Restoration period and the re-opening of public theatres.

Scholars have examined Restoration theatre from many different angles.54 As far as music is concerned, they have focused on identifying the music that has been performed, on theatre musicians (their role in society, their networks and additional occupations), on composers and on changes in musical style.55 To that end, listeners’ accounts have been used to illustrate the context of experiences and to serve as individual examples of these features. But they have not been subjected to an exhaustive analysis relating to listening habits, behaviours and verbalisation strategies. Therefore, the aim of this chapter is to examine the ways in which Pepys reconstructed his listening experiences at London theatres in writing. Questions asked pertain to Pepys’ relationship with the theatre and his attendance habits, as well as the degree to which music is represented in his records and how, that is by what categories. The goal is to show what Pepys determined necessary to write down in order to represent his experiences appropriately and, specifically, what he noticed about music and its performance. However, before the actual analysis, several aspects of Restoration theatre are briefly remarked upon to illustrate common situations and issues listeners were confronted with.

Background on Restoration theatre culture

1660 marks one of the far-reaching turning points of the seventeenth century. With the Restoration of the monarchy, English theatre culture was revived after lying more or less dormant since 1642.56 In the intervening period, actors (and musicians) had attempted several times to reinstate theatre performances in public, but these were shut down by the government nearly every time. For that reason, most performances were staged in private homes, accessible only to a select group of people. One of the exceptions shortly before 1660 was the staging of William Davenant’s The Siege of Rhodes,57 which was less likely to be interrupted because it contained a high percentage of music.58

Despite the various revival attempts during the Commonwealth, theatre houses went into disrepair or were used for other purposes, and no new actors or musicians were trained. Thus, the revival of public theatre performances was a strenuous task. It started up again with King Charles II’s Licensing Act, which allowed Thomas Killigrew and William Davenant to each form a theatre company (the former established the King’s Company, the latter the Duke’s Company). While Killigrew managed to engage a number of experienced actors who were already active before 1642, and to secure exclusive performance rights to most of the pre-Commonwealth repertoire, Davenant had to look for other competitive advantages.59 One of their more pressing tasks was to secure new performance spaces.

Theatre houses

Before the Commonwealth Londoners had a choice between large, public outdoor theatres and a number of smaller private indoor theatres (admission to the latter was more expensive than to the former,60 but after 1660 only a few indoor theatres were reopened).61 The search for appropriate performance spaces led Killigrew to the Red Bull Theatre in Clerkenwell, a pre-Commonwealth theatre building. But the company quickly moved on to a theatre in Vere Street on 8 November 1660, a building originally known as Gibbon’s Tennis Court.62 Because the Vere Street Theatre was not spacious enough and lacked appropriate stage equipment, Killigrew commissioned a new theatre called the Theatre Royal in Bridges Street near Drury Lane, which opened its doors in 1663. The King’s Company was based in that theatre for the rest of Pepys’ diary period, not moving on until 1672 after it accidentally burned to the ground. Davenant’s company, in turn, started out at Salisbury Court Theatre before settling in to Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre (also a former tennis court) in mid-1661. The company moved from there in 1671, two years after Pepys’ last diary entry, into the newly built Dorset Garden Theatre.63

Apart from the Theatre Royal and Lincoln’s Inn Fields Theatre, Pepys briefly attended performances at the Red Bull Theatre in Clerkenwell and the old Cockpit Theatre in Drury Lane between 1660 and 1662, and later on he occasionally attended performances at the Court Theatre in Whitehall.64 In 1667 Killigrew also established a Nursery, a training theatre for young actors and actresses. Out of curiosity, Pepys attended their performances twice in February 1668, but said afterwards he would refrain from doing so ever again because he found them lacking in skill.65

Stage design

Only very few specifics about the respective theatres and their stages have survived and can be stated with certainty. A feature that was already prominent with Renaissance theatres was the apron stage, which protruded into the audience and featured most of the action. The innovation with regard to Restoration theatres was that the stage was extended on both sides, so that performers accessed it through stage doors to either side and not so much from the back of the stage. The stage was lit by footlights and chandeliers. The stage featured a curtain which, once drawn, usually remained that way until the end of the play. One of the novelties introduced to the stage during the Restoration was painted, moveable scenery, which was placed behind the proscenium arch that framed the main stage. Davenant’s company was the first to employ this in a public theatre, continuously looking for a competitive advantage over the King’s Company.66 The scenery was painted on flats or wings that protruded on grooves from both sides onto the stage in vertical succession. This meant that, with scene changes, the front shutters could be moved out of the way to the sides of the stage.67 This novelty was quite a draw with the audience.68

Music and its role at Restoration theatre

Music took many forms and roles in Restoration theatre, meaning the music performed does not quite fit into a single category. Curtis Price describes the wide range of music used within the drama as follows:

Many plays included several songs, at least some of them with choruses and followed by dances; in tragedies one often finds full-blown masques, and music frequently accompanies religious processions or rituals and intensifies and foreshadows tragic events. In comedies, scenes are enhanced with a miscellany of musical entertainments, from miniature concerts to carefully choreographed entry dances.69

So musical performances did not just vary in style, but in scale as well. Music also had various functions to fulfil. Price distinguishes, for example, between incidental music and music used within the drama. Incidental music refers to mostly instrumental music that preceded the play (two pairs of contrasting pieces called ‘first’ and ‘second musick’)70 and was performed between the acts (called ‘act tunes’ or, towards the end of the century, ‘act songs’).71 Because incidental music was written specifically for each performance and thus offered listeners the newest fashions and styles, its link to the play (if there was any) depended to some extent on the amount of time composers had available to familiarise themselves with the play.72 In the beginning, the main function of the incidental music was ‘to provide contrast with and relief from spoken dialogue’,73 although the more music was used within the play the less it could fulfil this function. Additionally, music preceding the play functioned as entertainment while the audience arrived and the end of it simultaneously signalled the beginning of the performance.74 Pepys never mentions incidental music – perhaps an indicator that he did not consider it part of the actual performance and, by extension, of the experience.

As the quote from the beginning of this section suggests, music used within the drama cannot be subsumed under just one category, not just because it could be either vocal or instrumental, but also because various factors might have been responsible for its inclusion – for example, the plot or expectations inspired by individual actors/musicians. Regarding music within the play, Price attempts to distinguish between para-dramatic music (which is introduced for its own sake) and music that is integral to the development of the plot (and could either enhance the plot’s atmosphere or develop naturally through the plot).75


Different types of musicians were involved in a theatre performance: a group of instrumentalists, stage musicians (often referred to as ‘the musick’, which was ambiguously also used to denote music performed)76 and the actors themselves, who performed most of the singing parts and dances.

The group of instrumentalists varied in size depending on the budget. They performed mainly the first and second music and the overture, as well as the act tunes, but also became involved when more elaborate musical scenes were staged.77 The position of the group depended on the setting – wherever there was enough room, but that was not necessarily on stage. One option was the music room – a feature of Renaissance theatres which early Restoration theatres still used; depictions show it right above the stage, though in reality a side balcony might have been used instead.78 Pepys records not just the instrumentalists performing out of the music room, but singers as well.79 Another option was, at least at the newly built Theatre Royal in Bridges Street, in front of or under the apron stage – a position Pepys strongly criticises:

Only, above all, the Musique being below, and most of it sounding under the very stage, there is no hearing of the bases at all, nor very well of the trebles, which sure must be mended.80

The stage band often consisted of four or more musicians who performed different kinds of music (dances, serenades, accompaniment to songs, and so on), either on stage in costumes and in minor roles or off stage.81 Song accompaniment was usually done by a continuo-player (lutenist or later also a guitarist).82 While melody and lyrics of songs often survived in song anthologies, their accompaniment (that is, as it was actually performed on stage), as well as dance music, is more ephemeral.

The actors performed mostly on stage. Just as their instrumentalist counterparts were expected to possess a certain level of acting skill, so actors needed to have some skill in singing and dancing, although they mostly did not reach a professional level.83 Thus, demanding repertoire was performed by members of the stage band.


Due to a lack of sufficient source material such as subscription lists, the social composition of the Restoration audience has been the subject of some scholarly debate. The late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century scholarly misconception of the Restoration audience as a more or less homogeneous group of disinterested, rowdy aristocrats was re-evaluated in the late twentieth century. Javier García argued, for example, that plays were commonly referred to in non-theatre-related political publications that addressed diverse social groups, who consequently must have had knowledge of the plays’ content. This, he argues, is an indicator of a more diverse composition of the audience.84 He argues further that scholarly misconceptions might have stemmed from an inappropriate interpretation of characters, and from other contemporary publications that exaggerated the situation because of their targeted readership.85 As a result of these discussions, it is now widely accepted that the audience was composed of multiple social classes. Through an analysis of Pepys’ diary, Emmet Avery has shown, for instance, that the audience on these occasions when Pepys attended the theatre included members of the aristocracy (royalty included), parliament, the clergy, physicians, various family members and their servants, apprentices, public servants, and also playwrights or competing actors and actresses.86 Because ticket prices only rudimentarily regulated the seating arrangements, social groups were not strictly separated from each other.87 Despite the common occurrence of social variance, Pepys favoured a certain degree of balance between middling classes and the nobility, criticising the situation if in his opinion the audience was dominated too much by ‘citizens’.88

Another discussion point is theatre-goers’ degree of attention towards the stage (not only during the Restoration, but also in the eighteenth century).89 Theatre-going was a social act – that is well established – and the conditions favoured interaction among audience members: the auditorium remained lit by candles throughout the performance; and orange sellers walked around and sold snacks. From Pepys’ records of other people’s behaviour, it becomes clear that audience members were quite attentive, despite such distractions, and as part of their attentiveness offered immediate feedback, which they not only directed towards the stage, but exchanged with each other. Pepys records one of these instances:

[T]o the King’s playhouse, where The Heiress, notwithstanding Kinaston’s being beaten, is acted; and they say the King is very angry with Sir Ch. Sidly for his being beaten; but he doth deny it. But his part is done by Beeston, who is fain to read it out of a book all the while, and thereby spoils the part and almost the play, it being one of the best parts in it; […]. But it was pleasant to see Beeston come in with others, supposing it to be dark and yet he is forced to read his part by the light of the candles. And this I observing to a gentleman that sat by me, he was mightily pleased therewith and spread it up and down.90

On one occasion audience members hissed performers off the stage, because they disliked the singing so much.91 On other occasions it is the lack of reaction from them that supports Pepys’ low opinion of a performance.92

After pointing out some of the circumstances surrounding Restoration theatre-going, the analysis will turn to Pepys’ diary from three different perspectives, starting with the macro level, looking at the whole diary.

In total, the diary includes 350 instances in which Pepys attended the theatre in person.93 Figure 1 shows the distribution of absolute counts for his attendance, sorted by year. After the newly-formed theatre companies tentatively started out in 1660, the following year Pepys suddenly found ample opportunity to visit them, eager as he was to attend plays. After that, the sudden drop in attendance marks the beginning of the effect of his vows94 – a means of self-control, by which he attempted to temper his pleasure-seeking nature and improve his reputation.95 Thus, during the following years (that is, 1662 to 1666) his attendance is rather moderate. Besides that, both catastrophes (the plague and Great Fire) that struck London during 1665 and 1666 show up clearly in the data.96 After that, not only did Pepys enjoy performances with higher frequency, but his entries become longer and more detailed.

Figure 1: Attendance of theatre performances in absolute numbers

Figure 1 also makes it clear that music in comparison is not a prominent feature in Pepys’ recollection of theatre experiences. Only in 48 out of the 350 cases does music come up. The incidences become more frequent in the latter years of his diary, suggesting that he might have needed time to build up an expertise in theatrical music first and only afterwards felt competent enough to have an opinion. As already mentioned, Pepys does not comment on incidental music, focusing only on music within the drama. But still, keeping in mind the prominent role music had within the drama suggests that Pepys perceived this kind of music as an integral part of the play, and as an aspect not easily separated from the whole theatrical performance. And because he did not appear to consider the music and play separate from each other, this could explain why, despite music’s quantitative presence, it is not mentioned more frequently in the diary. In such cases, music possibly did not outshine the rest of the play enough and, consequently, was left out of the description. This selectiveness is one of the disadvantages of the diary format. Due to the limitations dictated by the diary’s materiality, anything that is recorded has to constitute an indispensible part of the experience that is necessary to record in order to define the experience itself.

A closer examination of the nature of Pepys’ accounts shows that they vary to some extent in length. On average, over the whole of the diary, a description of a theatrical experience is 77 words long (accounts including music are on average 118 words long; accounts that do not comment on music are on average 70 words long). A glance at a higher resolution of the distribution over the years (see Figure 2) shows that entries including musical references are generally longer – the exception being around the year 1665, during which Pepys had less opportunity to witness performances in general because theatres were closed from mid-1665 until late in 1666 due to the plague and the Great Fire. Besides, when the King and court left London due to the situation, so did most musicians, which suggests that either the proportion of music included in theatrical performances was reduced or Pepys could also have been too distracted by current events, which might have resulted in shorter entries.

Figure 2: Average length of entries based on number of words

And at this point, on the macro level at least, it becomes peculiar because, on the one hand – looking back to Figure 1 – though performances included music, it is seldom mentioned, despite its quantitative presence. An explanation might be that it is perceived as an integral part of the whole performance and thus requires a specific degree of exceptionality to be noticed. However, on the other hand – turning now again to Figure 2 – the difference in entry length suggests that music is not as integrated into the experience as one might think, but comes to the experience on top of what usually determines it. Because the solution to this contradiction seems elusive on the macro level, a closer examination of the way Pepys reconstructs his experiences on paper might shed more light on this.

Pepys uses quite a formalised method of record-keeping. Entries featuring theatre-related experiences are all fairly similarly constructed. Figure 3 shows the categories Pepys creates and the way in which he connects them to reconstruct his experiences in writing.

Figure 3: Schematic representation of Pepys’ entries relating to theatrical experiences

First of all, Pepys constructs a frame for each experience with the categories venue and play – for instance: ‘I to the Duke of York’s playhouse, where a new play of Etheriges called She would if she could’.97 There are only six occasions for which Pepys neglects to set this frame.98 This frame is then continued by one or more evaluations that describe Pepys’ opinion about individual aspects of said frame and occasionally the effect the experience had on him – placing the third cornerstone. Because no evaluations are made in very abbreviated entries, the third cornerstone is not included in the frame itself, but is positioned as more of a continuation of it.

Depending on what a situation requires, any of the three cornerstones might be augmented with various details. Nearly all of these additional details can influence Pepys’ evaluations of the experience (see the dotted, curved lines in Figure 3). An exception to this is his immediate company, a detail he uses to expand on the category venue.99 Further details used to enrich the description are related to the audience100 – its social composition and the seating arrangements. To return to the example introduced in the last paragraph, it continues thus:

And though I was there by 2 a-clock, there was 1000 people put back that could not have room in the pit; and I at last, because my wife was there, made shift to get into the 18d box – and there saw; but Lord, how full was the house […]. The King was there; but I sat mightily behind, and could see but little and hear not all.101

While his immediate companions do not influence his evaluations (that is the reason why in Figure 3 no dotted curved line links his companions to the evaluation category), the composition and size of the audience did occasionally have an impact, especially considering an imbalance between gentlemen/-women and ‘citizens’ in the audience (see section on ‘Audience’). Apart from Pepys’ perception of social inappropriateness regarding the audience’s composition, the seating arrangement occasionally impaired his view or the acoustics (see the last quote), thus indirectly impacting the evaluation. Furthermore, from Pepys’ remarks on other incidents it becomes apparent that in Restoration London the number of theatre-goers did not suffice to fill both major theatres at the same time.102 Rather, Pepys notes how premieres, even performances on the second day and special events pulled the audience to one house, leaving the other almost empty. Novelty seems to have been ranked higher than quality among the deciding factors regarding the choice of venue.103

The second cornerstone of Pepys’ frame – the category play – is expanded by adding details that concern the person responsible for the textual material, be it the actual playwright, the translator or the editor. By mentioning these names Pepys implies expectations he had towards the performance, as in this example:

The play is a translation out of French, and the plot Spanish; but not anything extraordinary at all in it, though translated by Sir W Davenant.104

Further details create a context for the performance and include additional information about the play in the form of phrase-like labels, for example, that it is a new play, an old one newly adapted, the premiere of the play, the second or third day of its performance, and so on. All of these additional details that expand the frame constituted by venue and play are presented in a factual manner, despite their potential to influence following evaluations. They might have carried along expectations, but seldom carried any evaluation in their description.

The third cornerstone of Pepys’ experience reconstruction – evaluation – tells, among other things, about music heard. That music is not part of the frame is another discovery. It supports the hypothesis that music within the drama is not easily separated from the play and its performance, but perceived as an integral, yet not itself a defining part. Evaluations can be subdivided into three main subcategories: play, performance and music, the second of which can be subdivided again into acting, singing and dancing. These subcategories are not independent of each other in every case; for example acting might sometimes include a musical performance, because songs were mostly performed by actors (see the section on ‘Musicians’). Each of these subcategories can be applied as need be, whenever the situation requires it. A closer look at the whole of Pepys’ evaluations shows that he uses two different types of judgements for this category: type A – a very brief one (for exemplary quotes see Table 1), offering just a qualitative evaluation without stating reasons or being specific about what aspects are actually judged; and type B – a more detailed, often longer evaluation (for exemplary quotes see Tables 2 and 3). Both types follow a hierarchy with type A ranking higher, that is type A judgements are usually employed first and with higher frequency.

Table 1: Vocabulary used for brief evaluations (excerpts from accounts of those theatre experiences that include music only: Pepys, Diary, various vols.)







general level
  • (very) good
  • very pleasant
  • most innocent
  • one of the best plays for a stage
  • well acted / performed
  • actors most good in it
  • very pretty
  • good singing
  • sings finely
  • very properly
  • singing did please us
  • pretty
  • some good dancing
  • very good
  • most excellently done
  • dances finely
  • most admirable
  • mighty pretty
  • curious piece of music
  • very stately
  • better then we looked
  • bad one
  • little good in it
  • not anything extraordinary at all in it
  • no excellent
  • mean
  • ordinary
  • most insipid, ridiculous
  • (very) silly
  • silly, dull thing
  • so so
  • a play I could not make anything of by those two acts
  • not that the play is worth much
  • poorly done
  • indifferently done
  • ill acted
  • not singing it right
  • sings naughtily
  • sings meanly
  • voice not very good
  • never was worse music played; that is, worse things composed

Looking at the distribution of excerpts of type A judgements in Table 1, the most immediate conclusion is that Pepys uses a more varied vocabulary for the general evaluation of plays than for any other evaluated subcategory.105
Furthermore, while adjectives used for general, positive judgements do not discriminate between different subcategories and thus are quite similar, focusing heavily on variations of good, the picture looks different for general, negative judgements. Here adjectives used vary to a greater degree in the case of plays than those used for the execution subcategories (that is, acting, singing, and dancing). This level of evaluation does not offer many insights into Pepys’ thoughts, but rather just classifies individual parts that constitute the event. It is important to keep in mind at this point, that not all these different elements are necessarily classified for every event. Again, the diary format is probably the reason for this. But considering the function of these brief evaluations, it is interesting that Pepys distinguishes at all between not only material and execution, but also different kinds of executions.

Looking next at the type B evaluations – the more descriptive, often longer ones – it is noteworthy that especially after 1666 Pepys becomes more verbose, specifically when judging the play and the musical performance. On this evaluation level Pepys no longer just praises or discards various subcategories defining his experience, but on the one hand he names specific characteristics that are evaluated and on the other hand he more often deliberates about the quality, comparing it with his expectations, with preconceived ideals or past experiences.

Table 2: Vocabulary used for specific evaluations of ‘play’ (excerpts from accounts of those theatre experiences that include music only: Pepys, Diary, various vols.)


specific level

  • good action in it
  • full of variety
  • having many good humours in it
  • no great wit, but yet good, above ordinary
  • a most sad, melancholy play, and pretty good, but nothing eminent in it as some Tragedies are
  • a very good play, but only the fancy; most of it the same as in the rest of my Lord Orery’s plays
  • but his words are but silly
  • while all the rest did through the whole pit blame the play as a silly, dull thing, though there was something very roguish and witty; but the design of the play, and end, mighty insipid
  • though there was here and there a pretty saying, and that not very many neither, yet the whole of the play had nothing extraordinary in it at all, neither of language nor design
  • and though the design is in the first conception of it pretty good, yet it is but an indifferent play
  • he silliest for words and design, and everything, that ever I saw in my whole life, there being nothing in the world pleasing in it but a good martial dance of pike-men
  • but of all the plays that ever I did see, the worst, having neither plot, language, nor anything in the earth that is acceptable
  • a silly play, I think, only the spirit in it, that grows very Tall and then sinks again to nothing

An examination of the type B evaluations of the subcategory ‘play’ (see Table 2) shows that aspects such as ‘design’, ‘language’, ‘action’, ‘humour and wit’, as well as ‘variety’, are influential in the deliberate, qualitative evaluation. With regards to the content of the categories, Pepys does not create new subcategories. He also does not change the vocabulary used to assign qualitative value, but rather he attributes the same evaluative adjectives to more precise characteristics of the respective subcategory. Thus, type B judgements are not necessarily longer than type A ones, but more precise.

In contrast, type B evaluations of the ‘performance’ (see Table 3), more specifically those referring to acting and singing, leave out any characteristics of execution that might indicate what has influenced Pepys’ judgement, and instead focus on who performs what, followed by a preference judgement. Only in reference to dancing is ‘variety’ again identified as an influential factor. A possible explanation for the difference between type B evaluations of play and performance might be hidden in the distinction between material and performative action. The aspects Pepys identifies as the basis for his evaluation of plays are based on literary ideals – characteristics that Pepys might have learned at school or through private study, aspects readers outside the performance context would consider, too. On the other hand, Pepys’ evaluation of performative action lacks those preconceived ideals. This is not limited to performances in the theatre context, but applies, for example, to musical performances in domestic contexts as well. A possible explanation might be that Pepys knew the contemporary literary discourse on drama and extracted characteristics necessary to evaluate from it, but he did not possess the same theoretical knowledge with regard to the performance of drama and music. This would imply that he did not know what to listen and watch for. Because literature related to music that Pepys had access to rarely said much about music composition (it focused either on philosophy or performance practice) and music criticism had not been institutionalised yet, Pepys could also be missing role models on which he could model his own writings. This would mean that modes of writing or speaking about performances might not have been as differentiated as in the case of literature.

Table 3: Vocabulary used for specific evaluations of the ‘performance’ (excerpts from accounts of those theatre experiences that include music only: Pepys, Diary, various vols.)





specific level

  • made the loveliest lady
  • giving us fresh reason never to think enough of Betterton
  • Knipp does the Widow well
  • Nelly, a most pretty woman, who acted the great part, Coelia, today very fine, and did it pretty well
  • finely Acted by Becke Marshall
  • sings a little song admirably
  • pretty to hear Knipp sing in the play very properly, All night I Weep, and sung it admirably
  • that we might hear the French Eunuch sing; which we did, to our great content
  • But such action and singing I could never have imagined to have heard
  • but that that pleased me most in the play is the first song that Knipp sings (she singing three or four); and indeed, it was very finely sung
  • the best variety of dancing and music that ever I saw
  • great variety of dances, and those most excellently done
  • In the dance, the Tall Devil’s actions was very pretty
  • Miss’ dancing in a shepherd’s clothes did please us mightily
  • I was pleased to see Knipp dance among the milkmaids
  • a most admirable dance at the end, of the ladies in a Military manner, which indeed did please me mightily
  • a good martial dance of pike-men, where Harris and another do handle their pikes in a dance to admiration
  • doth it rather better in all respects, for person, voice and judgment
  • ill acted to what it was heretofore in Clun’s time and when Lacy could dance
  • this being infinitely beyond the other
  • being most pleased to see the little girl dance in boy’s apparel, she having very fine legs; only, bends in the hams as I perceive all women do
  • there is no comparison between Nell’s dancing the other day at the King’s house in boy’s clothes and this, this being infinitely beyond the other
  • with much disorder
  • the acting not much worse, because I expected as bad as could: and I was not much mistaken, for it was so
  • But his part is done by Beeston, who is fain to read it out of a book all the while, and thereby spoils the part and almost the play, it being one of the best parts in it
  • fell out of key
  • [he] was so much out

Another observation that is evident in Table 3 is that for singing and dancing Pepys mixes in more personal statements about his preference – for example, he is ‘pleased’ to hear someone sing. While all of his evaluations are of course subjective, they are usually at least presented in a more objective manner; but, at this point his individual reaction starts to shine through.

Musical material unfortunately is not evaluated in detail. This, too, is not specific to the theatre context. Apart from these most frequently occurring subcategories, Pepys occasionally also evaluates actors’ or actresses’ outer appearance; he shows appreciation for painted scenery employed on stage and very rarely judges the architecture of the theatre, referring to the latter mostly when seating arrangements impair his view and/or the acoustics. His evaluations remain mostly constant over multiple viewings of the play, especially if he liked the experience from the beginning.106 Another discovery is that in the case of multiple viewings different things seem to become noteworthy to him. He does not usually mention things – apart from the type A judgements – twice.

Micro perspective: how music affected Pepys

On a micro level, the differences between quotes from either end of the diary mark changes in the way Pepys describes his listening experiences. While Pepys remains constant in his evaluation practice by stating preferences, rather than identifying and judging characteristics of music, in later years he increasingly adds details about emotional effects to his descriptions; for example, on 27 February 1668 Pepys writes:

[A]nd thence with my wife and Deb to the King’s House to see Virgin Martyr, the first time it hath been acted a great while, and it is mighty pleasant; not that the play is worth much, but it is finely Acted by Becke Marshall; but that which did please me beyond anything in the whole world was the wind-musique when the Angell comes down, which is so sweet that it ravished me; and indeed, in a word, did wrap up my soul so that it made me really sick, just as I have formerly been when in love with my wife; that neither then, nor all the evening going home and at home, I was able to think of anything, but remained all night transported, so as I could not believe that ever any music hath that real command over the soul of a man as this did upon me.107

This quote on its own shows Pepys’ modular strategy of experience reconstruction in action: he starts with the frame constituted by venue (‘King’s House’, that is Theatre Royal in Bridges Street) and play (‘Virgin Martyr’), and expands the latter with details about the play’s performance history (‘first time it hath been acted a great while’), and the former with naming his companions (his wife and her maid). He goes on giving type A judgements of the ‘play’ and the acting (‘not that the play is worth much’; ‘it is mighty pleasant’). And then he continues with two type B evaluations, giving a little more detail on the ‘acting’ (‘it is finely Acted by Becke Marshall’) and culminating in the emphatic evaluation of the musical performance, describing how deeply and especially physically it affected him. Beyond naming the type of music (‘wind-musique’) and the visual description of the moment of its experience (‘when the Angell comes down’), he focuses on its effects. One could argue that ‘sweet’ is an auditory characteristic, but that is the only one tentatively going in that direction. The rest of the description is completely focused on the way it affected his mind and body.

But that quote is particular in two further ways: for one thing, it describes instrumental music that seemingly was not performed on stage, but could be linked to the supernatural being, the angel, coming from above. Instrumental music is usually something Pepys does not notice unless it is part of the plot and thus linked to a performer or intended target on stage, the visual link between action and sound being a determining factor.

Despite numerous plays including supernatural beings, Pepys rarely mentions them and an explanation for his curiously empathic exclamation about the physical effects might be due to the link to the supernatural whose power is transferred via the visual onto the acoustic and thus could explain the extreme reaction.108

In any case, lingering effects and strong physical reactions are rare in Pepys descriptions and occur only in the latter part of the diary. There are not enough of these quotes to constitute with certainty a change in writing strategy with regard to music, but its particularity stands out nonetheless.


So far, the analysis of Pepys’ diary from three different vantage points has shown that music listening cannot be easily extracted or separated from descriptions of theatre-related experiences. Pepys does not write about incidental music, but rather about music within the drama only. He focuses heavily on songs and dances that were mostly performed by actors visible to him during the experience. Thus, the music Pepys describes is, in most cases, an integral part of the theatrical performance. The sparseness with which Pepys includes music in his entries supports this, taking into account that the material limitations of the diary format required everything recorded to cross a certain threshold of exceptionality and importance first in order to warrant its incorporation into the account as part of the experience.

The possibility that Pepys perceived music as something extra rather than integral to the play, which the data represented in Figure 2 initially suggested (because diary entries including music in the theatre context on average are longer than those not referring to music), has been countered by the analysis of his systematic approach (see Figure 3). For each theatrical experience Pepys meticulously sets up a frame which is continued by evaluations. To enrich his report, he chooses from a set of categories (including play, music and performance, that is, acting, singing and dancing), all of which represent parts of the experience but are only mentioned if they are deemed indispensable for the definition of the experience as a whole. Therefore, the fact that Pepys’ accounts including music are longer could have another cause. One explanation might be that the length is a representation of his uncertainty, his ignorance with regard to common ideals of composition and sound. Commenting on his personal preferences and on the impact music had on him might be his way of hiding the fact. He does not reflect on why he considers it necessary to judge individual parts of his experience, including music. The evaluation of music he experiences is also not limited to the theatre context, which could mean that this habit was a defining component of Pepys’ music listening practice on a broader scale.

A closer analysis of vocabulary used to evaluate several different categories relating to performative action challenges the idea that music might be perceived separately from the play even further, because Pepys does not discriminate between individual categories. Instead, he uses the same vocabulary for them all on the general evaluative level. Furthermore, the analysis showed that Pepys employs two different types of evaluation, the difference between them pertaining to their level of specificity. While more elaborated judgements of the material basis for the performance remained brief, but became more distinct and precise, judgements of performative categories like acting, singing and dancing in contrast remained rather unspecific. Pepys added to them only circumstantial facts. The analysis thus has shown that during the 1660s at least Pepys’ verbalisation strategies differ in the cases of literature and performance. This difference could stem either from his ignorance with regard to respective contemporary discourses, that is from not knowing what to evaluate in more detail and how to describe it, or it could stem from differing natures of writing and speaking about both categories. In any case, Pepys’ evaluations of performance and music remain simple.

It is unfortunate that Pepys discontinued his diary in 1669. It would have been interesting to compare his descriptions of listening at the theatre with experiences he probably had at the first commercial concerts in the 1670s, to find out how his perception of music, and maybe even the strategy used to describe it, had developed by then.

Select bibliography

Avery, Emmett L. ‘The Restoration audience’, Philological Quarterly 45, pp. 54–61, 1966.

García, Javier Ortiz. ‘Restoration audience in England. A supporting approach’, The Grove: Working Papers on English Studies 5, pp. 103–115, 1998.

Lewcock, Dawn. ‘Converse with the audience in Restoration theatre’, Participations. Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 3, no. 1, 2006,, accessed 13 March 2017.

Lowerre, Kathryn. Music and Musicians on the London Stage, 1695–1705. Farnham: Ashgate, 2009.

Major, Philip (ed.). Thomas Killigrew and the Seventeenth-Century English Stage. New Perspectives. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.

Pepys, Samuel. The Diary of Samuel Pepys. A New and Complete Transcription, 11 vols., ed. by Robert Latham and William Matthews. London: Bell & Hyman, 1970–1983.

Price, Curtis. Music in the Restoration Theatre, with a Catalogue of Instrumental Music in the Plays 1665–1713. Ann Arbor: UMI Research Press, 1979.

Listening in historical contexts

Eighteenth-century musical listeners as revealed in the papers of James Harris

Donald Burrows

Donald Burrows is an Emeritus Professor of Music at The Open University, Milton Keynes (UK), a Vice-President of the Händelgesellschaft, and Chairman of The Handel Institute. His books include the Master Musicians biography of Handel, and Handel and the English Chapel Royal, which has been recognised as the first full-scale study of Handel’s English church music. His published editions of Handel’s music include the oratorios Messiah, Samson and Belshazzar, the operas Imeneo and Ariodante, the complete violin sonatas and the suite for two harpsichords. Subjects of other publications include concert life in Britain and the music of Edward Elgar; subjects of recent articles have been Sir Malcolm Sargent and an introduction to the history of Bedford Choral Society.


James Harris (1709–80) was an author of philosophical books about the interpretation of language. He was based at the family home in Salisbury until 1761, when he was elected as a Member of Parliament and thereafter divided his time between Salisbury and London. He was also an active amateur musician, as co-director of Salisbury’s Musical Society and a harpsichord player who encouraged the musical talents of his family. During visits to London in the 1730s he attended Handel’s performances, and his correspondence with the 4th Earl of Shaftesbury includes some of the most well-informed descriptions of their experiences. Particularly valuable, also, is the record of the concerts that Harris and his family attended (and sometimes presented) during the 1760s and 1770s, mostly private events for which there is no public record. A summary of these concerts is presented in an analytical table, as an Appendix to this chapter.


James Harris (1709–80) came from a family of lawyers and land-agents, whose main family residence was in Salisbury Cathedral Close. He was known for his publications as a philosopher (as understood at the time); his most famous work, Hermes, received a somewhat controversial reception in England, but was influential in Germany during the second half of the eighteenth century.109 His life has two main phases: following undergraduate study at Oxford University (without proceeding to a degree) he was resident in Salisbury until 1761, when he was elected Member of Parliament for Christchurch (Hants.); thereafter he divided his years between Salisbury and London, moving to the latter with his family for the periods of the Parliamentary sittings. His son James followed a diplomatic career, serving in Madrid, Berlin and St Petersburg, receiving a knighthood in 1779 and created Earl of Malmesbury in 1800. Fortunately, the family archives have been carefully preserved by his successors and are now deposited at the Hampshire Record Office. They first came to my attention on account of an important collection of manuscript copies of Handel’s music and references to the composer in letters that were known from published extracts; further research revealed a rich collection of material on musical (as well as political and domestic) matters. With the generous co-operation of the sixth and seventh Earls of Malmesbury, Rosemary Dunhill and I were able to survey the archive for references to theatre and music during Harris’s lifetime, which came to publication in 2002.110

Music was a major interest of the elder James Harris, and the Malmesbury papers provide much evidence, mainly from letters and diaries, of his activity as both a listener and a participant. He gave domestic concerts in Salisbury and in London; in Salisbury he was co-director of the Musical Society and the annual St Cecilia Festival. Salisbury music-making involved performers from elsewhere – from Oxford and Bath for the fortnightly Society meetings, and from London for the festivals;111 the Harris papers provide invaluable material about the arrangements with performers and also incidentally about music-making in other places, including Durham and Hertford. Although his son had little interest in music, his daughters performed; his younger daughter Louisa in particular took the matter seriously, learning the harp and seeking singing lessons from the Italian opera stars (castrati) in London. In the last phase of his life Harris was appointed Secretary to Queen Charlotte and his diaries, as well as including reports of the royal family’s concerts, record an occasion when he played music by Handel on the harpsichord to King George III.112 Partly as a result of the employment of leading performers from London for the Salisbury Festival, Harris developed social relationships with professional musicians. Fanny Burney recorded that at a London concert in 1775:

We met Mr and Miss Louisa Harris there & while we were talking with them, most of the Performers in the Concert came up to them. They addressed us, & entered into conversation with the Harris’s, who seem never so pleased as when Engaged with the most eminent Singers & players.113

For the Salisbury Festival in 1773, the visiting musicians received hospitality from the Harris household, an occasion engagingly described by Elizabeth Harris (James’s wife):

Our orchestra was chiefly Germans save one Spaniard nam’d Ximenes, two Italians Grassi and Storace. They all lik’d our table; we had them three days and … your father was enabled to give them variety of good wines, to which the Germans shew’d no dislike. Fischer [oboe player] was so pleasd with your Tinto di Rota that I fear’d his head might have been disorder’d but that was my ignorance, for both him and [J. C.] Bach have heads as strong again as our squires. I must do them justice to say never people behav’d better.114

Listening experiences described in the Harris papers

Diaries and correspondence of this period typically reveal little about the reaction of listeners to the music they heard. More frequently it is social details of performances that are recorded, such as comments on the venue and the audience, and names of performers. While evaluations of performers are sometimes found, only rarely do the sources convey reactions to the music that was played and sung. However, one document among the Malmesbury papers clearly stands out from the rest for the detail that it contains about the musical experience. A letter from the Earl of Shaftesbury to James Harris on 18 January 1737, following his attendance at the first night of a Handel opera at Covent Garden theatre includes:

I was at Arminius last Saturday where I had the pleasure to meet many of our musical friends. Sir Wyndham Knatchbull was of the number & I think looks very well. Mr Handel has a much larger orquestre (I know not how to spell that word) than last year & the loss of Castrucio [violinist/leader] is abundantly supplied by Martini [oboe player] who plays immediately above Clegg where Castrucio us’d to sit. The overture is a very fine one & the fuge I think as far as I can tell at once hearing not unlike to that in Admetus; it (the overture) ends with a minuet strain. The first song is a duet between Annibali [castrato singer] & Strada [soprano] & is but short, but like the whole piece in every respect excellent & vastly pleasing.

To tell you my real opinion of Annibali I found him widely different from the idea I had conceiv’d of him but it was on the right side that I was mistaken for he prodigiously surpass’d my expectations. His voice it must be confess’d is not so good as some we have had; the lower noates of it are very weak & he has not the melowness of Senesino (nor as far as I can guess) the compass, but the middle part of it is clear strong & manly & very tunable. It must be owing to the songs in Porus being too low for him that my Couzin Hooper could imagine he sung out of tune, for though I did not hear him I will venture to contradict it, as he is by far a greater master of musick than any man I ever heard sing on a stage. He is as exact in his time as Caporali [cellist] who plays the base, though he sings with the greatest ease imaginable & his closes are superiour to them all (but Strada); he comes to them in the most natural rational way, always keeps within the air & scarce ever makes two alike throughout the opera. One is never in any pain about him, he enters so thoroughly into what he is about both as to action as well as the song. His action indeed is incomparable & he sings with all the passion his voice will admitt. – Upon the whole he pleases me the best of any singer I ever heard without exception.

I need but mention Strada’s name, you know her excellencies. She has a charming part. As for Conti [castrato singer] he sings I think better than last year in that he keeps more within his voice. Martini has a solo upon the hautboy with only Conti singing to it. Indeed Martini exerts himself mightily through the whole opera. Beard has but two, though two too many, songs for he is absolutely good for nothing: Bertolli’s & Negri’s songs are pleasing firm compositions & they perform them extremely well. The base has but one song.

The opera is rather grave[,] but correct & labour’d to the highest degree & is a favourite one with Handel. The bases & accompaniment if possible is better than usual. But I fear ’twill not be acted very long. The Town dont much admire it. But as my father says ‘Harmony is Harmony though all the world turn Goths’, & I add, or fine gentlemen. This delightfull peice of musick will come out by the middle of next month at the same price to subscribers as Atalanta was & under Mr Handel’s inspection. I am afraid I have tired you already but I cannot leave this agreable subject without repeating my commendations of the opera: I think there is rather more variety & spirit in it than in any of the preceeding ones & tis admirably perform’d. There is a life & vigour in Annibali I am sure you will like. ‘Experto credite quo turbine torqueat hastam?’115 may be applicable to him with regard to the vigour of his action. … Most people (not Sir Wyndham, Mr Jennens &c) are of a quite different opinion as to Annibali &c from myself but when you come you will determine it.116

This account reveals much about the listening skills and overall musical abilities of both the author and the recipient of the letter. Although there is little evidence that Shaftesbury was a practicing musician, he clearly had the experience, aural awareness and vocabulary to communicate his experience. At this stage Harris and Shaftesbury were young men for whom music was a topic of discussion; Harris sent drafts of his ‘Discourse on music, painting and poetry’ for Shaftesbury’s comments.117 Regrettably, little subsequent correspondence at this level survives from later years.

The context for listening in Harris’s London

Undoubtedly Shaftesbury was one of the most articulate members of the London opera audience in 1737, and it is rare to have an insight of this quality into a listening experience. The nature and quality of the experiences among the audience as a whole remain something of a puzzle. Some idea of the membership of the eighteenth-century London audience can be gained from the subscription lists to published music. It is possible to imagine the relevance of the lists for publications of keyboard suites; technically the music might be challenging, but there would have been some point to placing the music on the harpsichord for the purchaser’s family to attempt, and the practical function of the published collections of two-stave arrangements of arias (for which there were no subscription lists) can similarly be understood. More curious are the subscription lists for full-score publications of music from Handel’s operas and oratorios, with entries of names sometimes running to three figures. A handful of the names are of executant musicians or musical societies, but most are not. Even after vanity purchases (for personal libraries) and patronage (particularly to support the composer in difficult times) are taken into account, the puzzle remains: how did the purchasers understand or ‘use’ the musical notation printed in these expensive books, and how did they relate to the performances that they attended?

Beyond the rare records of musical experience, the Harris papers have some vivid reports of the circumstances in which listening took place, as for example Elizabeth Harris’s description of a high-profile benefit concert in March 1779:

Louisa and I last night were in [the] most desagreable croud I ever yett was in, at the Freemasons Hall. We went merely on principal to do creditt to Miss Harrupps benefitt: I not only admire her as one of the finest singers, but her behaviour is so decent and unaffected, that she ought to be encourag’d. There were a thousand people in the room, and by what I heard four hundred in the tea rooms, and two hundred sent away. Amidst this numerous meeting I saw very few people I had ever seen before. Such quarrelling among footmen and coachmen that it was impossible to gett away; it is a tavern with a long passage that was crouded by swearing footmen. The great room swarm’d with pick pockets; my neighbour Cox lost a fine gold snuff box, and many others had their different losses. The concert ended between ten and eleven, but it was one before we could gett away. We walk’d some way to the coach; no danger of pick pocketts in the street, they were all in the Freemasons Hall. There were fellows that cutt ladies pockets but we escap’d, though I was much alarm’d with the idea of having my pocket cutt, for fear they might cutt too deep. Never will I sett my foot again in Freemasons Hall. We never felt so happy as when we were clear of the coaches at the end of Long Acre. Miss Benson was if possible more alarm’d and fatigu’d than I was. We gott Mr Greenwood, and Mr Fulham by way of philanders, and brought them home in the coach with us.118

Clearly, in such a busy environment the listening experience was far removed from the ordered concert experience of modern audiences.

Other sections of this letter provide insights into the circumstances of private concerts of the period in London:

Tis said Miss Townshend was married to Mr Wilson at a fruit shop [unlicensed registry] in Town. … That this man should gett admitted a subscriber to our most vertuous concert you will be astonish’d at: our great Lady and Governess clears herself by saying he came recommended by Mr Agar. Assoon as Wilson’s character was known she most strictly desir’d all the young ladies not to speak to him; he will be expell’d as will Mr Agar.

Louisa has been greatly occupied in disposing of subscriptions for Rauzzini and Lamotte’s concert [series]; she will raise them near two hundred guineas. It begins this evening.

The private concerts are also referred to in one of Elizabeth’s letters from the previous year:

We never had so many private engagements as this year, so consequently we see little of the public diversions, except some times an opera. …

Lamotte and Rauzzini’s concert will begin Friday. I think they will have a good subscription, if all the books fill like Louisa’s[;] she wants only four to make up a hundred. Those we hope to gett before Friday. The Duchess of Ancaster has a tolerable book, so has Lady Clarges, but Louisa has the greatest number. The Duchess of Chandos, Lady Craven, are gone [out] of Town so their books will be very small if any at all.

We had some music here last Thursday. Miss Bulls sung duetts finely, Lamotte playd delightfull, Louisa & Rauzzini sung vastly well, though he had a cold, and she was in the rheumatism.119

More often, however, the Harris family’s activity in London concert-going is only recorded through brief references, such as these entries in James Harris’s diaries:

[1775] Paid Kemmeil his concert subscription for myself, wife and Louisa £9. 09. 0

Add Mr Ewer’s half subscription to Bach £2. 12. 6

Wednesday March 17 [1779] Went to the House [of Commons] – came home early – went to Bach’s concert;

Friday [19 March 1779] Went in the evening to our concert at Mrs Bohun’s, & thence to Lady Arundel’s assembly.120

As a record of listening experiences, most of the references are rather frustrating. They describe occasions and locations, and in diminishing quantity may note the names of the persons present and the performers (particularly if virtuosic or domineering), though rarely naming any of the music performed and virtually never providing any Shaftesbury-like appreciation of the quality or content of the music.121 As usual, there seems to be an inextricable mixture of musical and social motives involved in attendance, and there are complaints when the balance between them impaired the musical experience, as on one occasion in February 1779:

You should have a journal of our past actions, since last Tuesday. Wednesday we went to Baron Alvesleven’s. By the way that concert is much improv’d; there I left Louisa under Mrs Morrisons wing, and went myself to the Fields. … Friday was the Shab Rab, never was any thing so very shocking as [the way that] Kammell and the others accompanied Louisa’s song. The opera being that night … the best hands were oblig’d to be there, and a most sad concert we had. … Last night we were at a concert at Lady Neuhavens, moderate enough as to music, but the crime of company who talk’d all the time, but when ladies were singing; they were Lady Cranborn, Lady Margaret Fordyce, Miss Graham, and Louisa.122

The last phrase is a reminder that both professional and amateur performers were involved with the private concerts; indeed, they gave the ‘ladies’ a forum for musical performance that would not have been socially acceptable at public events.

Given competent leading performers and good management, the private concerts seem to have run quite successfully, in particular those concert series that were under the management of performers. Some of these met in regular venues, though not concert rooms, and some apparently rotated round the houses of a consortium of hosts. Occasions that passed without incident also passed without comment, but that was not always the case. Elizabeth anticipated trouble in February 1775:

We are going this evening to Lady Mary Forbes, where Louisa’s harp is invited. That said harp is much in fashion. Saturday she exhibited at Sir Charles Cocks’s, and Louisa and Gertrude sung duets, with great applause. I have no great expectation of much this evening, knowing the vivacity of the lady of the house to be too great, to attend herself, or lett any body else attend.123

Indeed her instinct was correct:

Lett me see, – I will recount our adventures from Teusday, when we attended the wildest meeting I ever assisted at before, at Lady Mary Forbes. It was design’d for a concert, one fiddle & a harpsicord composing the band; the good Lady herself, together with her green hat & candle screen, the strangest figure I ever saw, calling aloud for chorus’s with one voice, trios without a bass & the like impossibilitys. Madame Deiden on the harpsicord & Louisa on the harp were the only reasonable performance’s; the company was good, & were contented to spend four hours hearing this extraordinary concert. Wednesday we went to Bachs [concert] and Friday was kept in the usual way.124

On one occasion, also, Louisa Harris rescued a concert that was threatened by the unreliability of the principal performer:

We were all ask’d Sunday last to Lady Galways, to hear Tessier sing and play on the harp. We assembled soon after eight; a number of people of the highest fashion in Town were there. The harp was plac’d in the corner of the room and Tessier appear’d, but said he could not sing and went away imediately. There were performers enough for the purpose, and they made out something of a concert. Louisa went away in Sir Ralph Payne’s coach, to fetch two songs, and Lady Stormont sung. Mrs Sheridan sung four songs, a finer voice was never heard [but] the learned say she has been ill taught. We are ask’d again next Sunday to Lady Galways, when Tessier has promis’d to read, but he is such a puppy, I have no confidence in him.125

Performances in London attended by the Harris family

The Appendix lists the concerts attended by members of the Harris family in London from 1761 to 1780, derived from references in the Harris papers, principally family correspondence (especially between Elizabeth Harris and her son) and James Harris’s engagement diaries.126 The list inevitably gives an incomplete record on account of the uneven nature of the sources: family correspondence varied in frequency and content, and complete runs of James’s diaries survive only from the years 1770– 01 and 1775–79. Attention is also restricted to concerts, to the exclusion of other musical events such as operas and plays with incidental music; the annual concerts in support of the Fund for Decay’d Musicians (which took place in the opera house, and were based around the current opera singers) are included, but opera performances for the benefit of individual singers are not, since they were part of the annual opera programme.

Given the caveat about capricious survival of sources, the record nevertheless gives a good general idea of the family’s concert-going activity. In the case of public concerts (listed in the Appendix under A1 and A2), the references in the Harris papers can be matched up with advertisements in the London newspapers and other contemporary sources. It seems that, as their social activity in London developed, the Harris family attended all of the known major concert series (A1), in particular those of Bach/Abel and Rauzini/Lamotte, and indeed Louisa Harris was involved with gathering subscribers for the latter. In principle the family seem to have attended all the concerts that they could, taking family tickets (mainly for three people) for the regular series. When no attendance is recorded, this is usually for good reasons: the family’s arrival in London from Salisbury was delayed, James Harris’s activity was limited by gout or late sittings at the House of Commons, other family illness was involved, or there was a clash with some other event.

In the case of the individual public concerts (A2) the record shows that they attended most of London’s principal venues. Even allowing for the uneven survival of documentation, there appears to have been a change in 1775, with a big expansion in attendance at benefit concerts, supplemented by regular attendance at the Concerts of Antient Music. It is not clear whether this reflects a change in the range of concert activity available to Londoners, or a change in the family’s social programme. As to the occurrences of the events themselves, the Harris references generally confirm what is available from advertisements, which occasionally also give some details of the music to be performed. Only a couple of occasions are not matched from other sources, and even in these cases there is the possibility of some accidental misinformation, such as an incorrect date in a diary entry.

The private concerts (B), however, are a different matter. There were usually no public advertisements for these concerts and so the Harris papers provide important, sometimes unique, information; many of the concerts which are calendared there are otherwise undocumented. The references provide virtually no detailed or specific information about the programmes performed, but the entries give the date and time of day for the events, sometimes the names of people present and sometimes the names of performers. In some cases the fact of a concert series (B1) can be reconstructed by putting together successive references on the same day of the week or by a casual hint in correspondence. In view of this necessarily speculative element of reconstruction, B1 concentrates on series that apparently ran for several seasons. Some of these are already known from other sources, as for example Baron Alvensleben’s concerts. Even there, however, the Harris papers reveal a situation that illuminates the actions of the ‘listeners’: the Baron’s concerts on Wednesdays involved a clash with the Bach/Abel series, and James Harris had to attend them alternately.

Rather intriguing is one series of concerts that is referred to regularly but somewhat obliquely – as, for example, ‘our private concerts’. It appears that there were usually ten concerts per year in this series, hosted in turn in different people’s houses, running in a period through January to March. (This was also the usual season for public concert series.) They were probably managed, at least in the early years, by the violinist Antonin Kammell. Elizabeth Harris commented, half protestingly but also half smugly, that the tickets were not transferable. This was obviously a very exclusive social operation with mainly professional performers, though Louisa Harris also regularly took part.

The other private concerts (B2) were more miscellaneous, but there seem to be some patterns. Hosts fixed on regular times: Sir William Young on Sunday evenings in 1770, Mr Ward on Tuesday evenings in 1772 and Sir Charles Cocks (a Harris relative) on Saturday mornings, involving some overlapping with Mrs Chetwynd’s concerts at the same time. In this area there are some problems of definition – between concerts and assemblies, between professional and amateur participants – but exclusiveness by invitation was clearly of the essence. The Harrises made occasional excursions to the concerts by the Sharp family in Old Jewry, and their account of the first visit suggests some trepidation: the ‘Concert Spirituel’ programme was unusual and the venue was away from the comfort zone of the West End.

For some concerts there is evidence of only one or two events, from family (or extended-family) occasions. By far the best documented of these are the concerts given by James Harris himself at his successive London homes. For two concerts his daughter Gertrude listed the audience – 63 names in 1764 and 89 names in 1765.127 At that stage Harris was relatively new to London and had rising political prospects, so his concerts probably contributed to making his mark in society. Later his concerts seem to have been designed to give opportunities for Louisa and her friends to perform. Since Louisa was being taught by Italians, it is not surprising that the programmes included works by Pergolesi, Sacchini and Quirino Gasparini, but the repertory around settings of the Miserere and the Stabat Mater did not sit easily with the potential audience, as Elizabeth Harris noted in 1775:

Your father and I went Wednesday to the oratorio in the Haymarket[;] your sisters are too refin’d for old Handel. We were greatly entertain’d. Never was a finer band, the instrumental parts and the chorus’s went as well as in the days of Handel. I do not say much of the voices, though my country men Corfe, and Parry did their parts well.

Yesterday morning we had a different kind of music, viz Sacchinis Miserere which was rehearsd in this room. The voices were Rauzzini (the first opera man), Savoye, Passini, a base, and Louisa. Tis undoubtedly the finest composition imaginable and tis impossible it can be better sung. The great distress of Louisa and Mr Harris is to find out people worthy to hear it, nor can they make out more than five or six among all their acquaintance. We have thought of the Bench of Bishops, some of the Judges, and some Roman Catholics, but the Bishops though they must look grave like things more lively, the Judges are gone the Circuit, and the Papishes have enough of the penitential at this season. This day se’night is fixt for the grand performance. These said musical sett all din’d here yesterday after the Miserere and very entertaining they were; after we came up they play’d and sung a great deal.128

However, things turned out well enough, as Harris recorded in his diary:

March 17 [1775] A fine concert at my house – the Miserere of Sacchini performed by Rauzzini, Savoi, Passini, my daughter Louisa & Webb – the fortepiano playd by Sacchini, the violoncello by Cirri. After it was finished, each of the 3 principal singers (Rauzzini, Savoi & Passini the tenor) sung to the harpsicord – before they sung their songs, we had a glee of Webbs [sung] by himself, Corfe, Mrs Blosset, Miss Holford, & my daughter – and another glee to conclude the whole. My room was filled with the best company – the singers dined with me. Went in the evening to Mrs Pitt’s concert.129

The rise of the glee is one of the musical trends which is revealed by the reports of the Harris concerts, and it is interesting that (in this context) there was no convention of all-male performers.

Although the evidence needs to be interpreted with caution, the Harris papers seem to record a growth in the area of private concerts in London, particularly during the 1770s. This was not without its effect on other musical activities. In particular, the occurrence of regular concerts on Wednesdays and Fridays conflicted with the established nights for oratorio performances in the London theatres during the same period; although James Harris had been an enthusiast for Handel’s own performances in the 1730s and 1740s, he was rarely seen at the oratorios in the later period. Some aspects of the balances between various factors in the concerts (social/musical, public/private, amateur/professional) are difficult to determine, but my suspicion is that a change in social attitudes had been at work, towards more rigidity in social definitions and exclusions, than had been the case in the first half of the eighteenth century. This may, however, be a reflection simply of an extension in the range and nature of London’s musical performances, and even of a shift in the nature of Harris’s social circle.130


In many ways the reports on musical events that are found in the archive of James Harris’s papers are typical of the sources from the period. They provide considerable information about the contexts for listening: details of the venues, names of performers and names of members of the audience. There are occasional observations about, and evaluations of, the performers. Personal reactions to what was heard are rare, but the descriptions are extremely valuable on those occasions when the writer is providing an extended report to a like-minded correspondent, rather than simply noting an event in a diary or journal. Most valuable of all, however, is the detailed record that the Harris papers provide of where and when music could be heard in London during the 1760s and 1770s, particularly with regard to private concerts for which we inevitably have no record from contemporary advertisements. The Harris family obviously attended all the musical events that they could during the periods that they lived in London, and they moved in a social circle where a large proportion of the available musical experience was provided by privately-hosted concerts in domestic venues. Their listening experience often involved several musical events in the same week, at the theatres, concert rooms and private houses.


Select bibliography

Burrows, Donald and Dunhill, Rosemary. Music and Theatre in Handel’s World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Burrows, Donald. ‘Pomegranates and oranges: Jamas Harris’s philosophy and Handel’s music’, Händel-Jahrbuch, 63 Jg., 2017, pp. 35–47.

McVeigh, Simon. Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Wollenberg, Susan and McVeigh, Simon (eds). Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.



Listening in historical contexts

London’s art music and provincial listeners in England c.1700–1850

David Rowland

David Rowland is Director of Postgraduate Studies, Professor of Music at The Open University and Principal Investigator for the Listening Experience Database (LED) project. He is the author of three books and numerous chapters and articles on the performance history of the piano and early keyboard instruments. More recently, he edited the first scholarly edition of Clementi’s correspondence, which provided the impetus for a much broader investigation of the London music trade during the French Revolution and Napoleonic Wars, on which he has published extensively. David is also a performer on early keyboard instruments and Director of Music at Christ’s College, Cambridge.


London dominated the English musical scene from 1700 to 1850, but provincial listeners were increasingly able to sample what the capital had to offer by hearing travelling musicians and by visiting the capital themselves. For most of the period provincial audiences were drawn from the wealthy ranks of society, but towards the middle of the nineteenth century initiatives were taken which opened the concert experience to lower-income listeners.

How did audiences listen? A growing literature suggests that towards the middle of the nineteenth century a new, intense model of listening came to the fore, in contrast to the more casual experience of the eighteenth century. In reality, however, there appears to have been a variety of listening modes in operation at any one time, depending on the context of the musical experience and the individual listener.

What many provincial listening accounts have in common is their description of a gulf in standards between performances by London musicians and their provincial counterparts. The opportunity to hear performers from the capital therefore provided provincial listeners with a distinctive experience.


From 1750 to 1850 London’s musical life flourished. Underpinning the city’s success were highly favourable economic and social conditions.131 The British economy had expanded steadily for some years and continued to grow more or less consistently in spite of the problems of war. During the period Gross Domestic Product (GDP) per person increased by about 25%, exports grew and the richest 5% in society grew disproportionately wealthier. London was where many of these wealthy individuals were based and between 1700 and 1850 the capital’s population quadrupled; in 1851 it numbered 2,362,000, not far short of 15% of the population of England. With such a broad and affluent base of support, it is hardly surprising that London’s musical life flourished.

Evidence for the pre-eminence of London within the musical life of the country is found in the activities of its vibrant and extensive concert life, its opera houses, theatres and pleasure gardens. Some of the earliest of Britain’s most important musical institutions were founded there, such as the Philharmonic Society (1813) and the Royal Academy of Music (1822). Music publishing and musical instrument making were centred on London and the capital was the first port of call for most visiting musicians from the continent. The city was effectively the home of the British music profession. As Ehrlich noted, ‘by far the greatest number of [British] mid-eighteenth-century musicians, perhaps some 1500, were based in London. Apart from the university cities, no provincial centre, except Dublin, Bath, and, for a brief period, Edinburgh, could provide regular employment for more than a score of full-time practitioners; and even their complements never exceeded fifty’.132 Although provincial English centres became increasingly important, there was little change in London’s position as the main centre for music-making throughout the period.

How did London’s art-music culture spread to the English provinces and what was its impact outside of the capital? In this chapter we will consider how that culture was taken to audiences in the provinces, first by describing the mechanics by which that culture was disseminated, and then by considering how listeners reacted when they experienced it at first hand.

London’s music and the provinces

Musicians often left London for the provinces during the summer months, when the so-called ‘London season’ ended. The ‘London season’ was a well-known feature of social life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.133 It encompassed the colder parts of the year during which the aristocracy and some of the wealthier middle classes were in the capital. When the season was over they dispersed to their country homes. The dates of this annual rhythm were not fixed, but London’s concerts generally ran from around October to May, or a little later, and as temperatures increased the pleasure gardens provided entertainment. The important moment in this annual rhythm when London society emptied into the countryside is captured in a letter dated 25 July 1800, in which Charles Burney expresses his frustration to Longman, Clementi & Co. that the subscribers he had organised to Haydn’s Creation were ‘on the swing’ and would be out of the capital ‘in a few days’,134 causing him expense and trouble in delivering their copies of the work.

Wealthier society members who left the capital for their country estates in the summer months sometimes invited musicians to visit them to provide entertainment. For example, Handel visited the Salisbury home of James Harris in 1739.135 W. T. Parke’s Memoirs record a visit of the pianist Muzio Clementi and the cellist John Crosdill to Lord Pembroke’s estate at Wilton near Salisbury in 1796, where the musicians played at the request of the company.136 In 1791 Haydn went to stay with the banker Nathaniel Brassey, who had a country house in Hertfordshire.137 At the beginning of August 1794 he went to Bath with the flautist Ashe and the singing teacher and composer Cimador. They stayed at the home of the musician Rauzzini, going to Bristol afterwards, and then on to visit Lord Abingdon.138 The musician Sir George Smart was a favourite of the aristocracy and upper middle classes.139 Occasions on which he provided musical entertainment to the royal household included several visits to Weymouth in the two decades after 1804 and a number of visits to Brighton in the 1820s and 1830s. These seaside towns had become popular with the royals after Princess Amelia stayed in Weymouth in 1798 and after the Prince Regent (later King George IV) visited Brighton in 1783. Because of their royal connections these towns attracted others from London society who required musical entertainment. Smart also made visits into the country to other well-established figures, such as the piano maker James Broadwood, in 1811, at his country home near Worthing.140 Of course, most visits such as these by London musicians to the provinces were essentially private affairs; they had little impact on anyone outside the close circle of the patrons who invited them, although the presence of the royal family tended to be a magnet for other society members, so that the places they visited saw a growth in public entertainment.

Touring musicians from the capital were heard by wider public audiences in the provinces chiefly, but not exclusively, in the summer months. They took advantage of the opportunities presented by a developing provincial concert culture and the emergence of the festivals that were to be such an important feature of the musical life of the nation in the long nineteenth century.141

Concert-giving in Britain arose out of the new entrepreneurial spirit that developed from the second half of the seventeenth century. The idea of selling performances to a fee-paying audience emerged in 1670s London and then spread to the provinces, where the first concerts were established by 1700.142 These early provincial concerts generally took place in cathedral cities such as Gloucester, Hereford, Norwich, Salisbury, Wells, Worcester and York, and the role and enthusiasm of the local clergy were often crucial to their development. Some concerts were grouped into series, which were paid for by subscription and typically held every fortnight or so, but others were advertised as one-off events. At first, venues varied from a room in the local inn to the local church or cathedral, but assembly rooms also became an increasing feature of musical and social life during the latter part of the eighteenth century. Concert halls were built in increasing numbers towards the end of our period.

In the eighteenth century the musicians who played in concerts were usually a mix of the local gentry and professional musicians such as those employed by the church or, from towards the end of the eighteenth century, those employed as militia bandsmen. These professionals often played multiple instruments, strengthening the ensemble where necessary, and from time to time they were joined by visitors from London who took the role of soloist, or who led the orchestra, or various sections of it, for special occasions. In the course of the nineteenth century the number of professional musicians outside London increased rapidly, as did the numbers of London musicians who toured.

Touring musicians from London began to take part in provincial concerts and festivals not long after the events themselves became established. The musicians typically planned their visits to coincide with special summer events such as race week, or the visits of the assizes courts, when potential concert audiences were at their largest. Early examples of touring musicians include Charles and Nathaniel Love, evidently from London, who gave concerts in Sunderland and Newcastle in 1733.143 In the same year the Gloucester Journal reported that the Steward of the Festival ‘had collected, out of London, the first performers both vocal and instrumental’.144 London-based musicians who visited Norwich in the 1740s were the instrumentalists Andrea Caporale (1741) and Nicolò Pasquali (1741, 1743), along with the singers Filippo Palma (1742) and Leonardo Pescatore (1746–47).145 On 23 June 1746 Signora Avoglio, who had accompanied Handel to Dublin in 1741, was the main attraction at a concert in Salisbury146 and in 1751 the singer Galli, the violinist Giardini and the cellist Beneke played in concerts at York during race week.147 More rarely, musicians toured at other times of the year, such as the London horn player Mr Charles, who visited Stamford, York, Dublin, Bristol, Worcester, Hereford, Gloucester, Salisbury, Bath and Newcastle, mostly in the winter months between 1741 and 1754.148

Festivals provided opportunities for some of the largest provincial audiences to hear London musicians. Beginning in the second decade of the eighteenth century with the three-choirs event, and possibly around the same time in Salisbury, festivals grew throughout the eighteenth century in number and ambition.149 They typically took place in July, August, September and October, and lasted for two, three or, later, four days. Some towns and cities were able to support annual festivals, at least for a few consecutive years, but others opted for a more manageable three-year cycle, or a more irregular pattern. By the second half of the eighteenth century festivals were taking place, not only in the major cathedral cities, but also in smaller market towns such as Ashby de la Zouch, Framlingham, Knaresborough, in towns and villages of Lancashire and the west of Yorkshire, and in some of the developing industrial centres such as Birmingham and Sheffield. Following a lull during the Napoleonic Wars they gained momentum again from the 1820s. Frequently, a London musician would take responsibility for booking a number of professional colleagues from the capital.

Other special events that attracted groups of London musicians were the celebrations sometimes comprising one or more performances that accompanied the inauguration of new organs. On 10 August 1793, for example, the Norfolk Chronicle noted that:

Mr. SHARP … received a Letter from Messrs. Longman and Broderip, saying, they should send down Master FIELD, to Play a Concerto on the Grand Piano Forte, at the Evening Concert, who, tho’ only TEN YEARS of Age, is said to be as celebrated a Performer on that Instrument as any now in London.

A similarly grand opening of a new organ in Bury St Edmunds took place on 19 September 1826. The London violinist Franz Cramer led the orchestra and Robert Lindley played the cello, accompanying singers from the capital.150

Aside from festivals and concerts, many towns witnessed musical theatre performances which sometimes involved performers from London. Purpose-built theatre buildings became established in many towns from the middle of the eighteenth century, prior to which visiting troupes performed in inns or other temporary spaces.

An important factor in the support and development of touring, whether for concerts, festivals or other events, was the country’s transport infrastructure. At the beginning of our period the road network was in need of significant improvement, although the passing of the Turnpike Act in 1707 had ensured that a framework for development was in place. As the century progressed the pace of change quickened and the quality of the new turnpike roads increased both reliability and journey times; between the middle and end of the eighteenth century there was a three-fold increase in average stagecoach speeds.151

Increasingly good transport facilities and growing opportunities for audiences in some of the fast-developing industrial towns of the period inevitably led to more and more opportunities for London’s musicians to travel outside of the capital. While in the middle of the eighteenth century musicians may have visited a small number of provincial towns or cities on an occasional basis, by 1800 many were making regular visits around the country. George Smart noted in passing that in 1801 ‘I paid professional visits to Bristol, Bath and Trowbridge, and spent part of the summer on a tour through Hastings, Dover, Maidstone, etc’.152 Smart’s contemporary, the double-bass player Domenico Dragonetti, took particular advantage of the possibilities that touring offered. From the 1790s onwards he performed in Bath, Birmingham, Brighton, Bristol, Bury St Edmunds, Cambridge, Cheltenham Spa, Chester, Derby, Dublin, Edinburgh, Exeter, Gloucester, Hereford, Hull, Leeds, Leamington Spa, Liverpool, Manchester, Newcastle, Norwich, Oxford, Reading, Shrewsbury, Southampton, Wakefield, Winchester, Worcester and York.153

London musicians increasingly found that they could put together a tour of several festivals in a row, but organisers were rightly fearful that over-full schedules would jeopardise the success of their events. In 1824 the Norwich Festival was directed by George Smart and the opening week began with heavy rain:

This gave rise to no little apprehension, which was increased by the late termination of the Worcester meeting, and the consequent difficulties in which several of the principal performers were placed. One or two arrived in Norwich on the Monday afternoon, but at the final rehearsal, which occupied the whole of the day, there were still several absentees.154

Touring reached new heights in the second quarter of the nineteenth century. Within the course of a few months in 1831 Niccolò Paganini performed a total of 65 concerts in Ireland, Scotland and England.155 A similarly extravagant tour was undertaken a decade later by Liszt. By Liszt’s time the railway network, which expanded rapidly in the 1830s and 1840s, made parts of the journey faster and more reliable, although many legs of the tour were still undertaken by road. From the point of view of listening history these tours were significant, because they marked a change in audience experience; Paganini wrote to his friend Germi that ‘nowadays people do not ask each other whether they have heard Paganini, but whether they have seen him’.156

Provincial gentlemen and musicians in London

Visits of London musicians to the provinces were only one way in which the capital’s musical culture spread throughout the country, because many of those who were not ordinarily London residents visited the city from time to time, taking back to their home towns and cities their experience of musical performances, as well as some of the repertoire that they heard. Many of those visitors to London were the sons of wealthy families who were known among the city’s residents because they were related to them, or because they knew them through another network such as having been fellow students at one of the country’s historic universities – a particularly important means by which relationships were built and maintained among gentlemen.

Edward Finch (1663–1738) was the fifth surviving son of the first Earl of Nottingham, the Lord Chancellor, who studied at Christ’s College, Cambridge and became a prebendary of York Minster.157 Finch was a keen amateur musician who spent much of his life in Yorkshire, but who frequently visited London and knew many of the most prominent musicians of his day, from whom he seems to have received lessons. John Courtney (1737–1806) was the son of a senior administrator in the East India Trading Company. His father became Governor of Surat, but spent his later years in Yorkshire. Courtney, a student at Trinity College, Cambridge and another keen amateur musician, travelled widely to towns and cities where London musicians often performed and he spent time in the capital, where he attended musical events. Thomas Twining (1735–1804) was the grandson of the founder of the tea and coffee business that bears the family name. He declined to work for the company and instead attended Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge and then went into the church, working in three parishes in Essex. There were many more like Finch, Courtney and Twining, but these are singled out as examples of well-connected gentlemen who had a keen interest in music.

It was not only country gentlemen who made visits to London; many musicians who spent most of their time in the provinces were either trained in London, employed there for short periods, or visited on occasion. Traffic also flowed in the opposite direction; some musicians who were normally employed in London spent short periods of their professional lives in the provinces.

Edward Miller (1735–1807) started life in Norwich, was taught by Charles Burney, spent time in London, but settled in Doncaster, where he took up a post as an organist. He retained his London connections and was later unsuccessfully recommended to the post of Master of the King’s Music. 158 Charles Avison (1709–1795) was born in Newcastle, spent time in London and returned to an organist’s post in his home town. Michael Sharp (1750/1–1800), an oboist who played in Covent Garden and in other London venues, visited Norwich as a soloist and then led the theatre orchestra in Norwich in 1783/4.159 The Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral sent their singing men to London for their ‘improvement’ in the early eighteenth century, as did the Corporation of Newcastle later in the century.160

Taking all this evidence together we may safely conclude that there were multiple means by which provincial listeners could become acquainted with London’s music and musicians in the period c.1700–1850. At first, opportunities to hear the capital’s music were limited, but as infrastructure developed in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it became increasingly common for London’s performers and repertoire to be heard around the country, both in private and in public; the latter became particularly important as concerts and festivals became more frequent. But how uniform was the picture across the country and who, exactly, had the opportunity to interact with London’s musical culture?

Provincial musical development, ‘hotspots’ and listeners

The trajectory of musical development was not uniformly upwards in every town or city. Some who had enjoyed the presence of visiting musicians in one decade might be starved of their presence for years afterwards, because the local infrastructure that supported provincial music-making was fragile. Festivals came and went because of the risk or war, political uncertainty at home or some other reason, as Pritchard notes:

Even well-established meetings were not immune from the change which was sweeping the country. The failure of the long-continued festivals at Salisbury, Ashby de la Zouch and Manchester in 1789, 1790 and 1793 respectively, and the falling receipts and possible collapse of the Three Choirs meeting in the 1790s underlined the fact that ‘… the minds of men were agitated to an unexampled degree by the opening scenes in the political world, which soon left them but little leisure to cultivate the peaceful delights arising from choral music …’161

Concert series thrived or waned according to local enthusiasm. For example, a local newspaper reported something approaching a musical famine prior to the visit of a number of London performers for the inauguration of a new organ in 1826:

It is now above twenty years since a performance of music on an extended scale has been attempted in the town of Bury … It is true that, in the long space which has elapsed, the cultivation of music has been widely extended [in Britain]; but we question whether Bury has felt the influence of that extension to any considerable degree. At all events, there has been no communication of harmony between its inhabitants; no society of amateurs – we doubt if even a Glee Club has ever attained any sort of ‘form or combination’.162

But amid the rise and fall of local musical fortunes it is still possible to identify significant ‘hotspots’, where London’s art-music culture could usually be experienced regularly. The old cathedral cities were particularly important and it was to these that the wealthiest in society gravitated for their concerts and festivals, and where London’s musicians were most likely to be found in the eighteenth century. The university towns of Oxford and Cambridge were also major provincial destinations for London musicians, as were spa towns and seaside resorts, particularly from the latter part of the century. As urban growth became a major factor in the nineteenth century, new opportunities presented themselves in the rapidly-growing industrial areas.

The extent of the musical activities in ‘hotspots’ was reflected in the presence of the music trade – instrument makers, music shops, booksellers who sold music, and engravers. In York, for example, which acted as a hub for musical activity in the region, there were more than a dozen music sellers, music printers and musical instrument makers during the eighteenth century.163 In stark contrast were some of the major industrial cities, where there was little evidence of the music trade prior to 1800. Despite Manchester’s rapid growth in the late eighteenth century and the formation of its ‘Gentleman’s Concert’ in 1777, the extent of its pre-1800 music trade appears to be one early eighteenth-century bookseller who also sold music, a single music shop which functioned in the 1780s and 1790s, and two instrument makers.164 Strikingly, the population of York was much smaller than that of Manchester at the 1801 census, so it was not simply size that prompted musical activity, but rather the presence of the right sort of people.

So who listened to art music in the ‘hotspots’? The answer is relatively simple; throughout most of the period it was predominantly the gentry and the aristocracy. Concert fees and entrance tickets for performances in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were well above anything that could be afforded by the lower orders and the subscription system, when it was in operation, ensured that only a certain class of listener attended. And aside from festival gatherings, which were usually numbered in the hundreds and included attenders from several miles around, audiences for local concerts were often small – the numbers of the performers and the audience on some occasions were roughly equal and concerts often seem to have been given as much for the pleasure of the performers as for the audience.165 Since private performances took place in the homes of the wealthy, their audiences were selected by the patrons.

It is well-documented that the profile of audiences began to change in the nineteenth century.166 Elite events continued, but from c.1830 a number of ventures were established which enabled the poorer in society to encounter art music of various kinds. These events ranged from choral concerts to promenade events, at which the admission charge was within the financial reach of audiences who had not previously been able to attend these sorts of events. Many of these initiatives were developed in London, but the idea of opening musical events to wider audiences rapidly spread to the provinces.

An early attempt to broaden the composition of audiences outside of London was reported on 28 March 1835 in the Norwich Mercury, which commented on an ultimately unsuccessful ‘attempt to establish an elegant and intellectual entertainment upon a scale and at a rate of admission which should open them to the numbers of the people’. The concerts seem to have been organised by a similar group to that which organised the Norwich Festival, with significant input from C. H. Mueller, who previously played in the Haymarket Theatre Orchestra.167 However, although these concerts probably attracted some of the local artisans, the one-shilling ‘cheap’ tickets would still have been beyond the reach of most of the labouring classes. In the 1840s the flamboyant conductor Jullien conducted populist concerts for which a similar entrance fee was charged. He put on events in London, but then toured the provinces with his promenade concerts. Cheap concerts were also given in Birmingham and Leeds.168 With all of these concerts, however, the low-price tickets remained too expensive for most of the lowest-paid, whose disposable incomes generally enabled attendance only at events costing a few pence. In the next decade Hallé put on mass concerts in Manchester as part of the Art Treasures Exhibition, following initiatives such as the performances of Manchester’s Mechanics’ Institution to attract lower-paid listeners to musical events.169 Further cheap series occurred in Bradford, Halifax, Huddersfield, Oldham, Sheffield and probably many other places.170 Hallé’s aim was to make music available to a wide audience and he commented that ‘thousands and thousands of people from the northern counties there heard a symphony for the first time, and it was interesting to watch how the appreciation of such works grew keener and keener almost with every week’.171 His claims may have been exaggerated, but the venture nevertheless seems to have attracted a wider audience than attended many previous events.

Although these ventures attempted to bring music to a wider audience, for most of our period art music was listened to by an elite audience. Among that audience were some for whom listening to musicians from London was commonplace, but there were also many for whom any opportunity of experiencing London’s musical culture remained a special event, perhaps not duplicated on more than an annual basis, if that. These are important factors in interpreting the reaction of listeners and the way in which they record their listening experiences, as we will see. In addition, the wider context of audience behaviour also determined the nature and extent of the information that they recorded in their diaries, correspondence and other documents.

Listening practice

In the first half of the nineteenth century there was a general trend away from a concert environment in which audience members might arrive and leave during performances, move around, talk to each other and comment on the performance, towards a model more closely representing our present-day audiences, who sit in silence, sometimes in semi-darkness, engaging in what James Johnson has termed ‘absorbed listening’.172 From this shift in audience habits some have drawn the conclusion that eighteenth-century audiences did not really listen at all, a position dismissed by William Weber, who argues that:

music was more closely linked to other social activities than is true at least in classical-music contexts today. But that does not necessarily mean that people did not, or could not, listen to the music or take it seriously … The discovery that not everyone was absorbed in listening at every moment seems disturbing to us, given the idealistic aesthetic that defines our approach to musical experience. But this should not lure us into thinking that one could not listen in the earlier period, or, indeed, that people in general did not.173

How general the nineteenth-century change was in the listening environment is not yet clear; the studies that discuss the subject have concentrated on the wealthy, fee-paying audiences at public concerts and operas in capital cities, rather than a more comprehensive set of listening environments. But it has at least been shown that many who attended these sorts of events in the eighteenth and early-nineteenth centuries behaved differently from their later counterparts. From their own accounts we learn that their preoccupations tended to include the surroundings, other audience members, organisational and other matters; descriptions of the music or its performance are often surprisingly rare by comparison.

John Courtney of Beverley in Yorkshire illustrates the point. As described above, he was a gentleman musician who attended many concerts in his home town, noting them in his private diaries, the musical references of which have been transcribed recently by Christopher Roberts.174 Two typical entries describing musical events in Courtney’s home town of Beverley are as follows:

29 March 1759: ‘This evening Mr Enter had his concert at assembly room, where was a very splendid show of ladies and gentlemen, and a very agreeable ball. There were about 100 people at the concert ‘tis imagined’.

8 January 1761: ‘This evening had a little concert at our house. Ten performers vizt: First fiddle – Mr Smith; Second Fiddles – Master Raguenaue, Master E Raguenau, Mr Enter; German Flutes – Mr Feanside, Mr Cox, Mr Tong; Violoncello – Mr De Montet; Harpsichord, Thor Bass – J. Courtney; Voice – Mr Raines. My uncle and Mr Pearson and Mr Groves drank tea with us’.

These brief extracts resemble many other diary entries by John Courtney and his contemporaries; they say nothing about the music, or the way in which listeners responded to it, concentrating on details of context instead. Typically, in accounts such as these, mention is made of the venue, the promoter, the extent and composition of the audience, the type of event (whether a concert, a ball, a theatre performance, or something else) and the details of the performers (names, instruments and voices, but little else). That Courtney enjoyed these events is not in question; he went frequently and sometimes performed at them. Presumably because they were a fundamental part of the social fabric of life in Beverley he chose to record the social aspects of the experiences. We cannot tell to what extent he enjoyed them as musical experiences.

Outside of the tightly-knit community of Beverley, however, Courtney was much more inclined to record details of the music and performances, often making evaluative remarks about both. For example, on 21 April 1762 Courtney attended a concert in London:

I was at the oratorio of Judas Maccabeus (Frazi’s Benefit) at the Great Room in Dean Street Soho, twas very grand but the Messiah is finer, Frazi, Miss Young, Beard and Champness, etc, etc, sung; and Stanley played a concerto on the organ; very fine.

A week later he was at Ranelagh Gardens: ‘Heard Miss Brent sing – fine voice and manner – Miss Thomas, Signor Tenducci, and Mr Hudson sang very well’. Do these more musically-oriented accounts suggest that Courtney listened differently when he was outside of the orbit of his familiar Beverley surroundings, hearing musicians from the capital? We cannot be sure, but there are several reasons why this may have been so. It could be that the repertoire he heard away from Beverley particularly attracted his attention, whereas the local concerts repeated works that he knew well already; the evidence of some local music societies suggests that they repeated an ageing repertoire, rather than engaging in more recent music. Or perhaps the familiarity of Beverley’s social environment meant that the ‘company’ was more interesting than the music. Maybe the standard of the Beverley performances was sufficiently low (see below) that his attention strayed elsewhere. But perhaps there was no real difference in the quality of Courtney’s listening experience when he was away from home; rather, in the absence of his wider Beverley associates, he chose to concentrate on the music when he wrote his diary.

Performance standards

All of the above may have been true for Courtney, but one of the suggested factors – the higher standard of London musicians’ performances – is a common refrain in sources of the period, suggesting that performances by these musicians would have been more eagerly anticipated and more carefully observed than the routine local equivalents. An early example is found in a report of the Gloucester Festival of 1733, which noted that ‘the performances were the best that had ever been known’, as a result of the presence of London musicians.175 A report on the Newcastle Festival of 1791, directed by John Ashley, who brought with him several musicians from London, similarly reported that ‘the performances have been so infinitely superior to whatever we have witnessed here, that the audience, enraptured by the heavenly sounds, seemed lost in admiration and astonishment.176 The 1815 Halifax Festival, also organised by the Ashley family and including several musicians from London, was described in the press as ‘a feast of harmony beyond any musical treat before given in this country’.177 On 25 October 1834 the Norwich Mercury reported on a performance in the city of Haydn’s Creation eight days previously, noting that ‘the music went very creditably to a provincial hand, for accompaniment so difficult as Haydn’s is rarely encountered by instrumentalists unaided by the musicians of the metropolis’ (p. 3).

But Norwich performances had not always been so good. The clergyman John Edmund Cox, born in 1812 and brought up in the city, included in his Recollections accounts of the relatively poor standard of performances in his home town. His remarks include accounts of concerts there around 1820, where the works of Corelli, Haydn and Mozart:

were practised weekly by amateurs in a private concert-room, with two first and second violins, one viola, one violoncello, and a double-bass – the violoncello being scraped by an ambitious plasterer, with such an absence of tone and taste as would have made dear old Bob Lindley’s hair stand on end; and the double bass rasped at a frightful rate by an eccentric clergyman, with so small an idea of the nature of a nuance, that it would have made Dragonetti swear, ‘She! Dirty blackguard!’ The wind instruments were of the like proportion as to number and quality …178

Similarly, in 1841 the singer John Barnett wrote to Dragonetti from Cheltenham:

I should very much like to come to London for a few days to shake you by the hand, & to hear an orchestra … here, there is not the ghost of a Band, nor the least approach to musical feeling.179

When Charles Hallé encountered the very well-funded orchestra of the Gentleman’s Concert in Manchester in the late 1840s his reaction was:

The orchestra! oh, the orchestra! I was fresh from the ‘Concerts du Conservatoire’, from Hector Berlioz’s orchestra, and I seriously thought of packing up and leaving Manchester, so that I might not have to endure a second of these wretched performances180

At the end of the year 1849 the conductorship of the ‘Gentleman’s Concerts’ was offered to me, and I accepted it on the condition that the band should be dismissed and its reorganisation left entirely in my hands.181

Looking back over his life in 1872 John Edmund Cox provided a historical perspective when he addressed the gulf in standards that often existed between London and the provinces:

Where fifty years ago executants [in the provinces] could be numbered scarcely by tens, they may now be computed by thousands. Nor does the metropolis alone supply the best-instructed musicians of the day. Time was when the oratorios of Handel and Haydn could not be given in any of the country cities or provincial towns, not even in the “grand’ – as they were called – “triennial meetings of Birmingham, York and Norwich’ without aid being had from the London Ancient Concerts, the Lenten oratorios held in Covent Garden and Drury Lane Theatres and the Opera House, for leading “the attack,’ and keeping the local choristers together … Such is no longer the case.182

In light of these comments it is perhaps no wonder that John Courtney tended to comment more specifically on the music and its performance when it included London musicians. But the qualities of the music and the musicians may not have been the only factors that contributed to the impact music had on him outside of Beverley. In a number of accounts from the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries it is also clear that the splendour of the surroundings – typically cathedrals – also made a significant impression. The clergyman James Woodford, who lived a few miles outside of Norwich, recorded in his diary for 2 August 1792 a description of a performance of music from Handel’s oratorios, including London musicians in the city’s cathedral; it is ‘not only delightful but seemed heavenly and gave us Ideas of divine Musick.’183 And at rehearsal for an annual charity concert in the same cathedral during Assizes Week around 1820 two London trumpeters (Harper and Hyde) performed:

the first notes of whose instruments, as they echoed through the vaulted roof of that sacred building at the rehearsal of Handel’s Dettingen Te Deum, caused not only the boys, but the whole orchestra and the few strangers who were admitted, to stare at them in astonishment. The band on the instant stopped.184

Performances such as these were doubly noteworthy because of the quality of the musicians and the splendour of the surroundings.185 Such a combination would have been relatively rare for many provincial listeners – perhaps a once-every-year experience, or rarer still, for many of them.

Thomas Twining’s listening experiences

The kind of listening that we have been considering gives a lie to the notion that eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century audiences did not really listen at public musical events. They clearly did, even if it was, for some of them, only on special occasions when the best musicians were heard in splendid surroundings. But it was not only at big public events that music was capable of making a deep impression on provincial listeners in the period. One individual who was deeply affected when he encountered the best that the capital’s culture could offer in a domestic setting was Thomas Twining, referred to above. Although Twining experienced music on a fairly regular basis in and around Colchester, he only occasionally travelled to London, or had other opportunities to listen to the country’s finest musicians. When he did so the result was often intense and his accounts provide strong evidence against those who imagine that ‘absorbed listening’ did not occur prior to the nineteenth century. On 24 February 1780 Twining wrote to his friend John Hey expressing his reaction to hearing Sarah Harrop in London, who was shortly to be married to Joah Bates, the conductor of the Concerts of Ancient Music:

… we dined with Bates one day, & heard Miss Harrop sing from tea-time till ten o’clock … One of the greatest musical treats I ever had. I had, as Sir Hugh Evans says, “great dispositions to cry”; nay, the tears actually came out … She sung Pergolesi, Leo, Hasse — things I know, & that nobody sings. It gave me some faint idea of meeting one’s departed friends in Heaven.186

The intensity of this London experience was part of a larger picture for Twining. Being starved of high-level culture at home in Essex made him hungry to experience the best the capital could offer, as he had explained to his friend Charles Jenner eleven years earlier. On 20 February 1769 Twining wrote to Jenner:

I fully intended writing to you from the great city; but you know what a place the great city is; especially to a man who comes & stays there, staring with his mouth open, for five weeks only, once in two years. On one rainy morning I actually sat down to write to you, but was interrupted before I had finish’d the first sentence: & had I not been, I never cou’d have gone on, with such an unsettled dissipated brain, full of [the singer] Lovattini, & [the actor] Garrick, & [the opera composer] Picini, & [the artist] Reynolds, &c., vibrating, & quivering like a jelly.187

Changing performance styles

Aside from the issues of the quality of listeners’ experiences and the impact of London’s musicians heard in impressive surroundings, the period’s literature sometimes comments on the way in which London musical fashions were received around the country. It is clear that repertoire could travel very quickly, but how in touch with London performance styles were provincial listeners? An answer to this question would be an extensive study in itself, and only a small amount of evidence can be presented here.

One of the most noticeable shifts in performance styles that became noticeable at larger musical events, especially festivals, concerned singing. In the second quarter of the nineteenth century, London audiences had become accustomed to a new, more powerful delivery, especially in opera (and, of course, it was London’s operatic singers who travelled to the provinces in the summer months).188 Provincial audiences took positions on the issue. The bass singer Henry Phillips was engaged to sing in the Messiah in Huddersfield Parish Church in the mid-1820s. Having discussed the general trend towards more powerful singing that was becoming normal in London in an earlier part of his Recollections, he included an account of the audience’s reaction to his own performance. His comments not only speak of the preferences of some of the amateur Yorkshire choral singers who took part in the performance, but judging by the language in which the account is couched they also provide rare evidence of lower-class listening experiences:

when the morning arrived for the performance of ‘The Messiah’, all eyes and ears were fixed on me, and I believe I sang my solos steadily and well, no stop being made till after the ‘Hallelujah Chorus’, when some twenty minutes were allowed, during which time the chorus and orchestra assembled in the church-yard, discussing the merits of the performance. Observing a group of sturdy, robust men in one corner of the yard, and fancying they were, from their appearance, bass singers, and talking about me, I sidled up near them unobserved, and found I was correct; one saying to the other, – “What dost think o’ this chap Phillips?’ The general response to which was – “Noute!!’ “Why, he beant but oth lad”, said one. “And haven’t power loike,’ said another.189

The opera composer John Barnett, who had previously worked in London, found an entirely different attitude in Cheltenham. He wrote to Dragonetti in 1841, complaining of the town’s conservative taste, commenting that ‘singing must be soft and lady-like, no energy, no passion[,] these are vulgar & the Master who attempts to bring them out, is dismissed.’190 Evidently singing styles were a subject of debate, at least in some places.


In such a short space it is impossible to give anything like a full account of the impact of London’s art-music culture on listening in the provinces. However, what may be said in general terms is that those who encountered this culture were generally of the higher social classes and that the extent to which they engaged with it depended on their proximity to provincial musical ‘hotspots’ and the extent to which they were able to travel. Some provincial listeners not only heard the capital’s musicians relatively frequently in those ‘hotspots’, but also when the listeners themselves spent time in London. Others were relatively starved of opportunities, living in parts of the country usually bypassed by London’s musicians. As the period progressed and the country’s transport infrastructure developed, there can be no doubt that many more provincial listeners were able to experience the best that London had to offer and by the middle of the nineteenth century a number of promotors had taken it upon themselves to engage a much wider public in hearing the best musicians in the land.

What is clear from many listening sources of the period is the gulf in standards that very often existed between the standard of performance achieved by London’s musicians and those in the provinces; this is probably to be expected, because provincial music-making depended to such a large extent on amateur musicians, who were seldom to be compared with their professional counterparts. By the middle of the nineteenth century the gulf was narrowing, but it still existed in many, if not most, places.

Listening experiences of all sorts are recorded by provincial listeners, from listening as part of the social fabric of a community to much more intense experiences. They depended on many factors, including the social context, the physical environment, the quality of performances and the frequency with which listeners heard the best musicians. The variety of listening experiences that existed has not previously been recognised adequately and its existence prompts a re-evaluation of listening cultures in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

Select bibliography

Bashford, Christina. ‘Learning to listen: audiences for chamber music in early-Victorian London’, Journal of Victorian culture 4/1 (1999), pp. 25–51.

Chevill, Elizabeth. ‘Music societies and musical life in old foundation cathedral cities 1700–1760’, PhD dissertation, King’s College, London, 1993.

Drummond, Pippa. The Provincial Music Festival in England, 1784–1914. Farnham: Ashgate, 2011.

Fawcett, Trevor. Music in Eighteenth-Century Norwich and Norfolk. Norwich: University of East Anglia, 1979.

Gick, Rachel C. ‘Concert life in Manchester, 1800–40’, PhD dissertation, University of Manchester, 2003.

Holman, Peter and Cowgill, Rachel (eds). Music in the British Provinces, 1690–1914. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007.

Johnson, James H. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley, London: University of California Press, 1995.

McVeigh, Simon. Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Pritchard, Brian W. ‘The music festival and the choral society in England in the eighteenth and nineteenth century’, PhD dissertation, University of Birmingham, 1968.

Pritchard, Brian W. ‘The provincial festivals of the Ashley family’, The Galpin Society Journal, vol. 22, pp. 58–77, 1969.

Roberts, Christopher. ‘Music and society in eighteenth-century Yorkshire’, PhD thesis, University of Leeds, 2014.

Russell, Dave. Popular Music in England, 1840–1914. Guildford and King’s Lynn: Biddles Ltd., 2/1997.

Southey, Roz. Music-Making in North-East England During the Eighteenth Century. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2006.

Weber, William. ‘Did people listen in the 18th century?’, Early Music 25/4, pp. 678–691, 1997.

Weber, William. Music and the Middle Classes. The Social Structure of Concert Life in London, Paris and Vienna. London: Crook Helm, 1975.

Wollenberg, Susan and McVeigh, Simon (eds). Concert Life in Eighteenth-Century Britain. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2004.

Listening and spirituality

‘Human voices are alone themselves sufficient’: Protestant and Catholic currents in the listening experiences of an Anglo-Prussian marriage

Helen Barlow

Helen Barlow is a Research Associate in the Music Department of The Open University and a member of the Listening Experience Database (LED) Project Team. Her background is in literature and art history, and her research interests include music iconography, and the social and cultural history of music in nineteenth-century Britain, and Wales in particular. Her recent publications include Music and the British Military in the Long Nineteenth-Century (Oxford, 2013), co-written with Trevor Herbert.


Listening experiences can be an illuminating biographical tool – a source of insight into a life and personality, and of vivid illustrations of an entire framework of values and beliefs. In the case of one Anglo-Prussian couple, Charles and Frances Bunsen, listening experiences cast light on the personalities and spiritual lives of two devout Protestants whose professional life in the Prussian diplomatic service brought them into close contact with the early nineteenth-century Papal Court. The Bunsens lived in Rome for 21 years, frequently attending services in St Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. Here they encountered the music of the Roman Catholic tradition and fell under the particular spell of Palestrina. These listening experiences would have a lasting impact on their ideas about sacred music, not least on Charles’s project of writing a German Protestant liturgy. Subsequently, they also lived in London and in Germany; their experiences of sacred music in Catholic and Protestant traditions were thus many and varied. Drawing on the Bunsens’ published letters and on archival sources, this chapter considers the Protestant spirituality that underpinned their listening and the Catholic influences that overlaid it.


Christian suspicion of music is a familiar theme from as far back as the early church, and it became particularly – though not exclusively – associated with Protestant thought, its use in worship rationalised in terms of a distinction between music sung by the human voice (and thus a vehicle for the Word of God) and instrumental music (a vehicle for sensuality and frivolity). It was a current that ran deeply through the thinking of many nineteenth-century German Protestants (as well as some Catholic reformers), and the tension between vocal and instrumental music in sacred contexts – the former always to be given primacy, the latter held in check – was a frequent cause of anxiety.191 But some German Protestants – particularly those who spent time in Rome and experienced the music of the Vatican choirs – encountered a conflict between what they believed about the corrupting potential of music and their immediate listening experiences of the Catholic choral tradition.

This was certainly true of Charles Bunsen (1791–1860), a German Lutheran, who found his responses to sacred music further influenced by his marriage to an English woman, Frances Waddington (1791–1876). She had been brought up an Anglican, and they shared similar Protestant sensibilities: Lutheran ideas had been closely woven into the theological foundations of the Church of England in the sixteenth century, and when nineteenth-century worshippers of both denominations went to church, they still experienced traditional liturgies or forms of service inherited from Catholicism (particularly the Eucharist or Mass). Frances’s early listening experiences of the Anglican choral tradition were particularly significant in her spiritual life, and they seem to have established an intensely emotional response to music, which was modified to some extent by her subsequent immersion in Lutheranism, but remained fundamentally intact throughout her life. This chapter examines the couple’s listening experiences in terms of their shared beliefs about sacred music, the fundamental divergence of their instinctive responses to music more broadly, and what this divergence suggests about their different personalities and the differing nature of their spiritual experience.

Charles and Frances Bunsen

Charles was born in Korbach in the German principality of Waldeck, the son of a minor military officer. He went to university at Marburg, then at Göttingen, to study theology and philology, and it was the pursuit of his continuing studies into ‘universal history’ that brought him to Italy. His name was properly Christian Karl Josias Bunsen (later von Bunsen when he was made a Baron), but his English family always called him Charles. He made the acquaintance of the Waddingtons, who were tourists in Rome, shortly after his arrival there in the autumn of 1816, and by the end of April 1817 writes to his sister Christiana that he has met an English girl with whom he is ‘almost … a little in love’, commenting approvingly that she is ‘a very earnest Christian of the Church of England’.192 He and Frances were married just over two months later, the wedding hastened by the imminent departure for home of Frances’s family.

Frances was born in Berkshire on one of the Waddington family properties, and brought up on another, at Llanofer in Monmouthshire, the eldest child of Benjamin and Georgina Mary Ann Waddington. Like other girls of her class, she was educated at home; her education followed her mother’s idiosyncratic approach, based on the way Mrs Waddington had herself been educated by her great aunt, Mary Delany.193 Unusually, there was no governess; Frances and her sisters Emilia and Augusta were taught largely by their mother, studying a broad curriculum that included mathematics, history, geography, classical and modern languages, and drawing.194 Mrs Waddington shaped her daughters’ religion, moral values, aesthetic tastes and sensibilities to a very pronounced degree, and there are many proofs of their devotion to each other, not least in the correspondence between her and Frances, where their emotional bond is expressed with particular intensity through their response to music.

Both Charles and Frances were the subjects of posthumous volumes of ‘lives and letters’ – a sub-genre of life writing that flourished in the nineteenth century. After her husband’s death, Frances edited and published a memoir of him, based on his letters and her own commentary.195 Subsequently, after Frances’s death, her ‘life and letters’ were similarly edited and published by a family friend, Augustus Hare.196 While such enterprises inevitably involve editorial decisions that shape and may distort the picture of the subject,197 these volumes nonetheless provide striking evidence of their ideas about music and how they experienced it. In the process, they shed light on two markedly different personalities and one, at least, of the ways in which each influenced and shaped the other.


Charles and Frances were married on 1 July 1817, at the Palazzo Savelli in Rome. The setting could hardly have been more impressive – sitting at the foot of the Capitoline Hill, Palazzo Savelli is a renaissance palazzo built on top of a medieval fortification built on top of a Roman theatre, the Theatre of Marcellus.198 One of its apartments was occupied by Barthold Niebuhr, the Prussian Legate to the Vatican Court and a historian of considerable historiographical significance.199 Niebuhr was by all accounts a charismatic figure, and his historical methodology, which was founded on the systematic interrogation of evidence and a philological approach, was profoundly influential on a generation of younger scholars, particularly in Germany and Britain. It was the force of Niebuhr’s personality, as well as an affinity for his new approach to historical scholarship, that persuaded Charles Bunsen to put on hold the ‘grand plan of intellectual labour’ which he had formed (nothing less than an enquiry into ‘the history…of the human race’ through philological, historical and philosophical study of the major civilizations),200 in order to work for Niebuhr at the embassy in Rome, where he quickly became Secretary of the Legation. Charles would remain in Rome for more than twenty years, taking over from Niebuhr as Prussian Minister when Niebuhr left the post in 1823.

The Bunsens’ wedding was conducted by an Anglican clergyman according to the Anglican marriage service. The ceremony – possibly Charles’s first participation in an Anglican rite – deeply impressed him (‘The English ritual for the celebration of marriage … is the finest, the most simple and elevating that I have ever known’);201 it seems likely that here was sown the seed of a project which would soon come to be of enormous significance to him – his efforts to produce a German Protestant liturgy. The circumstances of the wedding should immediately alert us to the Protestant/Catholic interplay that underpins the Bunsens’ experience of sacred music. The marriage ceremony was conducted in Niebuhr’s private chapel at the palazzo, not out of choice but because there was no Protestant church in Rome. Protestants met for religious services in private rooms, and even for that they were required to get papal permission. Subsequently, in 1819, Niebuhr and Bunsen succeeded in gaining permission for the appointment of an official Lutheran Chaplain for the Prussian Legation.202 This was pioneering, and some years ahead of the Anglicans, who had no official permanent chaplain until 1828 (though by then the Pope had turned a blind eye to a series of unofficial Anglican chaplains for more than a decade).203

Not long after their marriage, Charles and Frances moved into apartments just a few hundred yards up the Capitoline Hill from Palazzo Savelli at Palazzo Caffarelli, which housed the Prussian Embassy. It occupied one of the most archaeologically and architecturally significant sites, and one of the most spectacular viewing points, in Rome. Built on the top of the Capitoline, it sat squarely on the site of the ancient Temple of Capitoline Jupiter, and just behind the grand and imposing renaissance piazza of the Campidoglio. After intermittent archaeological excavations, little of Palazzo Caffarelli is left; but the tourist who walks out onto the terrace of the café at the Capitoline Museums to photograph the views is standing on the Terrazzo Caffarelli, which occupies what would have been the upper floors of the palazzo. More than enough remains in the panoramas across the city to give a powerful sense of why these two young, devout, Northern European Protestants fell so thoroughly under the spell of Catholic Rome. Thomas Arnold204 certainly succumbed when he came to visit them in 1827:

After dinner Bunsen called for us in his carriage and took us to his house first on the Capitol, the different windows of which command the different views of ancient and modern Rome. Never shall I forget the view of the former; we looked down on the Forum, and just opposite were the Palatine and the Aventine, with the ruins of the palace of the Caesars on the one, and houses intermixed with gardens on the other. The mass of the Colosseum rose beyond the Forum, and beyond all, the wide plain of the Campagna to the sea …. Then we descended into the Forum, the light fast fading away and throwing a kindred soberness over the scene of ruin… What the fragments of pillars belonged to, perhaps we can never know; but that I think matters little. I care not whether it was a temple of Jupiter Stator, or the Basilica Julia, but one knows that one is on the ground of the Forum, under the Capitol, the place where the tribes assembled, and the orators spoke; the scene, in short, of all the internal struggles of the Roman people … Such was my first day in Rome; and if I were to leave it to-morrow, I should think that one day was well worth the journey.205

Arnold emphasises the view of ancient Rome to one side of the palazzo; what he only hints at is the view of ‘modern Rome’ (renaissance and baroque Rome) to the other side, dominated by the domes of Rome’s great churches, and presided over by St Peter’s. Even today, it is still easy to see that to live at Palazzo Caffarelli was to live with the constant, breath-taking presence of the two great loci of Roman power – the ancient and pagan, and the contemporary and Catholic.

The spell was not only a visual one. The diplomatic community, Catholic or not, was expected to be represented at St Peter’s at major festivals and ceremonies. Frances described one such experience in a letter to her mother – a requiem mass for Pius VII, who died in 1823. Along with their colleagues from the various embassies, Frances and Charles attended the service, Frances sitting in the gallery designated for the diplomatic wives:

On Monday, the 1st September, I attended in St. Peter’s the last and most solemn requiem-service for the deceased Pope … After the conclusion of the mass, in which the exquisite requiem of Pittoni was sung in even greater perfection than usual, the ceremony of absolution was performed five times, by five several cardinals; for Pius the Seventh as Pope, as Cardinal, as Archbishop, as Priest, and as Deacon; the five cardinals went in procession into the body of the church, followed by the papal singers, who performed a passage of a psalm or an anthem, after each absolution. These exquisite pieces of music were heard in perfection where we sate …206

The music they listened to in St Peter’s was what they termed ‘ancient’ music – the music of the renaissance and baroque periods, a tradition in which they felt they were hearing the ‘original fountain’ of sacred music in all its ‘purity’.207 This meant composers such as Pittoni, Marcello, Allegri and – above all – Palestrina, who had been maestro di cappella of the Cappella Giulia208 during the mid-sixteenth century, and who remained the touchstone of the style preserved by the Vatican choirs. Giuseppe Baini, Director of the College of Papal Singers from 1819 to 1844, and a Palestrina scholar, explicitly saw himself and his singers as maintaining Palestrina’s spirit and influence, and Baini’s own compositions consciously perpetuated the ‘ancient style’ and in particular a Palestrina tradition.209 Equally, however, Protestant musicians claimed Palestrina as their own, seeing him as the apex of a golden age from which sacred music had subsequently declined. James Garratt suggests that the popular German Protestant understanding of Palestrina’s music was a partial one, defined not by his contrapuntal works but ‘by the simple homophonic works in the Papal Choir’s Holy Week repertory’, on which the limited Palestrina repertory published in Germany in the early nineteenth century was based.210 This rings true in so far as the Bunsens regarded ‘canto fermo, or plain chant …[as] the basis of the music of Palestrina, Allegri, and the ancient school’.211 Whatever the broader picture, Palestrina was significant to numerous early nineteenth-century German composers, among them Mendelssohn, Spohr and the lesser known Otto Nicolai, a friend and colleague of the Bunsens, who studied under Baini while occupying the position of organist at the chapel of the Prussian Legation.212

Childhood influences

Frances’s most detailed musical memory from childhood was of the Three Choirs Festival at Hereford Cathedral around the year 1805,213 where she heard performances of Samson and Messiah. Mrs Waddington had inherited a love of Handel from Mary Delany (who had known him personally), and she passed it down to Frances. In her ‘Reminiscences’, written in old age in 1874, Frances recalled that first encounter:

[A]n event very material to myself had taken place, in my being taken by my Parents to the triennial musical festival at Hereford: the first occasion of my becoming acquainted with any performance of music beyond a single song, or a wandering band or barrel-organ … The Oratorio of Sampson, on the first evening, & the Messiah on the last morning, are fixed in grateful remembrance. – Mrs. Billington was the Soprano singer, & Harrison & Bartleman were the Tenor & Bass: & did I but possess the musical power, coveted in vain all my life, I could now pour forth from the treasure of song then laid in faithful memory, the strains of the first named, in ‘Let the bright Seraphim,’ & in ‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’: & the deep and mellow tones of Bartleman in the Bass songs of the Messiah seem to be still reproduced when I think of them.214

This is one of the earliest documented experiences in which she makes a connection between music and spirituality, but the Anglican choral tradition had also made a profound impact on her as a child. In fact, she was fortunate to have been taken to two places of worship where the choral tradition was apparently strong215 – this was by no means the case in all Anglican cathedrals or abbeys, let alone at parish level.216 Living for a time in Clifton, she was regularly taken by a favourite aunt to choral services at Bristol Cathedral:

As long as Aunt Louisa staid, I used to walk with her to the Bristol Cathedral on Sundays, & it was an event in my life to hear & feel the choral service—which remains enshrined without rival in memory, the impression having been strengthened occasionally when at Bath I could attend the Abbey Church:—& thus I retained a store of love & veneration through long years …217

The word ‘feel’ indicates the depth of her emotional response, and the episode suggests the start of a pattern of connecting her most profound musical experiences not only with religion, but also with a deep attachment to specific people.

Early musical experiences such as Hereford imprinted themselves strongly on Frances’s memory, the opportunities for hearing music in rural Monmouthshire being otherwise quite limited. Music formed part of the Waddington sisters’ education, but only, it would seem, to a fairly rudimentary level – though a great lover of music, Mrs Waddington was apparently not a great performer of it, and really first-rate music teachers may well have been in short supply in the environs of Llanofer. As a result, Frances always felt deficient in musical training and real musicianship. Nonetheless, she exhibited a deep and instinctive feeling for music. Her comparative lack of early contact with music, she suggests:

… explains perhaps the tender feeling I retain towards [street musicians] …– out of gratitude for the rare pleasure they gave me, when at Clifton they were accidentally called upon to stop before the windows: I never could comprehend the customary fury expressed against them, as ‘disturbers of the peace of the neighbourhood’ …218

Charles’s early musical education was singularly unsuccessful:

An attempt to teach him to sing, as all others were taught in the earliest school-years, was given up as fruitless. He had, however, great pleasure in hearing music, and an extremely keen perception of correct tune; but he could not accomplish the notes of the scale, and would himself relate that he could go up, but always failed in coming down again. His father had made a point of his attending a dancing class for a short time, but all endeavours proved vain to drill and discipline the movement of his limbs.219

More revealingly, Frances goes on later in the memoir to say that, in adulthood, he exhibited what we can recognise as a deeply Protestant suspicion of any music that was not both vocal and in the service of a religious text:

In music he ever sought anything but the charm of sound to dwell upon; and in early days could tolerate that music only which spoke its meaning by its combination with the human voice. But later, in the friendship and society of such musical composers as could meet his difficulties of comprehension, he learnt to believe, and in degree to feel, that music merely instrumental possesses the high privilege of demonstrating how much there is intensely affecting the human soul, which thought cannot grasp, nor language utter.220

The word ‘charm’ is revealing, pointing to the belief in which Bunsen had been brought up, that there was something superfluous, frivolous or worryingly sensual about instrumental music. He came from a religious tradition where unaccompanied singing was widely felt to be the ideal for sacred music, since instrumental music could never be the absolutely direct carrier of sacred text like the human voice. As E. T. A. Hoffmann put it in his essay ‘Alte und neue Kirchenmusik’ (1814), ‘Praise of the highest and holiest should flow straight from the human breast without any foreign admixture or intermediary.’221

Frances quickly came to understand and (apparently) accept this view as she absorbed Charles’s Lutheran ideas, but her fondness for the Clifton street musicians hints at a musical instinct that was broad and generous, and that did not naturally categorise music into ‘high’ and ‘low’ genres. She retained a passionate, emotional response to music that Charles – whether he experienced it or not – does not articulate. Accordingly, responses to music from either of them are mostly recounted by Frances. Charles’s letters mention music quite rarely, and any reference he makes to its emotional or spiritual power is restrained – not for him his wife’s ecstatic apostrophes and rhetorical flourishes. As she indicates, however, he did come to enjoy friendships with a number of composers (including Mendelssohn and especially Sigismund Ritter von Neukomm (1778–1858)), whose influence supported her own in arguing for the intrinsic value of music.

A German Protestant liturgy

Charles’s admiration for the Anglican liturgy is a recurrent theme during his early years in the Prussian legation. Writing in 1818 to his friend Friedrich Lücke (a theologian and former fellow student at Göttingen), he makes clear the considerable significance he attaches to it:

Now I maintain that the English liturgy was constructed from a grand point of view, and adapted, with much wisdom, to the wants and the people of that time, and that it represents Christian worship far more thoroughly than anything that I have seen in Germany, Holland, or Denmark.222

The deeper he looked into the Anglican liturgy, set out in the Book of Common Prayer, the more prayers and liturgical structures he discovered that had been preserved there from the Catholic liturgy, but lost from the Lutheran tradition – prayers and structures which he felt would remedy ‘the nakedness, scantiness, and fragmentary nature of the other Protestant Liturgies’.223

This crystallised into an intention to provide a similarly cogent form of worship for German Protestantism. He did not, as he wrote to Lücke, envisage adopting the Book of Common Prayer wholesale,224 but he perceived in it the answers to a number of things that troubled him. One was the fragmentary and divisive nature of religion in Germany, split not only between Catholicism and Protestantism, but also between the Lutheran and Calvinist225 Protestant traditions. He considered the Anglican liturgy to have proved itself capable of drawing together different religious views and denominations into a single church:

… as in the 16th and 17th centuries it successfully brought forth the union between Lutherans and Calvinists and to a certain extent the union of Catholics and Puritans as well, likewise this truly blessed book is still the living tie of millions of people…226

He was concerned too, by what he saw as a somewhat ad hoc Lutheran attitude to the liturgy, which Frances explains in a letter to her mother:

It has always been allowed to the clergymen in Germany to make what selections they pleased from a vast quantity of materials for forming a Liturgy – a liberty which has been to a fatal degree abused …227

For Charles, it was an approach that lacked dignity, continuity and coherence, and he was determined to change it.

He also admired the intention of the Book of Common Prayer to be just that – ‘common’ – that is, to make the liturgy the ‘property’ of both clergy and laity. In the Lutheran tradition (he felt), the official liturgy ‘belonged’ to the clergy: it was delivered to, rather than owned by, the laity, while a separate strand of popular hymnals and prayer books for individual use at home provided for a more personal spiritual engagement.228 In the Book of Common Prayer, Charles saw the model of a single prayer book appropriate for use both in church and at home. Furthermore, he sought to amalgamate two genres, the prayer book and the hymnal, aligning the Book of Common Prayer with the German context by bringing together the liturgical structures of Anglicanism and the Lutheran hymn tradition. There is plenty of evidence in their letters that the Lutheran practice of domestic hymn-singing was an important element of Bunsen family life.

Music was a strong feature of Bunsen’s attraction to Anglicanism. Writing to Lücke, he acknowledges its musical tradition as fundamental to the spiritual experience it offers, and ascribes this to a direct descent from the ‘ancient style’:

Singing is not excluded [from the Anglican liturgy], on the contrary, in addition to that of the congregation, the ancient style of choral song has been retained… the simple grandeur of which mode of composition, from Palestrina to Marcello, exceeds all else that I know.229

He is, however, writing in 1818, and it seems unlikely that he had actually heard any Anglican choirs at this point, so he is probably reflecting what he has been told, presumably by Frances, about the Anglican choral tradition – a somewhat idealised picture, given the history of neglect of music in the Anglican Church.

He worked on his German Protestant liturgy for more than a decade from the early 1820s, and in 1833 published a volume of hymns and prayers which he regarded as, and indeed entitled, an ‘attempt’ (Versuch) at his aim.230 This was followed in 1844 by a much revised and evidently more satisfactory version – no longer a ‘Versuch’ but the Allgemeines Evangelisches Gesang- und Gebetbuch zum Kirchen- und Hausgebrauch (General Evangelical Hymn and Prayer Book for Church and Household). Underpinning this were two strands of painstaking research. One of these was an investigation into every liturgy he could lay his hands on.231 The other was into sacred music, and in particular the music of Palestrina and other ‘ancient’ Catholic composers:

In the winter of 1820–21, Bunsen may be described as having much at heart, and following up in the intervals of all other occupations, however engrossing, the study of … the music of Palestrina, Allegri, and the ancient school … The object of Bunsen was, as ever, to bring about a reformation in his own country: being fully conscious of the deteriorated condition, almost, if not quite, universal, of that choral harmony which yet is the pride of the Germans, and believing that a renewal of the spirit of other times could only be possible by reverting to the original fountain in its purity. As with the hymns, the outpouring of ancestral piety, so also with the tunes; their appropriate medium of communication; he hoped to succeed in removing all corrupt incrustations, so that … they could not fail to be accepted, and caused to supersede the unedifying collections … imposed by force upon congregations in the latter part of the eighteenth century …232

His research involved consultation with Baini and scrutiny of the manuscripts in Baini’s charge. He was aided in this by a number of German composers during their visits to Rome – the memoir refers specifically to Conrad Kocher and Carl Reisiger. From Frances’s description of the process, it appears that Bunsen asked them to ‘select or reform versions of many of the finest Chorales’, removing ‘corrupt incrustations’, and applying ‘the true genuine style of harmony’ of Palestrina and the ancient school.233

Palestrina beyond the Vatican

Through Baini, Charles persuaded the Pope to take the apparently unprecedented step of allowing the Papal choir to perform outside the Vatican and in secular contexts. Frances tells us that the first such performance was at a ‘fête’ given by Niebuhr at Palazzo Savelli for the Prussian statesman Baron vom und zum Stein. She wrote to her mother describing the occasion:

[L]ast Friday Mr. Niebuhr gave a great fête … in honour of Baron Stein …: a selection of the music of Palestrina, consisting of the celebrated ‘Missa di Papa Marcello,’ and the Motett – ‘Tu es Petrus,’ – and afterwards the ‘Dies Irae’ of Pittoni, were performed by the singers of the Papal Chapel, who were stationed at the further end of the long gallery. The effect of the music is not to be described, – often as I have been in the Papal Chapel, I have never heard anything equal to it, – for the singers not having any reason for hurrying, were induced to give every note its due value; and the complication of sound was of that subduing nature, as to make you draw your breath, or lift up your eyes, lest some other object or sensation should divide your attention, and cause you to lose a particle. Oh thus, thus only can the angels sing! Had my Mother but heard it too!234

Interestingly, Frances’s account suggests that outside the ritual and temporal constraints of a liturgical context, the singers had licence for greater freedom of purely musical expression – an irony that was apparently lost on the Bunsens.

The concert gave rise to another, and then to a subscription series presented in Niebuhr’s name but organised by Charles:

Mr. and Mrs. Niebuhr’s two concerts, one in honour of Baron Stein, the other in honour of Prince Hardenberg, have excited a prodigious sensation (in all people of surprise, in many of pleasure), and an opening was made for proposing a continuance of the same performances, the expenses to be defrayed by a subscription. All the princes in Rome, and all the ambassadors, immediately subscribed, and, of course, such names as theirs secured at once a more than sufficient number of other names … Two concerts have taken place, and have been a most exquisite indulgence. At the third it has been settled that the society of Sirleti shall together with the singers of the Papal Chapel perform the Miserere of Marcello. I have only yet heard the rehearsal – but alas! my Mother, I am spoilt by Palestrina. I am at a loss to conceive how I ever could listen with pleasure to Marcello – it seems to me now so empty, so unconnected, so unmeaning, so unmelodious! But it is nevertheless a great happiness to have heard the best of the best, even though I may never hear it more after I have left Rome, for the recollection of it is better than the sensation produced by what is inferior. Oh, if my Mother did but know Palestrina, having only heard the Miserere of the Papal Chapel, I fear she can scarcely imagine, however she may believe, of what infinite variety of effect and conception that style of composition is susceptible.235

Frances’s passionate – even ecstatic – reaction indicates just how central Palestrina became during this period of her life, not only to her response to music but to how she employed this in her closest emotional relationships. Writing about music helped her to sustain and shape her relationships in a family which was separated geographically by her marriage. It became the emotional ‘keynote’ and bound her and her mother far more intensely than any of the other topics they corresponded about. By insisting that her mother would share her experience if she could only hear Palestrina, she was able to iterate and reiterate the bonds between herself and a mother to whom she was extremely close but whom she barely saw for more than 20 years following her marriage, and simultaneously to claim an emotional, intellectual and indeed spiritual bond between her mother and her husband.

Charles’s response to Palestrina was more restrained, more cerebral and less impassioned than his wife’s – though not necessarily less intense. For him, Palestrina represented, as he said, ‘the ancient style of choral song’, the ‘simple grandeur’ of which supported the dignity of the liturgy. Ever the disciple of Niebuhr, Charles viewed religion in the context of history, and he was able to accept so-called ‘ancient’ sacred art as the naïve, ‘pure’ expression of devotion, untroubled by the fact that it had been inspired by and addressed to Catholicism.

With the precedent of performance in secular contexts now established, he came to an arrangement by which the papal singers would give regular private performances at Palazzo Caffarelli. The Bunsens had for some time been inviting sometimes amateur, sometimes professional singers to perform sacred music for them privately in their home. Here, Frances writes to her mother in 1819, describing these evenings:

On Monday evening we hope soon to contrive at least once a fortnight to enjoy again a treat which we had once a week five weeks last summer – of hearing some of the Motetts of Palestrina executed in the right manner, without instruments, at home. We had long tried to get together some dilettanti acquaintances, who knew how to sing other music, to execute them, with the help of a simple accompaniment; but at length finding that no dependence could be placed on dilettanti, we committed the extravagance of calling in professional aid…. I am sure if anything on earth can give an idea of the angelic choir, it must be the music of Palestrina! and yet I do not forget the glorious effect of Händel – but all music to which instruments contribute, must be a degree more earthly, than that in which human voices are alone themselves sufficient, where nothing mechanical is needed.236

Her choice of words reveals both the extent to which she had absorbed her husband’s views about sacred music and unaccompanied singing, and the limitations of her willingness or capacity to follow him down that path; for her, the music is not immediately a route to reflection on the Word of God, but a stimulus to the emotions and the imagination – she is first struck by its ‘glorious effect’ and the ‘idea of the angelic choir’ that it summons up.

When Charles gained permission to invite the papal singers to Palazzo Caffarelli, by Frances’s account their freedom of expression moved onto a yet higher level; again, she notes their release from the temporal constraints of the liturgical performance context:

… he and his family and their chosen friends enjoyed these works of ancient genius in a degree of perfection nowhere else attainable: while the singers, undisturbed, and not compelled to confine their performance within restricted limits of time, and pleased, moreover, at being sole objects of attention, gave full effect to every piece: and the few who were assembled to hear this performance will scarcely have heard the like again.237

The Palazzo Caffarelli performances continued for ‘many years’.238 Charles remained at the Prussian legation until 1838, but after the failure of negotiations with the Pope over so-called ‘mixed marriages’ between Protestants and Catholics – allowed under Prussian law, but which the Vatican wanted abolished – he felt his position to have become untenable and resigned. With enormous sorrow, the Bunsens left Rome.

England and the Anglican tradition

His resignation did not leave Charles out in the professional cold. Despite his wish to devote his time to scholarship, the favour of both Friedrich Wilhelm III (who died in 1840) and his son Friedrich Wilhelm IV ensured a swift succession of appointments, firstly as Prussian Ambassador to Switzerland, and then as head of an initiative to establish a joint Anglo-Prussian bishopric in Jerusalem, which would take spiritual charge of the Protestant community living there. Then, in 1842 he found himself more highly elevated in his diplomatic career than ever, when he was appointed Prussian Ambassador to the Court of St James. The family moved to London, and their regular experiences of sacred music thus became Anglican ones.

Frances’s memories of Bristol Cathedral and Bath Abbey led her back to the cathedral service,239 but a visit to St Paul’s proved an unhappy experience, St Paul’s having become a by-word for the parlous state of Anglican music.240 She ‘came out with the consciousness that … were there indeed nothing more edifying & devotional to be found in the Church of England, I should be driven to seek domiciliation elsewhere.’241 Not only was the state of church music less satisfactory than she remembered it from her childhood, but the theological context of mid-nineteenth-century Anglicanism had become rather more complex. Thomas Arnold was not the only sympathetic Anglican with whom Bunsen had been in contact over the years. In Rome, he had established friendships with, among others, Connop Thirlwall (later Bishop of St David’s) and Julius Hare (later Archdeacon of Lewes, and involved in the creation of the Jerusalem bishopric).242 The new German historical and theological scholarship had caught the imagination of liberal Anglican thinkers, who believed that the Church must accommodate itself to modern currents of thought, to historical investigation of the Bible and to religious toleration.243

These figures came together in what became known (somewhat against their will) as the Broad Church (in opposition to the evangelical Low Church and the Catholic sympathies of the High Church).244 The antipathy between the Broad Church and the High Church is not without irony, since Broad Church devotees of sacred music had much for which to thank the Oxford Movement, as it was largely responsible for an Anglican ‘choral revival’ over the course of the mid-nineteenth century.245

Frances heard this revival in progress at what was arguably its source, when she was taken in 1846, by the educational reformer Thomas Dyke Acland, to a service at St Mark’s College, Chelsea. St Mark’s was a Church of England foundation, and one of the first teacher-training colleges in England.246 Through its ‘systematic musical training’ and the diaspora of its graduates as they moved on into schools and parishes, ‘S. Mark’s College was to be responsible for the consistent growth of the Choral Revival throughout the whole country’.247 Frances recounts the experience in a letter to a close friend, Heinrich Abeken, a Protesant theologian and former colleague at the Prussian legation in Rome, though her account shows no evidence that she recognised the wider significance of the musical training and practices at St Mark’s, while providing plenty of evidence of her mistrust of High Church ritual and aesthetics:

The boys are taught to sing, and the whole service of the Church is gone through by them in a fine style, musically considered: the chanting of the Psalms being only by them performed quite as it ought. That chanting is to me very satisfactory, and I would wish it everywhere: but to have the Venite, the Te Deum, the Jubilate, all in canto figurato, though ever so good, and a long anthem besides—converts the whole into a performance little to be distinguished but by localities from that of the Sixtine Chapel: well suited to the aesthetical system of religion—(a compound of music and painting and architecture and embroidery, and decent solemnities, and regular attendances, and high professions, and strict exclusions) — now in fashion, but which the very name of the Gospel — of good tidings of great joy, preached, that is addressed to the heart, of the poor and needy, the spiritually destitute — dissipates into air and nothingness. I am, and ever have been, much attached to those external decencies, now become the very idols of worship; but if they are to become all in all… I shall end with following the ‘Ultra-Protestants’ to field-preaching.248

It is the florid character of the music that incurs her disapproval, prompting the comparison with what she clearly remembered as one of the less admirable practices of the papal choir (‘canto figurato’,249 contrasting with the simplicity of ‘canto fermo’).250

Her experiences of Anglican choral services from this period suggest that, for all her love of ancient Catholic music, her long participation in Lutheran worship had made her sensitive to inappropriate uses of music in a Protestant liturgy. In May 1839, she visited Cambridge, probably in her husband’s company; it is unclear exactly to whom the ‘we’ of her letter refers, but it seems likely that it was Charles, given the eagerness of their hosts at King’s College Chapel to treat them to ‘an anthem such as we should admire’. His reputation as a man with a keen and sophisticated interest in sacred music would have been well known through his prominent Anglican friends.251 Moreover, it was not without precedent for his intention to attend a service to have an impact on the selection of the music. On a visit to Devon in 1838, to stay with his friends the Aclands of Killerton, it became known that he would be attending Sunday morning service at Exeter Cathedral. Accordingly, ‘[t]he most ancient piece of music has been selected for the Anthem, for me to hear’,252 and ‘the Bishop preached: people said it was done for my sake, as he preaches but four or five times a year, and had lately done so …. The service was beautiful, and moved me deeply.’253 (Tellingly, it is the service as a whole, and not the music per se, that he identifies as ‘moving’.)

It is entirely possible that the same attention was being shown at King’s. In this instance, however, the choice of music was unfortunate:

… Mr. Townley had offered to bespeak an anthem such as we should admire, and the choice fell upon Haydn’s ‘Let there be Light,’ with the succeeding air and chorus – a singular and most unsuitable selection as a part of church-service, though in itself beautiful, and sung by very fine voices, accompanied by an exquisite organ.254

Haydn was, of course, a Catholic composer – not in itself a problem to the Bunsens. However, he was a modern (classical), not an ancient, Catholic composer, and a musical style that did not employ ‘the true genuine style of harmony’ of Palestrina and his fellow ancient composers could not belong for the Bunsens within a Protestant liturgical context. Moreover, the anthem was taken from The Creation, an oratorio – a genre commonly thought, from a sacred point of view, too close to opera for comfort.255 Frances does not spell it out, but we can infer that they considered an extract from an oratorio written for classical orchestral forces (though played on the chapel organ in this instance) too dramatic, too florid and too ready to foreground instrumental music per se.

That she was aware of the impact of increasing and increasingly powerful orchestral forces256 is clear from a complaint she makes about the direction taken by modern performances of Handel’s oratorios:

In the natural process of deterioration in things human, it may be observed and lamented that the English style of execution has the ever increasing defect of allowing the instrumental accompaniment to exceed the original, just proportion, which existed between it and the vocal part. The materials have been increased, and the science of instrumentation has progressed, since the time of Händel, and unlimited advantage has been taken of the magical means offered by it for enhancing the effect of the whole.257

Her observation is prompted by a performance of Messiah in June 1839 by the Sacred Harmonic Society, an amateur London choral society established from a number of smaller, non-conformist choirs, and aimed at the lower classes, from whom its membership was largely drawn.258 At various times, it numbered anything from several hundred voices to the best part of three thousand, with instrumental forces to match. Reviewing their performance of Joshua later the same month, the Morning Chronicle critic comments approvingly on ‘the immense mass of voices and instruments … their gigantic march was awful and even overwhelming’.259 Frances takes a somewhat more complicated view; unwilling to do anything but admire the worthy aims of such a choir, she praises the quality of their singing, but laments the fact that such enormous vocal forces are necessary in the context of greater and more powerful instrumental forces, in order that ‘the vocal power may still rise uncrushed and intelligible, by the proportionate increase in the number of choral vocalists of such force and precision as the Society, so justly admired at Exeter Hall, can give’.260

Germany and the Lutheran tradition

Charles again felt his professional position becoming uncomfortable as he tried to mediate tensions between Britain and Prussia over the Crimea. Friedrich Wilhelm IV refused his advice to join the alliance of France and Britain against Russia, and Charles resigned. He left his post in London in 1854, and he and Frances now settled near Heidelberg. It was the final chapter of their married life, and it would not be a long one: Charles’s health failed, and he died in 1860. It had nonetheless been a period of considerable spiritual contentment. Heidelberg was in a Protestant area of Germany, and it was Lutheranism that came to the fore in their experiences of sacred music, with its emphasis on hymns and congregational singing. Soon after their move, Frances wrote to her daughter Emilia, describing her delight at finding their local church a sympathetic one:

We feel more and more at home and delighted to be at home, in Charlottenberg. How we did enjoy our quiet, luxurious Sunday yesterday! We breakfasted a little before eight, had a delightful and easy walk to the Heiligen Geist Kirche, heard a very satisfactory sermon … and were much pleased with the hymns and singing, and the prayers – in short, rejoiced to find a parish church to go to regularly.261

A visit to the Lorenz-Kirche in Nuremberg, one of the most important Lutheran churches of Bavaria, provided an equally satisfactory spiritual and musical experience, as Frances related in a letter to her son George:

The Sunday morning service in the unequalled Lorenz-Kirche was one of my great gratifications—a sermon worth hearing and well heard, and at the close, the Benediction pronounced in cadence from the communion-table, and distinctly audible, great as was the distance. The chorus of voices from the entire and numerous congregation had a heart-strengthening effect.262

In Heidelberg, they also experienced a particularly distinctive Lutheran musical tradition – the use of the trombone or trombone choir as an accompaniment to congregational singing:

We have all been attending the celebration of the anniversary of the legal establishment of Protestant worship in Heidelberg two hundred years ago… which took place amid the circumstances which mark and assist simple earnestness of feeling—a hymn sung forth from the church-tower, accompanied by the Posanne [sic] (trombone) at sunset on Saturday and at daybreak on Sunday—as is done on all great festivals …263

On one level, the association of trombones with sacred music takes us right back into the ‘ancient’ Catholic tradition, where, because of their dynamic range and timbral affinity with the human voice, trombones were often used to double or replace vocal lines.264 This has obvious relevance for the Protestant view of the primacy of the voice as carrier of sacred text and the consequent need for instrumental accompaniment to be subtle and unobtrusive. However, the use of trombones in Lutheran worship developed into a much greater range of functions than simply doubling voices, and gave rise to a rich body of repertoire.265 Charlotte Leonard makes the point that, in marked contrast to the common use of the trombone by classical and romantic composers to evoke death and the underworld, its use in Lutheran sacred music is generally joyful and celebratory,266 and that is clearly the case in the instance that Frances describes.


When Charles and Frances listened to sacred music, they would have agreed that they were listening to the voice of God – but I think we have to conclude that they detected it through different media. Charles was unequivocal: he was literally listening to the Word – the music was there to support the delivery of sacred text, and he could not take seriously any music that seemed to demand attention in its own right. Frances encapsulates this in her account of the first time he heard Messiah sung in full, concluding:

Bunsen not only admired, but exulted in, the composition of the ‘Messiah,’ looking upon the man who selected the Biblical texts for Händel’s great purpose under Händel’s superintendence, as an epic poet. He was not the originator of the words any more than of their high meaning, but from the treasure left by ‘holy men of God, who spake as the Spirit gave them utterance,’ he compiled the passages which could best combine to show forth the divine scheme…. In this work of Händel Bunsen found the full satisfaction of his own demands upon the fine arts that their fascination to the eye and ear should not be that of the senses alone, but rest upon the eternal foundation of Truth, upon that which alone is entitled to be considered reality, as being independent of change and decay.267

She, on the other hand, for all her loyal protestations about the superfluity of instrumental music, clearly reacted primarily and instinctively to music per se, and for her it summoned intense associations not only with God, but with the human beings dearest to her, through whom her sense of duty and devotion was channeled. That this is so is powerfully demonstrated in the episode that most closely draws together the spiritual, the musical and the personal – her mother’s funeral. Mrs Waddington died in January 1850, at her home on the Llanofer estate. The funeral was organised by her youngest daughter Augusta Hall, Lady Llanover.268 Frances wrote to her daughter Theodora, describing Augusta’s arrangements:

[L]ast night between six and seven I walked down to the other house with Lady Hall, for the purpose of hearing some of the men who will belong to the funeral sing the Welsh dirges, which they are in the habit of performing when they follow a funeral procession among themselves…. Noiselessly the door opened and we found the enchanted palace as it used to be, fire and lights prepared by unseen hands. We sat down, and presently voices sounded from the gallery above…. This, the first music I have heard, since she has been taken away, whose delight in music I never failed to remember every time I heard any, with the desire that she should hear it, indescribably overset me: and yet what folly!—for she is conscious now of the everlasting harmonies! She needs no longer so poor an echo of them.
I hailed with satisfaction Lady Hall’s proposal to let the people sing upon the way, as they are accustomed to do at funerals amongst themselves.269

Augusta was a committed enthusiast for Welsh culture and had learned to speak the language, but Frances could not have conducted the most basic conversation in Welsh, much less followed the words of a Welsh-language hymn. For her, it was ultimately the music that was the all-important communicator – understanding the words was a secondary consideration. The contrast with her husband is telling. Charles’s listening experiences reveal a personality shaped by his religion – though perhaps not by his instincts – to resist not simply the sensuality of music, but also the possibility that spirituality might be experienced as a primarily and instinctively emotional or (worse) sensual response. For him, spiritual experience was something to be attained through reflection on biblical and liturgical texts. Frances’s influence went a long way to reconcile him to his own instinctive response to music, and his influence went a long way to convince her of the most appropriate uses of music in sacred contexts, but neither ever truly converted the other.

Select bibliography

Bunsen, Frances. A Memoir of Baron Bunsen, 2 volumes. London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1868.

Bunsen, Frances. ‘Reminiscences written by Baroness de Bunsen (née Frances Waddington) in September 1874’ contained in Maxwell Fraser, ‘The Waddingtons of Llanover, 1791–1805’, National Library of Wales Journal, vol. 11/4, Winter 1960, pp. 327–328.

Davis, John R. The Victorians and Germany. Bern: Peter Lang AG, 2007.

Garratt, James. Palestrina and the German Romantic Imagination. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.

Hare, Augustus J. C. The Life and Letters of Frances Baroness Bunsen, 2 volumes. London: Daldy, Isbister & Co., 1879.

Rainbow, Bernarr. The Choral Revival in the Anglican Church 1839–1872. London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1970.

Wallraff, Martin. ‘The influence of the Book of Common Prayer on the liturgical work of C. C. J. von Bunsen’, Journal of Theological Studies, NS, vol. 48, Pt. 1, April 1997, pp. 90–107.

Listening and spirituality

Listening to a singing people: accounts of Methodist hymn-singing

Martin V. Clarke

Martin Clarke is a Lecturer in Music at The Open University. He has published widely on aspects of Methodist and Anglican hymnody in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. He is a Co-Investigator on the second phase of the Listening Experience Database (LED) project.


This chapter uses a series of listening experiences from the long nineteenth century to explore the significant place afforded to hymnody in articulations of Methodist identity. It draws on accounts of individual practice and institutional events from Wesleyan and Primitive Methodist backgrounds. It situates these experiences in the context of evidence available through other sources, such as denominational hymnals, arguing that they allow for a fuller understanding of the relationship between centralised and localised attitudes and practices. Through detailed interrogation of the accounts of hymn-singing, focusing on the practice, repertoire and reactions they record, it highlights their value in placing emphasis on the experiential aspect of hymnody, arguing that this is vital to evaluating the causes of its long-lasting and powerful impression on Methodism.


A special affinity with congregational hymnody is commonly identified as a characteristic of Methodism and Methodists, both institutionally and individually, as well as internally and externally. The Methodist Church of Great Britain’s website includes a section explaining ‘What is distinctive about Methodism?’ that lists ten distinguishing factors, ranging from theological emphases to ecclesiastical structures, among which is one entitled ‘Born in song.’ The explanation of this states that ‘Methodists are well known as enthusiastic singers, in choirs and congregations. Singing is still an important means of learning about, sharing and celebrating our faith.’ The phrase ‘Born in song’ is borrowed from the preface to the Methodist Hymn Book (1933) and, thanks to that hymnal’s popularity as well as its own poetic quality, it has become embedded in the consciousness of many Methodists.270 Among many ways in which a more personal attachment to hymnody can be observed is in the long-established custom of many Methodists owning a personal copy of the current hymnal and taking it with them when they attend services.271 External observers of hymnody’s prominence in Methodism include eighteenth-century critics of the movement’s evangelical method, novelists such as George Eliot and Harold Frederic, and ecumenical partners.272

Hymn texts, particularly those of Charles Wesley, feature prominently in explanations of the significance of hymnody in Methodism. Wesley’s hymns were instrumental in the development of the uniquely Methodist concept of authorised hymnody, whereby hymnals and the individual hymns they contain are authorised as being in accordance with, and representative of, Methodist doctrine. The precision that language affords is the obvious reason behind hymn texts being used in this way, and hymns are typically identified by their texts.273 However, hymns are combinations of words and music in both intention and practice, and are most commonly experienced as such in liturgical contexts. Since the late eighteenth century, each authorised Methodist hymnal has contained hundreds of hymns, with some extending to over 1,000 individual items.274 These hymnals are important documents in understanding institutional views on hymnody and its relationship to doctrine, while they also offer insights into cultural and aesthetic preferences within the denomination. Significantly, however, these further insights are mediated by the individuals and committees responsible for compiling and editing the hymnals. Furthermore, an authorised hymnal can provide only a broad indication of the repertoire sung in Methodism at a particular point in the denomination’s history, but cannot show how its contents were used and received at a local level. To understand fully the significance of hymnody in Methodism, therefore, consideration of a broader range of perspectives and sources beyond authorised hymnals is needed.

This chapter explores six experiences of listening to Methodist hymnody in the long nineteenth century. Taken individually, they each provide a geographically and temporally specific insight into the practice of hymnody in Methodism. Considered in relation to each other, and alongside other evidence such as authorised hymnals, they contribute to a deeper understanding of the diversity of practices and attitudes that characterised Methodist hymnody in this period.

John Wesley at Warrington, 1781

John Wesley used his journal to record observations on all aspects of his itinerant ministry, including the conduct of Methodist meetings across the country. These descriptions sometimes refer to the singing of hymns and, as with a range of other topics, Wesley uses his observations to emphasise his own viewpoints, such as in his account of a visit to Warrington in 1781:

The service was at the usual hours. I came just in time to put a stop to a bad custom, which was creeping in here; a few men, who had fine voices, sang a psalm which no one knew, in a tune fit for an opera, wherein three, four, or five persons sang different words at the same time! What an insult upon common sense! What a burlesque upon public worship! No custom can excuse such a mixture of profaneness and absurdity.275

Wesley’s attitude is consistent with his other statements on music in worship, and with the publications of hymn tunes for use across the connexion that he oversaw. The basis of his stance is articulated in a statement prohibiting anthems recorded in the minutes of the annual conference of preachers in 1787: ‘No anthems be in future allowed in Methodist chapels, because they cannot ‘be properly called joint worship.’276 His concept of ‘joint worship’ is crucial here in understanding his earlier negative reaction to the singing at Warrington. Heavily influenced by his early contact with Moravian missionaries in America and London, Wesley conceived of hymnody as both doxological and pedagogical. The hymnals he compiled for use in Methodist Society meetings were organised according to the experience of Christian life rather than any liturgical principle. Coupled with his evangelical Arminian theology that emphasised the universal offer of salvation, full and equal participation in hymn-singing was thus a matter of practical and theological significance. These views doubtless lay behind the unison format of A Collection of Tunes Set to Music and Select Hymns: With Tunes Annext.277

The real significance of this listening experience, however, lies in Wesley’s description of what he actually heard. It reveals a tension between local practice and his own views, which coloured his reaction. This tension existed in terms of both repertoire and performance practice, and Wesley’s comment that the practice was ‘creeping in here’ indicates that this was not an isolated case. Within this local Methodist Society, there was differentiation according to musical familiarity and ability, and an appreciation of part-singing and secular musical styles by at least some of its members.278 Wesley’s observation attests to the challenges of his centrifugal instincts, which extended more broadly than hymnody. Jonathan Rodell gives a sense of the relationship between Wesley and the early Methodist societies, identifying ‘chaotic diversity’ as a defining characteristic.279 Wesley’s status as an itinerant listener is also important; while he was able to make a timely and decisive intervention on this occasion, his ability to influence practice and repertoire on a broader scale, both geographically and temporally, was limited to publications and edicts issued through the annual conference. This listening experience hints at what had been happening in Warrington prior to this occasion, and what Wesley hoped would happen thereafter, but whether or not he effected a longer-term change is impossible to determine.280 Rodell’s argument that in the 1780s ‘Most societies were the products of local initiatives’ may have had practical expression through musical repertoire and practices such as Wesley observed in Warrington.281

Listening to rural Primitive Methodism

The Primitive Methodist Connexion, formally constituted in 1810, but tracing its origins to a Camp Meeting at Mow Cop, Cheshire, in 1807 was strongly revivalist in its outlook, and is popularly juxtaposed with nineteenth-century Wesleyan Methodism in its emphasis on outdoor evangelical activity, rejection of formalism in worship and music, and the greater role it gave to the laity in positions of leadership. Henry Woodcock’s Piety Among the Peasantry: Being Sketches of Primitive Methodism on the Yorkshire Wolds contains numerous descriptions of the worshipping practices of Primitive Methodist societies, some of which provide insights into their musical practices and preferences. His account of a society meeting in Rudston is particularly detailed, and includes the text of the hymn sung:

The society was small, poor, excitable, and very demonstrative. … A self-styled ‘Revivalist’ – a small pot, soon hot – conducted a protracted meeting. One of his favourite hymns, lustily sung by plough lads and milk maids, was that strange ditty, one verse of which reads; ‘Where is now the prophet Elijah,’ &c. The words were stupid; the thought commonplace; the tune (!) depressing; but, alas! It was sung thus:-

Where is now the prophet-et – Elijah?
Where is now the prophet-et – Elijah?
Where is now the prophet-et – Elijah?
Safe in the promised land!

There was abundance of enthusiasm, but it was shapeless; without form, and void.282

As with Wesley in Warrington, here too there appears to be a tension between the hymnody popular among the local society and the tastes of the observer. Woodcock was an itinerant minister, mostly stationed in circuits throughout Yorkshire, and was thus likely to have possessed a broader experience of hymnody than the members of the individual societies he visited. Though he made neither intervention nor suggestions for improvement, it is clear that, like Wesley, he considered a more serious style of hymnody appropriate for worship. However, his critical tone masks some aspects of the description; the lusty singing indicates that the participants did not share Woodcock’s view, but instead found the whole experience, including the music, enlivening. While Woodcock represented connexional authority to a lesser degree than Wesley, the experience he records again points to the disjunction between centralised ideals concerning the conduct and content of worship and their local expression.

This theme is also apparent in his report of a personal encounter in a domestic setting, along with a deeper insight into the attachment Primitive Methodists had to particular hymns, as suggested by the manner of the singing in Rudston:

Mrs. Knaggs was a saint of Christly disposition. Though old and suffering when we knew her, she was as blythe as a young milkmaid. We fancy we see her, watching the broth bubbling up in the ‘Kiel pot’ over the fire, beating up the contents with a wooden ladle to prevent the ‘lithing lumping,’ and keeping time, by its movements, to a hymn she was singing. :-

Jesus sits on Zion’s Hill,
He receives poor sinners still;
Would you serve this blessed King?
Come enlist, and with me sing;

I a soldier sure shall be,
Happy in e

When the new hymn book was issued (1853), minus the above hymn, Mrs Knaggs said, with an air of disappointment: ‘Where is Jesus now? He used to sit on ‘Zion’s hill’, bless Him, but where is He now? I know where He is. He lives still yonder,’ pointing upwards, ‘and here, in my heart. Yes, bless Him, they may take Him out of the hymn book, but they can’t take Him out of my heart, nor shift Him from His throne on high. Call the men in for dinner, for the pot’s a-boiling,’ and giving the ladle a sharp turn, she sang, with trembling voice:

Christ He sits on Zion’s hill,
He receives poor sinners still.283

Here, Woodcock presents a more impartial account, refraining from any value judgement on the repertoire or performance. The significance of this listening experience is two-fold, and offers possible reasons for Woodcock’s impartiality. The hymn sung by Mrs Knaggs was the opening hymn in the A Collection of Hymns, for Camp Meetings, Revivals, &c: For the Use of the Primitive Methodists, compiled by one of the movement’s founders, Hugh Bourne.284 This was an influential book in Primitive Methodism, and one which encapsulated the evangelistic zeal of its early years. As such, ‘Christ He sits on Zion’s hill’ would have been familiar to many Primitive Methodists, particularly those who recalled the movement in its infancy, and Woodcock himself would have been aware of its significant heritage. Furthermore, Woodcock’s account emphasises the highly personal nature of this episode. It is apparent that this hymn has a profound spiritual significance for Mrs Knaggs, but this type of attachment would have been widely shared by Methodists of all backgrounds, such was the integration of hymnody into the devotional life of the denomination. By recording the account in such detail, Woodcock tacitly acknowledges and affirms the powerful influence hymnody exerted on the lives of many Methodists. Although he does not expand upon the qualities that made Mrs Knaggs ‘a saint of Christly disposition’, it is clear that he regards her singing as a manifestation of her Christian character, revealing her to be focused on her faith in the midst of her daily tasks.

Mrs Knaggs’ distress at the omission of her favourite hymn from The New and Enlarged Hymn Book For the Use of the Primitive Methodists provides further indication of the divergence between centralised and localised thought and practice.285 Evidence of change in Primitive Methodist hymnody is found in Philip Brown’s Companion to the Primitive Methodist Hymn Book: ‘Within the last twenty years Psalmody has undergone a great change. Fugue tunes, and those which repeat much, and many others formerly popular, are now seldom heard in many congregations, having been supplanted by chaster selections.’286 However, Woodcock’s concluding summary of Primitive Methodist hymnody on the Yorkshire Wolds suggests that such changes had not been uniformly adopted: ‘Familiarity breeds contempt and, perhaps, one of the weaknesses of Wolds Primitive Methodism is the sameness of its singing. For 60 years they have sung the same spirit-stirring hymns to the same tunes, which by frequent use have become so doleful, that if David played in the same tones we do not wonder that Saul threw his javelin at him.’287 Significantly, a souvenir booklet produced for a national celebration of Primitive Methodism’s centenary in 1907, discussed below, contained a small selection of ‘Hymns and tunes of ye olden time,’ the first of which was ‘Christ now sits on Zion’s hill.’288 Taken in isolation, its inclusion may be regarded as merely nostalgic, but Woodcock’s account, both in terms of the individual case of Mrs Knaggs and the more general observation of unchanging musical habits, suggests that while some Primitive Methodists had embraced change, its older hymns, such as this, remained part of the collective memory of the denomination.

Sir Frederick Bridge and the Methodist Hymn Book (1904)

The appointment of Frederick Bridge, organist of Westminster Abbey, as musical editor of the Methodist Hymn Book (1904), a joint publication of the Wesleyan Methodists and the Methodist New Connexion, was a significant coup for a denomination that, at least institutionally, sought to portray its hymnody as reflective of current sophisticated musical taste. The hymnal’s preface describes how the selection of tunes drew heavily on the work of ‘the great composers of the last generation, and of others happily still with us, whose names are household words in Christian homes, and whose tunes have done so much to elevate popular taste in Church music.’289 Bridge’s influence in soliciting new tunes from many musical luminaries is apparent, and the committee records its ‘deep sense of obligation’ to him.290 They also note that ‘he has entered with sympathy into the spirit of Methodist hymnology and worship’, a claim which is backed up by Bridge’s own accounts of his work in his autobiography and in an address to the Methodist Conference in 1904.291 In both, he describes an unusual listening experience, involving his cook, a Wesleyan Methodist named Mrs Rider:

I concluded [the conference address] by speaking of the help afforded by my cook, who was a Wesleyan, and to whom I often appealed to ascertain from her special knowledge if a particular tune was popular. ‘Oh, yes,’ she once said, in reply to one of my queries, in the hearing of a member of the Committee, ‘we sing that in our chapel very often,’ and she piped a few bars of it up the lift, at the bottom of which she was standing. This brought down the house, and my cook was presented by the Committee with a special copy in recognition of her valuable services to the book and to me.292

Although the hymn is unspecified, this account provides a number of interesting insights, not least that this was hardly a unique occurrence for Bridge. The description of the event in his conference address makes clear that the tunes concerned were unfamiliar to Bridge, indicating that they were unlikely to have been from the standard Anglican repertoire. His concern to establish their popularity points to the preservation and frequent use of some tunes that were distinctive to Methodism. Bridge’s desire to draw on his cook’s knowledge and the committee’s recognition of her contribution also indicate that there was a desire to make the tune selection representative of current practice, rather than simply imposing a selection based on abstract criteria. The relationship between singer and hearer in this listening experience is crucial. Bridge, the epitome of the professional church musician, listens to and learns from a domestic employee. That he does so, and allows the experience to influence the contents of the hymnal, emphasises the experiential significance of hymnody. Mrs Rider’s familiarity with these tunes, gained through experience rather than as a result of musical education, is the determining factor with regard to their inclusion.

This episode, and the emphasis it places on the experience of Methodist hymnody, also provides informative context for decisions taken by the compilers of the 1904 hymnal and its 1933 successor. As well as listing eminent composers of new tunes and highlighting sources of hymn tunes such as the ‘great composers’ mentioned above, the compilers of the 1904 hymnal also notes that ‘Owing to the revived interest in what are commonly known as “Old Methodist Tunes,” the Committee has felt justified in placing in an Appendix a select number of those melodies most widely known and used. For these it must assume entire responsibility, though in connexion with them Sir Frederick Bridge has offered valuable suggestions.’293

The placement of these tunes outside the main body of the hymnal and the categorical absolution of Bridge from any responsibility for them indicates that there was some resistance, presumably aesthetic, to these tunes. This is supported by Bridge’s comment that ‘Of course there were many old Methodist tunes that were dear to the Wesleyans, and which, although not of a very high class, had of necessity to be included.’294 Though it is not clear that these were the same tunes about which Bridge consulted his cook, his lack of familiarity in both cases suggests that there may have been some overlap. Interest in these tunes is also evident in publications commemorating the centenary of John Wesley’s death (1891). In his preface to The Centenary Tune Book, Alfred Rogerson, a Wesleyan choirmaster from Wainfleet, observes that ‘The Centenary Celebration of Wesley’s death has revived these old tunes, and the present time may be considered opportune for introducing a well-selected and carefully-harmonized edition of these time-worn favourites, any of which were in danger of sinking into undeserved oblivion.’295

Bridge’s distaste for these tunes and the committee’s ambivalent attitude suggests a somewhat uneasy relationship between the editorial and denominational hierarchy responsible for the hymnal and the Methodist societies it sought to serve. This presents a different perspective on Bridge’s interaction with his cook, creating an implicit link between her status and her musical taste. However, many of the new tunes introduced in the 1904 hymnal, and fifteen of the 21 tunes by Bridge himself, did not survive to the 1933 hymnal. Instead, many of the tunes included in the Appendix to the 1904 hymnal became the principal tunes set to familiar texts by Charles Wesley and others, as compilers acknowledged their currency with Methodist congregations. In terms of Bridge’s experience of listening to his cook singing hymns, it indicates that the real significance lies in hearing a representative voice of actual Methodist practice. Though the hymns that she advised on are unknown, the account points to the central place of the practice and experience of hymnody in understanding how particular hymns have gained significance within Methodism.

Celebrating the 1904 hymnal

The Methodist Conference of 1904 included an act of worship marking the publication of the new hymnal, at which Bridge presented his address. An anonymous newspaper-style report, perhaps produced for the official record of the Conference, and now preserved in the Methodist Archives, provides great detail on the service held to celebrate the publication. The writer describes the musical forces that took part, which included a choir of over 350 voices drawn from local chapel choirs, under the direction of a renowned organist from one Sheffield chapel and accompanied by another. Although the report notes that no solos were included, it nonetheless lists by name a dozen ‘singers of high repute in the city’ who were among the choir.296 The content of the service is then described in detail, beginning with the first hymn:

The Rev. Charles H. Kelly rose and announced the hymn,

‘O for a thousand tongues to sing.’

In this hymn, as in several others specially marked for the purpose, the congregation was requested to join. The benefit of special training was in an instant felt by all present in the vigour with which the first verse was sung. Verse 3 of this hymn was almost dramatic in its rendering, the second line, ‘That bids our sorrows cease,’ being sung softly, and then, in the fourth line of the same, the words, ‘’Tis life and health and peace,’ coming out with fine crescendo effect.297

This extract indicates that full congregational participation was restricted to a selection of the hymns sung. Although the report is not entirely clear how each hymn was performed, several are described as including the congregation, while some items, such as the chanted settings of the Beatitudes and the Te Deum, are described as being sung by the choir alone. Some other hymns are reported as receiving appreciative hearings, which indicates that they were sung by choir alone too. Among these was Bridge’s own hymn tune ‘Gordon’, set to the traditional Easter text ‘The foe behind, the deep before,’ and clearly composed with choral singing in mind. In the ‘Musician’s note’ printed after the main report, the author notes that ‘the verdict of approval was unmistakeable,’ and that the setting would become a ‘great treasure to the Methodist congregations in the immediate future.’298

The extent and detail of this listening experience is atypical of most accounts of Methodist worship, as is the event that it describes. Nonetheless, the scale and status of the occasion indicate its importance as an expression of the significance Methodism attached to its hymnody and the launch of its new hymnal. While the identity of the writer and the exact purpose of the account are unknown, it is a document for public consumption written by someone who is well acquainted with and sympathetic to both the nature of the particular occasion and Methodism at large. As such, the listening experience is described in a way that seeks to communicate the grand scale and aura of the event to readers who were not present. Its significance lies, then, not in the degree to which it is representative of local Methodist practice Sunday by Sunday, but in what it reveals about how the Wesleyan Methodists wished to represent themselves at a denominational level, and how the local Methodists who were able to be involved responded to this.

The most striking feature is the official prominence given to choral singing by a choir that was discrete from the rest of the congregation. This stands in marked contrast to John Wesley’s attitude when he observed the segregated group of singers at Warrington. By 1904, choral singing has become an accepted, even celebrated, part of the musical identity of Methodism that the event sought to present. Together with the description of musical sources in the hymnal’s preface, it demonstrates the cultivation of a repertoire of sacred music that the conference authorities deemed to be in good taste for the purposes it was meant to serve. Wesley’s account of local choral singing, however, paints a picture of the enthusiastic adoption of secular styles with scant regard for their religious suitability. The attitude of the Wesleyan leadership in 1904 may be regarded as a continuation and expansion of what Kevin Watson describes as their early nineteenth-century counterparts’ concern for ‘the preservation of a respectable image’ in the wake of Primitive Methodism’s emergence.299

The details of the make-up of the massed choir also makes clear that the local enthusiasm for choral singing that Wesley observed in Warrington was still present in individual Methodist chapels at the beginning of the twentieth century. However, the writer also describes how extensive rehearsals had been held in preparation for the event, and how the choirmaster had ensured that each chorister’s hymnal was marked up with detailed performance instructions, which presumably allowed for the dynamic nuance and drama observed in the performance of the first hymn. Such meticulous preparation over a lengthy time period was probably atypical of the working practices of the individual chapel choirs from which the singers were drawn. The selection of repertoire would have taken place far in advance, and the prestigious occasion would have demanded a degree of preparation that could not realistically have been achieved or maintained on a weekly basis with a much smaller group of singers. The resulting emotive qualities of the musical performance described indicate that this event was able to create a listening experience of heightened intensity.

The centenary of Primitive Methodism

Methodism’s strong historical consciousness has often found expression in special acts of worship to celebrate or commemorate various anniversaries, whether at local level to mark the opening of a chapel, or at connexional level to mark an event significant in the life of the denomination. The Primitive Methodist Connexion’s official celebrations of the centenary of the camp meeting at Mow Cop that led to its foundation included a public meeting at the Victoria Hall, Hanley, which was attended by some 3,000 people. In his description of the celebrations, William Patterson cites a report that commented in detail on the musical forces present and their effect:

A great united choir filled the orchestra stalls; ‘but in point of fact,’ remarked a journal in surprise, ‘the entire gathering was one gigantic choir. Not a single one in the multitude but could sing, and did sing. The hymns chosen needed no restraint on the part of the singers, no delicate tone painting; they were the old, full-bodied psalms of praises, resonant and triumphant. So this magnificent gathering threw restraint to the winds, and the deep swell of the great organ led them in such paeans of praise as it refreshed one to hear.300

Compared with the description of the Wesleyans’ celebration of their new hymnal three years earlier, there are some points of similarity and difference. A massed choir is again present, indicating that choral singing was also a regular part of Primitive Methodist worship at the local chapel level. However, despite their defined musical role being emphasised by their physical separation from the rest of the gathering, the musical qualities that impressed the writer do not appear to have been the result of the rehearsal of fine details. Instead, the robust singing of the whole congregation made the strongest impression. The resulting listening experience is nonetheless similar, in that the musical effect is wrought by the sheer scale of the event and stands apart from what might be more typically experienced in a local chapel. However, the noteworthy full and enthusiastic participation, and the use of familiar, well-established repertoire, points to a connection between the singing witnessed here and broader practices and attitudes among the denomination’s membership. The familiarity of the hymns would have been crucial in encouraging such participation, and the congregation’s enthusiastic participation a tacit signal of the approval of the selection. Whether this was based on their current, localised experience of Primitive Methodism, or nostalgia for the hymns of the past, is uncertain, although the selection of ‘Hymns and tunes of ye olden time’ in the souvenir programme, mentioned above, suggests that the latter may have played some part.

Hymnody’s undisputed yet contested centrality

Though small in number, the range of listening experiences considered here, spanning more than a century, encompassing private devotion and mass gatherings, and drawn from different strands of Methodism, all affirm the important place hymn-singing has occupied in Methodist practice and thought throughout the denomination’s history. Those recounting listening to an individual singer seem not to find their subject’s readiness to express themselves in song unusual, while the organisation and effect of the connexional celebrations afforded music and musicians a prominent place, which was matched by the detailed attention given to the singing in the reports of these occasions. All of the writers simply accept unquestioningly that hymn-singing was a fundamental part of the experience of being Methodist, whether individually or institutionally. To some extent, therefore, these experiences merely affirm the centrality of hymnody that the regular production of large-scale authorised hymnals by each branch of Methodism demonstrated at an institutional level. However, they also enable a more complex understanding of the significance of hymnody for Methodists by providing insights into actual practices and preferences, which can be brought into dialogue with the printed records enshrined in authorised hymnals, sometimes revealing points of congruence, but at other times divergence.

Choral singing emerges as a popular practice among the Methodist people at both ends of the historical spectrum covered by these accounts, and also across Wesleyan and Primitive Methodism. However, the relationship between its popularity at local level and its institutional acceptance shifted significantly over this period, from Wesley’s resistance to the practice he observed in Warrington to the prominent position given to massed choirs at connexional celebrations. The shifting terms of this relationship point to the vitality of hymnody in Methodism; practices, repertoires and attitudes changed as they were influenced by internal and external factors, while a tension can frequently be observed between localised and centralised ideas.

This vitality and tension are particularly apparent in relation to the selection of repertoire, and demand that the significance of a new hymnal be considered carefully. The very decision to create a new authorised hymnal indicates an institutional desire to update the church’s repertoire and, once it has been published, commercial necessities as well as belief in its intrinsic worth both play a part in the advocacy of the hymnal by figures in positions of authority. On the other side of the relationship, the tendency of chapel-goers like Mrs Knaggs to draw on older repertoire indicates the importance of the experience of hymnody; new repertoire would typically require time and repeated exposure in order to gain acceptance, let alone to have spiritual significance attached to it. However, institutional and individual attitudes are linked, as the exposure to hymnody brought about by the institutional priority afforded to it has been a contributory factor in the affection for particular hymns expressed by individuals, while their enthusiastic participation in congregational and choral singing has helped to maintain hymnody’s prominence as a characteristic trait of Methodism.


Listening experiences emerge as important sources in understanding the significance of hymnody to those whose stories are recounted through them. In terms of the prominent place hymnody has in perceptions of Methodism, they provide insights into the role of personal experience and practice in creating and perpetuating such perceptions. However, there are some limitations and qualifications that need to be considered when evaluating such experiences. The best preserved and most readily accessible accounts tend to come from literate persons in positions of authority, such as lay and ordained preachers, whose views and recollections may not correspond to those of the congregations to whom they preached. Sometimes, however, as in Woodcock’s account of Mrs Knaggs, these provide a voice for those whose experience might otherwise have remained inaccessible, owing variously to levels and traditions of literacy among some of the social groups with which Methodism has historically been associated. Furthermore, irrespective of the context of the experience, it is common for precise details concerning the words and tunes sung to be left out of accounts. As shown above, while some conclusions about repertoire and practice can be extrapolated from such accounts, they need to be placed alongside other forms of evidence to gain the fullest possible insight. However, in the context of such an approach that draws on multiple types of source, listening experiences can contribute to an enhanced overall understanding through the marrying of objective historical record with the valuable insights of human interpretation and reaction. In the case of Methodism, they show the importance of practical and experiential dimensions in contributing to the prominent place accorded to hymnody in individual and institutional articulations of Methodist identity.

Select bibliography

Gibson, William, Forsaith, Peter and Wellings, Martin (eds). The Ashgate Research Companion to World Methodism. Farnham: Ashgate, 2013.

Patterson, William M. Northern Primitive Methodism: A Record of the Rise and Progress of the Circuits in the Old Sunderland District. London: E. Dalton, 1909.

Rodell, Jonathan. The Rise of Methodism: A Study of Bedfordshire 1736–1851. Woodbridge: Boydell, 2014.

Temperly, Nicholas and Banfield, Stephen (eds). Music and the Wesleys. Urbana, Chicago, and Springfield: University of Illinois Press, 2010.

Woodcock, Henry. Piety Among the Peasantry: Being Sketches of Primitive Methodism in the Yorkshire Wolds. London: Joseph Toulson, 1889.

Practitioner listening

Sensibility and listening in England before and after the Great War

Fiona Richards

Fiona Richards is Senior Lecturer in Music at The Open University. Her research interests include music in England, music and literature, and Australian culture. Recent journal articles have focused on musical themes in the works of writers D. H. Lawrence, David Malouf and Randolph Stow. Significant publications include a monograph on the English composer John Ireland (Ashgate, 2000), two chapters for the John Ireland Companion (Boydell, 2011), and an edited volume, The Soundscapes of Australia: Music, Place and Spirituality (Ashgate, 2007). Fiona is currently working on a book on the Boyd Neel Orchestra.


This chapter draws on the diaries of two composers born in the latter part of the twentieth century – Frederick Kelly (1881–1916) and William Baines (1899–1922) – to examine a slice of listening history. Kelly was based in London and Sydney, while Baines lived in North Yorkshire, thus between them giving national, international and regional perspectives. Covering a fifteen-year period, the diaries offer very different insights. Kelly, who kept a daily journal, meticulously logs his and others’ musical activities, while Baines focuses on the feelings induced by listening. Kelly records very precise details, telling the reader what he played and to whom, and notes the reactions of his listeners. His is a very different approach to Baines’s descriptive and delicate poeticism, which is also revealed in his many rhapsodic descriptions of nature and weather. Baines tells us what he heard in concert halls and at the seaside, but, more importantly, gives profoundly personal reactions. Kelly’s writings are situated within the broad contemporary context of composers writing diaries and letters, with the main focus of the chapter on the unique perspective of Baines, whose sensibility, isolation and northern temperament profoundly affected his writing and his listening.


On 30 May 1918 a Yorkshire teenager wrote in his diary:

During the noon hour I cycled to Bishopthorpe – & sat underneath the trees, in the old churchyard at the bend of the river. What a divine spot it is. No noise, only the singing of the birds, the buzzing of the bees – and the murmur of the river. But what music!301

Four years earlier, on 17 June 1914, an Australian musician living in England had left this longer journal entry, recording a summer’s day by the river in Marlow:

We had decided to give a musical party and as I also wanted to hear my String Trio I decided to engage the English Quartet to come and incidentally play it. People were asked for 3.30pm but most of them didn’t put in an appearance till 4pm or after. We made a start, though at 3.50pm. The programme was:

1. String Trio in B Minor – F.S.K.

2. Pianoforte solos: a) ‘Barcarolle’ – Chopin, b) ‘The Sussex Mummers’ Xmas Carol’ – P. Grainger, c) ‘Song Without Words’ in F# Minor no.32 – Mendelssohn, d) Rhapsody in Eb Major op.119, no.4 – Brahms.

3. String Quartet in F Major – Ravel.
T.F. Morris, H. Kinze, Frank Bridge, Ivor James.

They played my String Trio very well and I was agreeably surprised to find it sounded better than I expected. The first movement, however, contains scratchy places and is too long. I felt quite satisfied with the pizzicato in the slow movement. They also played the Ravel Quartet extremely well. My solos went well – the ‘Barcarolle’ better than it ever has done before. About 46 people turned up, all neighbours, with the exception of Dr. C.H. Lloyd and Miss Lloyd who came over from Slough. We had tea after the pianoforte solos and when the guests had gone I took the Quartet on the river in the punt to show them the Abbey.302

The marked difference between these two entries: one poetic, ascribing musicality to nature, the other factual and critical, listing repertoire and naming players and audience members – is reflective of the very different lives, backgrounds and perhaps quite different natures of the listeners. The first is a solitary experience, the second taking place within a social gathering of wealthy British society. The first reveals a romantic personality, the second a much more methodical character. Yet there are also similarities between the two men, both pianists, both destroyed by the First World War.303 The personal responses of these two composers give regional and national perspectives on a fifteen-year slice of listening history from 1907 to 1922, encompassing the decade 1910–20.

The diaries present quite different viewpoints. Frederick Septimus Kelly (1881–1916), author of the second, longer entry above, meticulously charts the musical activity of the period in eight red leather-bound pocketbooks, continued into the First World War. Kelly lived variously in Germany, Oxfordshire, London and Australia. After serving in Gallipoli, in 1916 he was dispatched to France, becoming one of the 420,000 ‘British’ casualties of the Somme. His output includes an Elegy for String Orchestra in memory of Rupert Brooke, with whom he served on the SS Grantully Castle. William Baines (1899–1922), writing from his home in Yorkshire in five little diaries, focuses more on the feelings induced by listening. Baines spent his life exclusively in Yorkshire, leaving the county on only a handful of occasions, and ending his days in the family home at 91 Albemarle Road, York. In May 1918, having several times failed military conscription on the grounds of ill health, he was re-examined for service after the dropping of all war exemptions. He was called up on 3 October and sent to Blandford Camp two days later. In Dorset he contracted pneumonia, from which he never fully recovered, demobilised on 24 January 1919 after fifteen weeks in hospital. He died of tuberculosis at the age of only 23, leaving an output of over 200 pieces, including a symphony, though mainly focused on piano music.

Diaries and letters as sources of listening experiences

Many other British composers working at this time left personal, informative writings. The diaries of Thomas Dunhill (1877–1946) span many years, covering the period from 1893 to his death. They contain mainly short entries that log his activities, despite their brevity offering insight into musical life in the first half of the twentieth century. Britten, too, kept diaries, passages from which are reproduced in the Listening Experience Database (LED). Britten’s teacher, and close friend of Dunhill, John Ireland (1879–1962), while not a diarist, was a prolific letter writer. Much of his correspondence has survived, though mainly from a later period. Within these letters he often makes acerbic comments about other British composers, especially a younger generation. Likewise, Frank Bridge (1879–1941) left no journals, but many surviving letters contain observations about his contemporaries, including Ireland.

Diaries by novelists and poets of this period also contain important musical observations. Examples can be seen in the words of three writers of the twentieth century: Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner and Virginia Woolf, all of whom left many entries referring to music. Mansfield’s journal covers only a small part of her short life, yet her use of musical analogy is core to this memoir, and a key expressive aspect that also pervades her fiction. Woolf, a good friend of the composer Ethel Smyth, was a learned and frequent attender of concerts. Warner’s diaries span a fifty-year period from 1927–77, and betray a depth of musical knowledge from her former life as one of the editors of the Oxford University Press (OUP) ten-volume Tudor Church Music.

Extracts from the diaries of these three women range from the simple chronicling of events to intimate disclosures of response to music. Mansfield, for example, mentions a visit to the Albert Hall to a: ‘bad, dull concert. But I thought all the while that I’d rather be with musical people than any others, and that they’re mine really’.304 Woolf similarly records what she heard and where she heard it, but often adds her personal thoughts:

Figaro at the Old Vic. It’s perfectly lovely; breaking from one beauty into another, and so romantic as well as witty – the perfection of music, and vindication of opera.305

Warner, a trained musicologist, can be quite rhapsodic in her offerings:

In the evening the Amadeus played opus 132; and I danced to the last movement, I rose up & danced, among the cats, & their saucers, and only when I was too far carried away to stop did I realise that I was behaving very oddly for my age – and that perhaps it was the last time I should dance for joy.306

Sometimes the observations made by these three women on contemporary performances overlap with those of the two principal composers discussed here, especially Kelly, who attended some of the same London concerts.

Frederick Kelly

Born in Sydney, Kelly was educated at Eton and Oxford. As a student he was much more interested in rowing for his college (Balliol), university and for Britain than in studying. After graduating with a degree in history in 1903, he spent five years studying piano and composition at the Hoch Conservatorium in Frankfurt, following in the footsteps of Percy Grainger. On returning to London, Kelly gave piano recitals and appeared as soloist in concertos with the London Symphony Orchestra, while continuing his rowing with the Leander Club at Henley, winning an Olympic gold medal in 1908. He quickly became a fixture of the capital’s arts scene, friendly with the poet laureate Robert Bridges. He lived next door to Leonard Borwick, the concert pianist, and sat for a portrait by John Singer Sargent, a photographic reproduction of which can be seen in the National Portrait Gallery.

Kelly kept a daily diary, starting from 1 October 1907, when he was studying in Germany, and ending on 29 April 1915. His accounts afford the reader a real sense of chronology and change, giving a glimpse of the different musical worlds he encountered. He records very precise details, telling the reader what he played and to whom, noting the reactions of his listeners. The editor of the diaries, Thérèse Radic, gives an excellent descriptive summary of their appearance and content:

The eight extant volumes, written in a large hand and in black ink, are easy enough to read. Sprinkled through them are fragments of musical notation. These are often sketches of new ideas, but there are also extracts from works by established composers used to illustrate critiques. The contents of the diaries are neither consciously literary nor aimed at posterity. They appear to have been written as a surface record of Kelly’s days, a personal reminder of how he used his time.307

Radic also picks out the recurring themes in Kelly’s diaries, among them the details of his piano practice, his daily meals and the many concerts he attended.

Kelly’s diaries range over different musical centres, especially London, betraying an eclecticism on his part. On 26 November 1909, for example, he went to the Coliseum to hear the Russian Balalaika players, where he was:

… much struck by the variety and the pleasant quality of tone which an orchestra of about 35 players produced. They finished up with a stirring performance of ‘Rule Britannia’ in which the sharp clicks of the strings gave a wonderfully inspiriting effect.308

Kelly’s diary entries

Kelly’s diaries contain long, detailed entries, and on nearly every day he hears something musical and says something interesting about it. One way of considering his listening activities is to take samples from across the eight diaries. The following discussion is written around a selection of a few entries that range across different years and locations, thus giving a sense of what he heard in Germany, Britain and France.

On 3 November 1907 Kelly was at a concert in Frankfurt, which included Bruckner’s Seventh Symphony. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of his diary recollection is that it gives a hint of how well Bruckner was received at this time, with repeated performances of this symphony. Kelly, however, was not taken with the work, writing that:

… the lack of continuity drives one to distraction and the tremendous crescendos on the common chord consisting of an incessant repetition of the same figure are like thick walls to prevent the flimsy structure of the material from falling down. It has been done three times since I have been in Frankfurt, if not more, and why? Hausegger used to conduct it by heart and so did Raabe tonight. In the same period of time I don’t think Brahms’ Third Symphony has been done at all!309

At the end of the year Kelly was back in England, where, as an ex-pupil, he attended the Eton school concert on 18 December. The pièce de resistance of this event was Acis and Galatea, as well as:

… a very talented boy of about 14 named Franchetti (and nephew of the composer of Germania) played a piece called Troika by Tchaikovsky. As an encore he played ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’ and the ‘Cock of the North’ on a drone bass in imitation of a drum and fife band, which caused an uproar among the boys but angered most of the masters.310

On 15 June 1908 Kelly went to Queen’s Hall. Even in those days the London traffic could cause problems, with Kelly missing the first item of an all-Saint-Saëns’ orchestral concert. While Kelly professed not to find Saint-Saëns a great composer, he did relish his wonderful facility, and in this diary entry offers rare comments on Saint-Saëns as pianist, which add to the wider picture of this composer as performer:

The Danse Macabre I liked best of anything on the programme. His piano playing seemed to me excellent and I was surprised at such clearness and technique in a man of 73.311

Kelly knew and worked with many of his British contemporaries, and often attended and commented on their concerts. One entry of 15 November 1909, after a concert at London’s Aeolian Hall, offers the reader an exceptionally detailed record of the repertoire and performers, naming the members of the Schwiller Quartet, for example, and listing every individual song offered in the programme; this included such rareties as Balfour Gardiner’s ‘Roadways’, as well as two major works by Vaughan Williams, his song cycle, On Wenlock Edge, and his new String Quartet in G minor, which seemed to Kelly ‘a very amateurish work with torturing harmonies’.312 Kelly’s record of the concert also offers a salutary lesson in the fallibility of placing too much trust in old concert programmes, with an example where one singer is replaced at short notice with another. While the popular English singer Gervase Elwes is listed on the official programme, Kelly writes that he had laryngitis, with his place taken by William Higley, better known for singing Wagner at the Proms.

Kelly was in London for the funeral of the King on 20 May 1910, offering an interesting observation of the occasion, notably that the ceremonial bands marched past the crowds without playing any music:

I breakfasted at 7am and found my way in to my seat in ‘Boots’ shop in the Edgware Road at 9am. We had two hours to wait before the beginning of King Edward VII’s funeral procession reached us, but the seething crowd and its struggles to break through the line of police and soldier was an unflagging source of interest. I was very much interested in the pageantry of the whole procession, but the whole thing was not impressive from the almost total lack of music. There were massed bands but they didn’t play as they passed us. It was a hot day and numbers of people fainted.313

Kelly as music critic

In 1911 Kelly was back in Sydney, where he attended as many musical events as possible, recording and commenting on programmes, performers, venues and climate. The longer passage below is a classic example of Kelly’s systematic and critical approach to listening, in which he lists and judges. His writings from this period in Australia also serve as a very good, and rare, source of information on musical life in that country at the time:

Wednesday 14 June 1911, Wentworth Hotel, Sydney

I went to the Sheffield Choir concert at the Town Hall after dinner. It was a miscellaneous program of choruses, part-songs and solos. The Sheffield chorus opened with Bach’s eight-part Motet, ‘Singet dem Herrn’, which they sang magnificently, kept the pitch tune as far as I could judge. They also did Elgar’s ‘Go Song of Mine’ which I heard at its first performance in London a year or so ago in the Queen’s Hall. It is a beautiful work, I think. Parry’s ‘There Rolls the Sleep’ and ‘The Bells of St Michael’s Tower’ (Knyvett-Steward) were also sung – the latter being a clever imitation of chimes. The Sydney Madrigal Society (conducted by W. Arundel Orchard) contributed ‘Thine Am I, Dearest’ (Monteverde) [sic] and Parry’s ‘Prithee Why’, and made an excellent showing – in fact I could find no fault with their singing. Lady Norah Noel’s singing left an unpleasant taste in my mouth. She sang a rather commonplace song as an encore and made the most of her gallery top notes. The bass Mr Robert Chignell was also up to the same game. It was interesting to have practically the only two characteristic sides of English music represented side by side – the part-song which is its pride and the drawing-room song which unfortunately is equally characteristic.314

A similar mix of precise reporting and subjective judgment characterises these diaries. On 5 March 1913 Kelly was in Paris to hear an important recital in the Salle Érard. Prior to the event he bought scores from Durand’s music shop, hiring a room with a piano in order to sight-read the music ahead of the concert. His summary of the event adds a distinctive perspective to other existing writings on the composer-pianist:

Debussy’s playing was very straightforward and in a sense disappointed me. He played from the music and except in ‘La Puerta del Vino’ (which he repeated) and ‘General Lavine’, which he added as an encore, he didn’t show many signs of interpreting his music. There was too much of the soft pedal colour for my taste, but I don’t know whether this was owing to the Erard piano. He had a considerable reception from a crowded house…As a player he didn’t seem to me to have an easy technique and there were certain subtleties of expression in the music which didn’t come out in his playing.315

Kelly also tells us that Fanny Davies had made a special trip from England to hear Debussy, and that in the same concert Ravel conducted his Introduction and Allegro. Back in London a few days later Kelly was fortunate to be able to see the Ballets Russes. His attendance of a succession of concerts across a few days is typical of his everyday life, demonstrating his desire to learn and to immerse himself in new music. It is also evident that his healthy financial situation and ability to mix in affluent circles afforded him opportunities quite different to those of William Baines.

William Baines

Baines first started to keep a diary some ten years after Kelly, in 1918, his original one a Christmas present from his brother Teddy. This developed into a tradition, with subsequent diaries always being gifts from his family. Taken together, they chart a poignant few years in which the young man can be seen moving inexorably towards his early death. There are five volumes in the British Library. The first is a small green Letts diary in which Baines writes an entry every single day. Personal details log his height as 5ft 8, his weight an already fragile 7 stone. On the first page he says he hopes that ‘in the future this little book will contain my wanderings, experiences, – & (a pet theory) – little temperamental moods’ (1 January 1918). The following entry provides a taste of how Baines, still a teenager, lived, and with what anticipation. He describes this as an ‘uneventful day’, calls himself a ‘music student’, tells us he is working towards a piano recital in Horbury and that he is employed as relief pianist at the Electric Theatre in York. One line gives a sense of the passion with which he responds to music: ‘Oh! music – what a delight you are to me – it is one thread between man, – & spirit’ (2 January 1918).

The small black diary for 1919 starts on 24 January and is kept for much of the year. However, Baines is now tending to spread one entry across several dates rather than providing a daily update. There is also a noticeable change in hand between 1918 and 1919. The travails of war have taken their toll, and the handwriting in 1919 is markedly quavery. The diaries for 1920 and 1921 are often blank or with very short entries, particularly around increasingly long periods of illness. That for 1922 has very few entries and comes to an end on 27 May, when Baines notes that he has received copies of his newly-published piano work, Milestones.

Baines’s descriptive and delicate poeticism is applied to music, but also revealed in his many rhapsodic descriptions of nature and weather. These permeate his diaries, as shown in three apposite examples from 1918:

3 January 1918

‘Awoke up this morning, to find the earth a mass of white. What a beautiful, & typical winter scene – snow all round – the sparrows all about, – chirruping in all kinds of keys.’

19 May 1918

‘The sun was high in the heavens – & the blossom was magnificent – the air was glorious, & so pure. The buttercups are like one great carpet of yellow – & the various tints of green on the trees are exquisite.’

15 June 1918

‘Cycled 40 miles to Bridlington. Thought of 2 new names for pieces – ‘At Dawn on the Wolds’ and ‘From an Hedge Bottom One June Morn. This last idea, or title came from seeing roses, & beautiful creepers in a hedge bottom near Stamford Bridge.’

It might be said that Katherine Mansfield writes in a way comparable to Baines, making analogies between nature and music, although as a writer she approaches the subject in her distinctive poetic, painterly manner:

Oh, God! The sky is filled with the Sun, and the sun is like music. Music comes streaming down these great beams. The wind touches the harp-like trees, shakes little jets of music – little shakes, little trills from the flowers. The shape of every flower is like a sound.’
(31 May 1919)316

Provincial music-making

Baines’s diaries reveal the distinctive outlook of a provincial musician with little in the way of serious musical training. He grew up in a close family in the provincial town of Horbury before moving first to Cleckheaton, then to York. Horbury in the early part of the twentieth century was shaped by its non-conformist tradition. Music-making was inevitably dominated by the chapel, of which there were four in the High Street alone,317 but the town also had a world-famous troupe of handbell ringers. Baines’s father William earned his living as a musician, from 1913 as cinema pianist at the Picture Palace in Cleckheaton, then at the Electric Cinema in York’s Fossgate; therefore music played an important role in the home. The family owned a phonograph, playing Handel oratorios and such treasured recordings as the overture to Auber’s La Muette de Portici.

Figure 1: Yorkshire Training College of Music (Source unknown)

Baines was initially taught by his father, sitting at his side at the organ in the Ebenezer Primitive Methodist Chapel in Horbury, composing hymn tunes by the age of 11. From 1910 he travelled to Leeds every Saturday to study at the Yorkshire Training College of Music318 with Albert Jowett, a well-known teacher and composer in the city. Baines had season tickets for the Bradford Permanent Orchestral Society. He played piano duets with his father and gave solo piano recitals locally. He enjoyed the seaside orchestra at Bridlington and Parsifal in Leeds, eating shrimp sandwiches in the interval (31 March 1922). He heard the Hallé with Catterall playing Hamilton Harty’s Violin Concerto at St George’s Hall, Bradford, of which he wrote:

I wish he had not. I believe a lot of other people wished like me. It was boresome, & the work lacked ideas. Did it contain one good one? Catterall plays in a delightful manner. Very polished & correct. I like Harty’s conducting. I never before heard such a fine performance of the Tannhäuser Overture as was given tonight…the brass players in this orchestra are very good.

(17 March 1922)

All in all it was a parochial existence, and this young man had little contact with the wider musical world. Life was relaxed and cosseted. Baines worked, smoked, studied French, played chess, walked and cycled. Often he listed in his diaries what he was reading at the time, which ranged from lives of composers and Ernest Markham Lee’s recently-published On Listening to Music (1918) to Dickens, Poe and Rupert Brooke. He bought a second-hand copy of Grove and was passionate about Jerome K. Jerome.

One of the most valuable aspects of Baines’s diaries, particularly the first one, is what they reveal about life in a small town and its contained yet flourishing musical scene. On 7 January 1918 Baines describes a typical day, at a time when he acted as relief pianist for his father at the cinema:

Practice [sic] 10 am – to 12 noon. After dinner read until 1.30. Practice 1.30 until about 3.15. Then early Tea. Commence at the pictures 4.30, finish 7. (Usually I extemporise all the time, or if not, play a few light classical pieces – Chopin’s Mazurkas, Scriabin Preludes, etc). Arrive home about 7.30. Practice until about 9 or 9.30. Supper – then a good read, or a game of chess.

At the cinema Baines most often played alone, occasionally with others, such as the cellist Freda Kirmsé, who had trained at the RAM and in Leipzig. Baines had a habit, not popular with the film audience, of using the cinema to try out and learn new repertory:

Have started to go through Beethoven’s Sonatas at the pictures – & am doing the first 6 (about) – this first half week.

(23 April 1918)

Monday was washing day, Sunday the statutory day of rest, with Baines attending chapel and writing ‘I always have a feeling of “smallness” on Sundays – because of its sacredness’ (6 January 1918). There were informal local opportunities to perform his own music, and many instances when he mentions playing to people over luncheon. He only began to step outside this insular world when the critic and writer A. Eaglefield Hull (1876–1928) came across his music in 1920 and took it upon himself to champion his young Yorkshire compatriot.

Rather like the Derbyshire composer, Roger Sacheverell Coke (1912–72), Baines’s output is focused on piano music on account of his isolation and his almost enforced prowess on this instrument. His own, often luxuriantly chromatic, music is audibly influenced by his listening, with the impact of hearing Debussy, Delius and Scriabin, a composer whose Symphony no.2 made Baines’s back record ‘20 degrees below zero!’ (14 September 1921), clearly heard. His musical language is also coloured by his isolated circumstances, with an abundance of tone poems inspired by the local places he loved so well. The coast at Flamborough was a particular fascination, with several piano miniatures including the two works that constitute Tides, ‘The Lone Wreck’ and ‘Goodnight to Flamboro’’, linked to its rocky headland.

Figure 2: High Stacks, Flamborough Head (Source: Geograph website,, accessed 1 June 2017; Copyright © Scott Robinson and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence,

Local musicians

One of Baines’s close allies and supporters was the concert pianist and fellow Yorkshireman Frederick Dawson (1868–1940). When he first encountered Baines’s music, Dawson was at the height of his career (he had been the soloist at the inaugural concert of Queen’s Hall, worked closely with Grieg, toured Germany and Vienna, and gave first performances of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto no.1 in Leeds, Sheffield and Manchester). In 1913, for example, an appearance in Manchester was described as ‘sparkling’, having ‘clarity’, ‘vitality’ and ‘dazzling execution’.319 He swiftly took into his repertoire an array of Baines’s works, notably Silverpoints and the Seven Preludes, taking the pieces across northern England. Baines became close to Dawson, not only as a fellow musician, but also as a friend, and wrote many letters to the pianist at his then home in Eyam, in the beautiful Derbyshire countryside, some of which describe listening experiences in a manner similar to that expressed in the diaries:

Letter to Frederick Dawson, 11 August 1920

Last night I went out to sea on a steamer, ‘The Frenchman’. Beneath a curling sky the water was a lovely dark greeny green. As the waves overlapped one another they appeared to be like running velvet…so soft and smooth. The light was a bluey grey but a slanting sun kissed a strip of sea into a golden pathway of light…

We had not been sailing very long before a ‘noise’ struck up…and made a crack in the picture. Music on the vessel…It was a most extraordinary Stravinsky-like combination was this ship’s orchestra – viz. harp and piccolo. O Lor! Imagine the skimmed-milk harmony. The people clapped of course. They would have clapped if the boat had gone down I suppose. Holidays are magical things, but it made me wonder if England would ever be a musical nation.320

Baines heard Dawson play on several occasions, notably at the Town Hall in Leeds, ‘as brilliant as ever – & he plays this magnificent concerto [Delius] as it should be played’ (15 February 1922). A week after this performance Baines went to a different Leeds venue, the Albert Hall, to see Dawson include five of his piano miniatures, a recital at which Dawson also played Chopin’s ‘butterfly’ study ‘more delightfully than ever I have heard it before…’ (22 February 1922).

Another important local connection was the violinist John Dunn (1866–1940), who occupied a position rather similar to that of Frederick Dawson. He too was from Yorkshire, studied in Leipzig 1878–81, travelled to America, was one of the first soloists to take Elgar’s Violin Concerto into his repertoire, gave many world tours, and retired to Harrogate. Baines first heard Dunn in March 1918 in a recital in York, an encounter that inspired ‘Dream Thought’ for violin and piano, offered to Dunn by the composer. He wrote in reply, as recorded in detail in Baines’s diary:

I am delighted with your ‘Dream Temple’. It’s just the thing. If you are well enough would you care to be the pianist at my recital? Am opening with some Bach & Paganini…2 or 3 smaller items & yours.

(7 December 1920)

Dunn’s ‘exquisite’ interpretation of this piece elicited intense emotions both from Baines and from his mother:

He drained the sponge of beauty to the last drop – & Mother sat & wept for joy – in the dark – in the back room.

(6 January 1921)

Baines’s favoured repertoire was his own music, alongside Arensky, Bridge, Chopin and above all Scriabin. On account of his ongoing ill health, his recitals were close to home, his main venues being St Mary’s Convent, St George’s Hall and the Tempest Anderson Hall in York, and the Assembly Hall, Horbury, as well as the familiar Primitive Methodist Chapel. The collection of programmes of his performances in the British Library demonstrates just how home-grown his musical career was and, once he had moved to York, Baines saw visits as locally as Horbury and Cleckheaton as a ‘vacation’ (21 January 1918). Yet from these recitals he developed close friends who helped to promote his limited career, among them the affluent Lady Dawson,321 with her husband Sir Benjamin the owner of the well-known country house, Nun Appleton. She was a talented amateur pianist, and in Baines found a sympathetic duet partner. She in turn supported his concerts, offered him the use of her fine Bechstein, took him for drives in her Rolls Royce and gave him the freedom of the grounds of the estate. To her, Baines wrote many poetic and appreciative letters.

Figure 3: Nun Appleton Hall (Source: Geograph website,, accessed 1 June 2017; Copyright © Ian S and licensed for reuse under the Creative Commons Licence,

Working methods

Baines spent many hours searching for an original style, writing in 1918:

In reason, I often think, why should music be governed by laws? I feel that I must use my own ideas and methods. I cannot see how it matters, if the result is good. Naturally anybody has to have a grounding, but after that, I say ‘get out of the common rut’! I long to burst my bonds and intend doing so, in careful but firm steps.

(3 April 1918)

He was a critical worker, striving to improve his word-setting, and to learn more about string phrasing, and writing out compositions numerous times in order to grasp them more clearly. Most of his pieces were at some stage reworked. Perhaps surprisingly, given that Baines revised and re-revised, in the initial stages of a new piece he wrote very quickly:

Tuesday I got into working order again; & started on a ‘Poem’ for orchestra & piano…Up to teatime yesterday I had done 45 pages of score…& have enjoyed myself amongst it all. Tootling piccolo parts & bellowing the trombonist bits …!322

The diaries reveal how Baines listened, usually to recordings, socially, with friends and family. Sunday was often a time for musical contemplation. On one occasion he writes of going to Cleckheaton to share his experiences:

…had a good evening listening to the gramophone – (mainly pianoforte records), with Willie Halmshaw – who is a grand fellow – & Bertram Ellis. Real good company they are.

(20 April 1918)

However, Baines was well aware of the limitations of recordings, finding that re-listening to the same performance captured on record had the problem that it said ‘the same thing that has been said many times before’ (8 December 1921).

The composer’s listening experiences came not only from the actual auditory experience, but also from his private practice and through his diligent discovery of new music. He bought scores as often as he could, learning them extraordinarily quickly. Taking an example from the diaries, on 24 January 1918 he acquired several new works, including selected pieces by Byrd and the Grieg Piano Concerto, but also Cyril Scott’s Russian Dance, Palmgren’s Rococo, and Harry Farjeon’s The Four Winds. On the following exquisite day, ‘all tranquil, & sublime’, he memorised two of them; the day after that Scott’s seven-page score and Byrd’s Pavan, ‘The Earl of Salisbury,’ writing of the latter: ‘This piece brings into mind the impression of a beautiful cathedral – solemn, & grand’ (26 January 1918).

Through Baines’s meticulous registering of works in his diary of 1918 we learn that he knew Liszt’s La Campanella, Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4 and Bridge’s Capriccio in F sharp minor. And it would be interesting to probe further his assessment that Byrd’s ‘Carman’s Whistle’ was ‘rather a difficult piece to memorise’ (12 February 1918).

On 24 February he bought another three new pieces, by Balakirev, Palmgren and Scriabin. Many of these newly-memorised miniatures found their way into his recital programmes.

Whenever he could – and like Kelly – Baines purchased new music, mainly French and British, such as Benjamin Dale’s Piano Sonata, ‘a fine work but too long’ (16 April 1918), Ravel’s ‘irresistible’ Jeux d’Eaux (27 April 1918), Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque and Ireland’s Decorations. He played much of the latter’s music, including the Piano Sonata, his ‘somewhat vague Rhapsody – & his Ragamuffin which I like’ (30 April 1919). In 1922 he went so far as to write a paper on the ‘very fine’ Ireland violin sonatas, which was read at a British Music Society meeting on 11 February 1922. Baines’s comments on his own performances add to the idea of the composer listening to himself, for example a recital in Gainsborough on an appalling piano, where ‘dozens of notes were squinting horribly out of tune’ (29 March 1922).

Romantic appreciation

Baines’s descriptions of his listening experiences reflect his sensitive nature. There are numerous examples of this romantic aesthetic: ‘What a beautiful realm Chopin’s music takes one into. It is a balm at all times’ (5 March 1918), and ‘I love beautiful slow movements – they record one’s heart & mind so well’ (18 March 1918). Of Debussy he wrote: ‘He was a proper “dreamer”. I love his works’ (27 March 1918).

Baines always responds emotively, with language of an exuberant nature. Of his own playing of the Waldstein sonata to his mother he writes that he ‘bathed in its depths’ (4 January 1920). Of being in York Minster, ‘a glorious, majestic building’ he often visited: ‘Oh! how the music thrills & makes one go cold’ (20 May 1918). While Baines most often focuses on how music moves him, sometimes he, like Kelly, records factual information: in March 1919, for example, he goes with his new friend, artist Karl Wood,323 to see the Carl Rosa company in Madame Butterfly, listing Aimee Kemball as Butterfly, Constance Willis as Suzuki and Edward Davies as Pinkerton, saying:

A memorable night. The music is great at times, the treatment of the orchestra is very interesting – conventions to the wind. Pure melody is not Puccini’s forte – to me – but all the same I have enjoyed it and should like to hear it again.

(21 March 1919)

A few days later, on Palm Sunday, Baines is in York Minster to listen to Bach, again listing those he has heard, including tenor Gervase Elwes (19 April 1919). In the following year he hears the Catterall quartet playing Mozart, Elgar and Borodin, ‘a great treat’, ‘a fine combination’, and the ‘first time I have heard a good string quartet’ (30 January 1920).

Baines’s assessments, with such charming statements as Debussy’s L’Après-Midi giving off ‘all kinds of soft lights’ (15 September 1921), might be interpreted as being naïve, but are wonderfully natural responses and reveal a highly receptive brain and ear. He much preferred hearing contemporary music. On sitting behind the double basses at a concerto given by the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO), he writes ‘to my regret did not play anything modern…we were given the usual Mozart & Wagner’ (20 February 1920), and at a concert in York:

Went to hear Acis and Galatea with the York Choral Society, also Holst Hymn of Jesus. Excepting for about 2 arias the Handel piece was boring to a degree – & got tremendous applause! The Holst is a magnificent work – great – & a few more sensible people clapped like fury – otherwise the clapping wouldn’t have awakened a sleeping child.

(8 March 1921)

As a keyboard player, Baines’s observations on contemporary pianists are particularly noteworthy: critical while never truly unkind. He listened to pianist Mark Hambourg, with his ‘fine technique but no personality’ (13 October 1919), and in 1920 heard ‘typically British’ William Murdoch at the Wigmore Hall (21 February 1920).324 He liked the ‘crisp, happy playing’ of Arthur de Greef and the youthful Irene Scharrer’s ‘beautiful’ interpretation of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto no.4. In 1922 Baines heard Busoni in Bradford:

a masterly player, a musician with great conceptive powers always. I didn’t like his own Fantasy on ‘Carmen’ which he played… I thought it often common; & in places even vulgar…But as a player…magnificent…

(24 February 1922)

Although visits to places outside Yorkshire were very much the exception for Baines, the highlight of his listening life came in May 1919 on a trip to London. Here, as had Kelly a few years earlier, he saw the Ballets Russes at the Alhambra (where they had been relocated following a series of successful performances at the Coliseum)325 in a performance of L’Oiseau de Feu, starring Lydia Lopokova as the firebird and conducted by Ansermet. The sensation of hearing Stravinsky’s ‘weird harmonies’ made Baines’s hair stand on end (12 May 1919). An interesting cross-reference comes from one of John Ireland’s pupils, Horace Randerson (1892–1992), who was at the same performance, and also recorded his response to Stravinsky at first hearing: ‘…most bizarre & fantastic but very fine’.326 In that same week Baines went to recitals by Evelyn Howard Jones and Sydney Rosenbloom. On 15 May he went to the Queen’s Hall to hear the LSO and Hamilton Harty play Paganini and Brahms (both with Louis Godowsky as soloist), Debussy and Tchaikovsky, of whom he said listening to Francesca da Rimini gave him ‘cold shivers of glory’. 1919 was also the year in which Baines’s fortunes began to improve, with some short pieces – Paradise Gardens and Seven Preludes – published by Elkin. The first of these is regarded by many as being Baines’s ‘signature’ work, and has elicited more in the way of textual and musical interpretations than many other pieces.

Figure 4: Paradise Gardens (Source: Drawing by Richard A. Bell, illustrating Baines’s diary entry 3 June 1918, designed for ‘The Yorkshire of William Baines’, Harrogate Festival Exhibition booklet, August 1972. With thanks to Richard A. Bell for permission to re-use in this chapter)


While these two pianist composers both worked in Britain, they had very different backgrounds. Kelly went to Eton, Baines to the Wesleyan Day School in Horbury. Kelly was a student at Oxford, Baines at a private music school in Leeds. Kelly was 35 when he died, Baines just 23. Very different perspectives on a musical decade can be uncovered through the diaries of these composers. Kelly’s listening is wide-ranging and extensive; therefore its impact on his own music is hard to define. His writings are very detailed, offer insights into his routines, and often record the smallest activities. Baines tells us what he heard in concert halls and at the seaside, but perhaps more importantly gives profoundly personal reactions. He was a very sensitive character, who wept on hearing the Scots Greys in the Knavesmire Barracks playing ‘Peace, Perfect Peace’.327 Baines’s listening experiences are very local, very personal, sometimes elegiac, sometimes droll:

I went to hear Dr Bairstow give an organ recital in the Minster. Afterward I wished I hadn’t gone. The seats were hard, & tryingly uncomfortable….& the recital monotonous. I came away with the impression that I have had for a long time…that the organ is very mechanical, & apart from bellowing & trembling, possesses no soul as an instrument.

(7 November 1921)

There are also similarities between the two authors. In his latter journals Kelly records the war in sound, sometimes writing notation into his journal, as in this example from 23 November 1914, where he notes the song of the soldiers training in Greenlaw in Scotland:

At 3.30pm we went for a route-march along the road leading west across and alongside the railway. The platoon surprised me by a burst of song when I made some remark about its unmusical character. Apparently the men were under the impression I wouldn’t allow singing on the march. One of their songs was ‘Here we are, Here we are, Here we are again!’ I could discover no continuation of the tune or the text!328 Baines likewise ‘listens’ to the war: ‘Now, at time of writing it is 1 o’clock a.m. We have been sitting up on account of an air-raid. Heard many thuds – like low A strings breaking – in the distance.

(12 March 1918)

Kelly’s musical world was very different to that of Baines. He was part of Speyer’s Classical Concert Society committee, and friends with many influential London musicians. He knew Parry and Stanford. Wealthy and well connected, he went to Bayreuth and travelled widely. He accompanied Pablo Casals and the famous d’Arányi sisters. In the case of Baines, it is perhaps surprising, given that he was 20 years younger, to realise that his piano music was produced at the same time as much of that of John Ireland. The latter’s Piano Sonata, for example, was premiered in 1920. But while Ireland was a national name with many contacts across the country, Baines languished in obscurity. Living an insular, protected life in Yorkshire, without the important contacts with the Royal College enjoyed by most of his contemporaries, Baines’s own music spread very slowly in a handful of publications.

In one respect the fact that Baines never left his home county to take up composition studies was a hindrance to him. He had almost no personal contact with contemporary composers and little formal tuition, compelled therefore to find a method of teaching himself. Conversely, his distance from the English composing community brought a distinctive flavour to his composition and to his writing. Although now remembered only for a collection of short piano pieces, at the time of his early death he was beginning to make an impact nationally, both as a concert pianist and a composer. Baines had an uncanny ability to read, listen and critique, and the wealth of detail available from his diaries provides a valuable alternative listening narrative. In his 1946 novel, Bright Day, J. B. Priestley, with great nostalgia, tried to evoke the Yorkshire past in fiction. Baines’s writings from his real, lived experiences, vividly conjure up a real lost world, a lost time.

Select bibliography

Carpenter, Roger. Goodnight to Flamboro’: The Life and Music of William Baines. Rickmansworth: Triad Press, 1977.

Cookey, Jon and McKechnie. Graham (eds). Kelly’s War: The Great War Diary of Frederick Kelly 1914–16. London: Blink, 2015

Pirie, Peter J. ‘William Baines’, Music & Musicians 21, November, 1972, pp. 36–40.

Radic, Thérèse. ‘Editing the diaries of F. S. Kelly: unique insights into an expatriate’s musical career’, Context 19, Spring, 2001, pp. 19–33.

Radic, Thérèse. Race Against Time: The Diaries of F.S. Kelly. Canberra: National Library of Australia, 2004.

Smith, J. Sutcliffe. A Musical Pilgrimage in Yorkshire. Leeds: Richard Jackson Ltd, 1928.

Practitioner listening

Analysing listening experiences: a case study of the young Benjamin Britten

Simon Brown

Simon Brown is a Research Associate at the Royal College of Music working on the Listening Experience Database (LED) project, and an Associate Lecturer with The Open University.


Historical evidence of listening to music by practitioners can often provide us with an unusual level of detail about their experience. But in what form does this data usually exist? How could we set about studying the evidence and what insights might it provide? This chapter focuses on the type of methodology that might be used for the systematic study of the listening experiences of a single practitioner, with a view to how this could be applied to a larger dataset. It relies upon the facilities of the Listening Experience Database (LED) and attempts to illustrate what a tool like this has to offer.

The chapter will draw extensively on the listening experiences of Benjamin Britten between the years 1928 and 1938. This is the only period of his life during which Britten kept a daily journal. As such, his listening experiences are mentioned in almost every entry. John Evans noted in the preface to his 2009 published edition that:

the entries grow in length, complexity and private reflection; intimate thoughts were committed to a succession of pocket and desk diaries, [during] a period of self-reflection.329

After 1938 Britten’s only first-hand accounts of his listening experiences are available through his letters. His diaries therefore provide a unique and valuable insight into the unsolicited testimony of a practitioner.


The types of sources that contain historical evidence of listening practices include: personal correspondence such as letters, diaries and memoirs; published books and articles such as biographies and autobiographies (particularly examples of travel and life writing); journalism; oral evidence; official papers and works of reference, to name but a few. But what form does data about listening usually take? It is often the case that the type of evidence does not always reveal what we might have initially imagined or hoped (for example, precisely how the listener felt about, or reacted to, a particular piece of music). Instead, the individual pieces of evidence are often casual comments, which contain contextual information pertaining to the experience, such as the repertoire, performers, location, date and times, and so on. Given the often dispersed and varied nature of this evidence, its analysis can be difficult and cumbersome. This chapter sets out to demonstrate how disparate pieces of evidence relating to the listening experiences of Benjamin Britten (191376) can be analysed by means of their extraction from a database, providing a more coherent picture than might otherwise be the case. The claim here is not that this study would be impossible in the absence of such means. Rather, the study may act as a pilot, showing how this technique might be applicable to a much larger and more unwieldy body of evidence.

The peripheral data

In the listening experiences of practitioners it is perhaps not surprising that information about the music and performers is often described in detail. This is certainly true for Britten, who often names the performers and repertoire as a matter of course throughout his diaries. In addition, Britten recorded much contextual data, and for this study all of these details have been entered into LED.

The data entry form on LED has been designed not only to capture the written testimony of the listener and the bibliographical details of how the evidence can be traced, but also the ‘peripheral data’ of each experience. By peripheral I mean the contextual evidence that is often apparent either explicitly in the text (such as a specific piece of music or composer being mentioned), or implicitly (such as whether it was at a concert at a named venue, meaning that it is safe to assume that the experience occurred indoors, in a public space and in the company of others).330 The fields on the data entry form facilitate the capture of details about the names of specific pieces of music, the composer(s), the performer(s), the instrumentation, the listening and performance environments, the locations, and how the music was transmitted. Labeling these details as ‘peripheral’ is not to suggest that they are inferior to the descriptive testimony of the experience, but merely that their significance is not always immediately apparent. On the contrary, in addition to drawing conclusions from the written testimony, it is the extraction of this peripheral data that can provide further insights into the listening habits and behaviours of an individual, or broader patterns across a range of listeners, locations, time periods and different types of music.

In addition to the standard browse and search facilities that are available via the LED homepage, the data can also be queried using the SPARQL language. This allows for more complex searches of LED, but also the facility to extract the data via the SPARQL endpoint of The Open University into a CSV (Comma Separated Values) file. Once in this format, the data can be interrogated further using standard software, such as Microsoft Excel, in order to examine it more closely and extract more meaningful results. An example of the SPARQL query that was used to extract all of the entries in LED that have Britten as a listener can be seen in Figure 1.331

Figure 1: SPARQL query to retrieve all of the listening experiences that involve Britten as a listener

The listening experiences of Benjamin Britten

Britten affords a fascinating insight into the listening experiences of a single practitioner. He lived during a period that witnessed the emergence of changes in technology that would profoundly affect listening habits and behaviours. There is also an abundance of evidence, a vast amount of which is readily available through his published diaries and letters.332 Britten frequently comments on listening to his own music as a composer, but also the effects of listening to others. His responses include different listening environments, such as during rehearsals, live at concerts, via radio broadcasts and on the gramophone player. Britten often records valuable details of the performers and the repertoire, in addition to his reaction to the performance, along with that of the audience.

Much of the current literature on Britten has naturally focused on his work as a composer. While we have learned much from the published material, in terms of his musical and cultural perspectives, there has been limited discussion about the specific effects of what Britten listened to, the ways in which he listened, and how this might have had an impact on his work as a practitioner. This chapter draws on Britten’s listening experiences between the years 1928 and 1938, the only period of his life during which he kept a daily journal, which has now been edited by John Evans.

Beginning in the composer’s fourteenth year, Britten’s diaries trace his development from Gresham’s School in Holt, North Norfolk, to his time studying at the Royal College of Music, through to his early career working for the General Post Office Film Unit, the Group Theatre and the BBC. By the end of 1938 Britten was on the brink of establishing an international career. His personal accounts enable us to explore a period of his life that would have a profound influence on him.

It is important to provide a word of caution here. Evans admits in the editorial notes to the published collection that not every word or, indeed, every entry of Britten’s diaries was replicated in the published edition. Evans explains that in Britten’s early accounts of his activities, mainly governed by his family circumstances or life at school, the diary entries are ‘very matter-of-fact in content, but the roll call of his many church-going, musical, sporting or bathing companions is always extraordinarily detailed’.333 Therefore, the evidence this chapter draws upon is only indicative of Britten’s practices and habits and does not, by any means, present the complete picture.

In reproducing Britten’s diary entries I have retained his spelling mistakes, choice of punctuation and grammar as they were in the published edition.334 In any piece of text, these types of idiosyncrasies can affect the meaning entirely and, as Evans noted, ‘they demonstrate the efforts he made to express himself more clearly, and the struggle he had to overcome his dyslexia-like battle with spelling’.335

Revealing the peripheral data

An example of his diary entry from 22 October 1932, written after Britten had attended a live performance of Mozart’s Piano Quartet in G minor K.478, reveals his sharp criticism of the performers and is indicative of his strengthening opinions, not just about how he considered Mozart ought to be performed he was, of course, later to become a celebrated interpreter of Mozart himself but of the standard of musicianship that he was growing to expect:

Meet Barb at 8.15 at Broadcasting House for concert (tickets from R.C.M.) in concert Hall at 8.30. English Ensemble Kathleen Long (poor in spots). Marjorie Haywood (good) Rebecca Clark (musicianly but not inspired). May Mukle (poor tone).336

Aside from the criticisms directed at the performers, this type of experience reveals other aspects of the London concert scene during this time, such as the venues and performers. A review of several pieces of evidence like this provides us with a more accurate picture of where Britten most frequently listened to music during a specific period. Figure 2 shows Britten’s listening experiences by venue in London between late 1928 and early 1935. It reveals that most of his listening experiences occurred either at the Royal College of Music (RCM), where he was a student, or at the Queen’s Hall in Langham Place. The latter was London’s principal concert venue. It played host to The Proms between 1895 and 1941 before it was destroyed in the Blitz during the Second World War, but in the 1930s it had become the home for both the BBC Symphony Orchestra and the London Philharmonic Orchestra both of which raised the standards of orchestral playing in London and attracted eminent musicians from across Europe and America (see Figure 3: Sir Edward Elgar and the London Symphony Orchestra on the platform of the Queen’s Hall in 1911, a photograph first published in The Musical Times the same year). The other most prominent venues that Britten frequented included Broadcasting House, the Royal Albert Hall and the Wigmore Hall, but most of these listening experiences occurred after 1930.

Figure 2: Britten’s listening experiences by venue in London (1928–35).
Figure 3: Sir Edward Elgar and the London Symphony Orchestra on the platform of the Queen’s Hall (Source: Scanned from The Musical Times, vol. 52, No. 825, 1 November 1911, pp. 705–707)

Britten moved to London in September 1930 to study at the RCM. As we might expect, this radically changed his listening habits in terms of the repertoire to which he was exposed and the standard of performance that he would witness. Britten had an uneasy relationship with the RCM and the reasons behind his feelings are complex, but they were likely to have been influenced in part, at least, by his attitude towards his fellow-students and the teaching staff such as John Ireland and Ralph Vaughan Williams, the latter of whom Britten considered to be the ‘old guard’ of English music. But as a young composer, Britten’s dissatisfaction with his time at College was understandable, and had much to do with the lack of performances that his own works received. As Paul Kildea noted in his recent biography of Britten:

by the time he left the RCM in July 1933, Britten had heard only two of his works in college concerts his Phantasy in F minor (1932) and Sinfonietta (1932), which had already received its premiere elsewhere.337

Britten himself later remarked about this period that without being able to listen to his own works ‘it was difficult to link notes and sounds’.338

A comparison of Kildea’s account with Britten’s diary entries confirms that there were only two performances of his own works at the RCM. The first was on 22 July 1932 and is perhaps surprisingly thin in detail, particularly since this was still such a rare occasion. Britten wrote:

Go to R.C.M. at 10.30, after finishing packing etc. to hear result of [sic] competition Cobbett prize – performance of my 5tet—bad—but I expected worse.339

The second was on 16 March 1933 and is equally sparse:

After dinner R.C.M. Chamber Concert at 8.15. Mum & Beth go. Bridges & Brosas also there. Beethoven C# min quart competently but dully played; an atrocious perf. of Delius Vl. Sonata no. 1. F. May plays. bit of Phantasy of Schuman [sic], & I conduct a show of my Sinfonietta which goes quite well.340

If we consider the number of experiences of listening to his own compositions that Britten documented during this short period, we can see that there were significantly more than this (see Table 1). Of course, not all of these would have been public engagements; some were private performances or listening experiences with friends and colleagues, such as on Cromwell Road in Kensington, where he lived between 1931 and 1933. The third listening experience at the RCM was a rehearsal and he would almost certainly have heard his own works by other means or on other occasions. But the fact that these are not reported in his diaries is quite striking, and it confirms that most experiences of his own music were outside of college.

Table 1: Britten’s listening experiences of his own works between 1928 and 1935

Tite Street, London 1
Broadcasting House, London 2
Cromwell Road, London 1
London 17 (30 inclusively)
Lowestoft 2
Mercury Theatre, London 1
Royal Academy of Music, London 2
Royal College of Music, London 3
St. George’s Hall, London 1
St. Martin’s Rectory, London 1
Teatro Comunale, Florence 1
Wigmore Hall, London 1
Total 33

Limitations of the data

As with Figure 2, Table 1 reveals that there are a number of issues with certain aspects of the data. For instance, of the entries that have been submitted to LED at the time of writing this chapter, there are a significant number of listening experiences where the venue was either not listed or simply marked at city, borough or street level, such as ‘London’. This is not a fault at data entry level but merely reflects the level of detail in his diaries, highlighting the fact that we should be cautious when drawing conclusions from the data.

Indeed, a closer look at the data from his diary entries reveals the incompleteness of the picture. For instance, if we consider all the listening experiences that Britten documented in his diaries between 1928 and 1934, we see a dramatic increase in 1931 (see Figure 4).  Looking more closely, however, the lack of data between 1928 and 1930 tells us more about how infrequently Britten wrote in his diary than about his listening habits. His diary begins at the start of the school term in late September 1928 and entries remain fairly sporadic until he attends the RCM in September 1930.

Figure 4 highlights how, having moved from boarding school at Gresham’s in Holt, Norfolk, to London in late 1930, Britten’s diary-writing habits became more assiduous as he attended college, and also the fact that he began to explore the London concert scene.

Figure 4: Britten’s recorded listening experiences by year

Figure 5 provides evidence of the different ways in which he listened to music, suggesting that, while his listening experiences of the gramophone fluctuated (with a slight increase overall during this period), they still remained relatively few at this time. By 1931 Britten would document, on average, his attendance at a minimum of one concert a week, while the number of reported instances of listening to music broadcast over the radio was growing steadily.

Figure 5: Method of transmission of Britten’s recorded listening experiences

The limited number of experiences even by 1934 suggests a stark contrast to today’s listening habits; it appears that nearly all were either live or broadcast, compared to the very few that were heard over the gramophone. Or does it merely suggest that Britten rarely documented his experiences of listening to the gramophone as he deemed it less significant, compared to attending a live performance or listening to a radio broadcast? It is difficult to say with any certainty, but I would argue that the evidence suggests that Britten listened more frequently to the radio or to live performances than to the gramophone. His only access to a gramophone player during these early years was either the headmaster’s at Gresham’s School, or at family and friends’ houses that he would frequent, either in Lowestoft, Suffolk or London. Indeed, his father refused to have either a gramophone or, later, a radio in the house.341

Testing assumptions

If we compare some of the assumptions from the current literature, we can see how these fare against the evidence that has been entered into LED. It has been widely observed342 that Britten’s early influences included ‘the three B’s’: Bach, Beethoven and Brahms according to Carpenter’s biography, Britten’s mother hoped her son would become the fourth. In his diary of 13 November 1928, Britten wrote: ‘in my list of Composers …Beethoven is still first, and I think always will be, Bach or Brahms comes next, I don’t know which!’343

Figure 6: Britten’s recorded listening experiences of Bach, Beethoven and Brahms (1928–34)

This is interesting as Britten’s diaries reveal very few if any listening experiences of Beethoven during this time, and only a handful of Bach and Brahms (see Figure 6). Therefore, might we assume that in the quotation from 13 November, Britten was referring to his enjoyment of playing their music rather than listening to it? This is unclear and, as I have already stated, he recorded very few listening experiences in his diaries during these early years, but after his move to London, the number of recorded experiences of listening to Bach and Beethoven were among the highest of all composers, which lends further credence to the claim that Britten preferred these composers at this time.

For his fourteenth birthday on 22 November 1927, he received the full score of Beethoven’s Fidelio and Britten later recalled that ‘it was a red letter day … between the ages of thirteen and sixteen I knew every note of Beethoven and Brahms’.344 Evans also noted in his published edition of Britten’s diaries that:

As time went by Britten’s admiration for Beethoven and Brahms waned; in the case of Brahms this happened remarkably quickly, largely because of the particular quality of his orchestration, which Britten grew to detest. …His admiration for the music of Bach, however, was constant, and he became a noted interpreter of the Brandenburg Concertos, the St John Passion and the Christmas Oratorio.345

And by 1928:

Britten had already developed a deep affection for Schubert’s chamber music …but as the years went by he was hailed as one of the finest Lieder accompanists of his generation, particularly noted for his performances of Schubert’s songs through […his] recital partnership with the tenor Peter Pears.346

Britten’s appreciation of Brahms gave way to a passion for Wagner, Schoenberg, Berg and Mahler. This would have been in part through the influence of the progressive musical tastes of his composition teacher and mentor, Frank Bridge, but also his exposure to the London concert scene during the 1930s. We can certainly begin to see elements of this trend in the 1930s by his accounts of what he was listening to. Figure 7 reveals that aside from the three Bs the composers that Britten most frequently wrote about in his diaries were Bridge, Mahler, Mozart, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Wagner. Despite the anomaly in 1933, Britten’s growing interest in Wagner during these early years in London is quite striking. Figure 7, taken in conjunction with Figure 6, suggests that Britten’s exposure to new repertoire significantly altered his tastes.

Of Schoenberg’s works, Britten only reported nine listening experiences between 1928 and 1934, and only one of Berg’s in 1933, but it is fair to assume that he would have been familiarising himself with the works of these composers via published copies of their scores. By comparing this data with other supporting evidence, we could begin to build a more accurate picture of who might have influenced him or where his musical interests were at specific stages throughout this period of his life.

Figure 7: Britten’s most frequently recorded listening experiences by composer, including Bridge, Mahler, Mozart, Stravinsky, Tchaikovsky and Wagner (1929–34)

By 1937, Britten’s diary entries were becoming more detailed and reflective than merely listing the performers or venues, as demonstrated in the following example from 30 October of that year:

Dinner at Isherwoods, & then I go to the Queen’s Hall with Basil Douglas to the Toscanini Brahms concert. Tragic Overture, & Requiem. Some how the efficientcy & skill [sic] inspiration of T. seems to make Brahms even thinner than ever. T. obviously sees what was at the back of B’s mind, & what he hadn’t the skill to put on paper.347

In addition to capturing the date and evidence of the listening experience, these slightly longer diary entries still contain details of the venue (the Queen’s Hall), with whom Britten attended the concert (Basil Douglas, who later became manager of the English Opera Group), who performed (Toscanini), and the repertoire that was performed (Brahms’ Tragic Overture Op. 81 and A German Requiem Op. 45). This particular entry is also a good example of Britten’s increasing criticism of Brahms, as well as his exposure to performers of international stature and his strengthening opinions as a composer.

Further details captured in LED are implicit within the evidence. For instance, in what type of listening environment the experience occurred; it is clear from the evidence that it was in the company of others, in a public space and indoors. The same can be captured about the performance environment, which might differ from where the music was being heard, particularly if the music was heard via a radio broadcast or over the gramophone. It appears from the Britten entries that have been captured in LED that the above example from October 1937 is typical of the type of listening environment that Britten usually experienced. The majority of his listening experiences were in the company of others (approximately 310) compared to being on his own (approximately 165); but the divide between whether they occurred in public (approximately 225) or private (approximately 260) is more evenly split; and virtually all of his experiences were indoors (approximately 475).348 Capturing this level of detail provides us with the opportunity to assess how listening habits might have evolved, either for a single listener or collectively across a group of listeners.

The opening sentence of the following example relates to Toscanini, and Britten’s continued admiration is clear. He had been working for the General Post Office Film Unit since 1935. It is thought that the BBC originally recommended him for the position, and by 1937 Britten was receiving commissions from the BBC to write incidental music for various features and radio dramas:

I go to Toscanini rehearsal in morning—Mozart Jupiter & Schubert C maj—suffice it to say that Toscanini is worthy of such music—the highest praise. The rest of day is spent in hysterical crises at BBC. the production people won’t see that the music sounds bad only because of no rehearsal—finally I threaten to withdraw it—which causes a little sobriety. Very, very disturbing.349

This particular entry from 3 June 1938 highlights another of the complexities of studying a practitioner’s listening experiences. Due to the very nature of Britten’s different roles (as composer, performer and listener), it is not always evident whether a listening experience even occurred, or whether he is merely describing a personal reflection or his account of a particular incident. In the example above it is not entirely clear from the evidence whether Britten actually heard his composition at the BBC or whether it was simply a meeting between himself and the production staff.

Later that same year, Britten received his first Prom commission. This was for a Piano Concerto that he was to premiere with the BBC Symphony Orchestra under Sir Henry Wood at the Queen’s Hall on 18 August 1938.350 Unfortunately, there is no report of it in Britten’s diary, which ends abruptly on 15 June of that year.

The period ending in June 1938 is the only one during which Britten kept a daily journal.351 As a source of listening experiences, his diaries provide fascinating insights and an abundance of testimony. They also have the benefit of having been written only for his own eyes; it is highly unlikely that at this age he would have written in his diary with any thought that it might one day be shared (never mind published). Furthermore, the fact that he discontinued the practice of keeping a diary altogether suggests that he had no intention for it to be published. We can therefore read his accounts without applying any sort of filter that might otherwise be needed in the case of the testimony of more established practitioners, who may have had one eye on a later musical public as they wrote. What we read in Britten’s diaries are the unvarnished accounts of his listening experiences.


Britten’s accounts of his own listening experiences provide us with private, unsolicited testimony, illustrating not just what, where and who he was listening to but also the effects that it had on him and how he struggled to express himself. Entering them into LED and extracting the data in an organised way facilitates the analysis of the data both thoroughly and systematically, helping us to understand, for example, which composers and performers he listened to most frequently, and how his tastes and listening habits evolved. With further examination, it might also be possible to see how these changes correlate to his development as a composer.

The reports of the musical events that Britten attended and subsequently recorded in his diaries are, in many ways, typical of a practitioner’s account of listening. In addition to providing an evaluation of their experience, they often include contextual data about the dates and times, the venues, the names of performers and the repertoire being performed. By examining this testimony systematically we learn not only of his tastes and of the performers to whom he listened, but also about the environment in which he listened, the frequency with which he listened to recorded or live music, and a number of other ‘peripheral’ details.

As I have suggested, there are certain limitations with the data. We cannot be certain that Britten reported every listening experience in his diaries. In fact, to assume that these entries were his only experiences would be rather naïve. In 1928, for instance, he only recorded three listening experiences in his diary, but he would undoubtedly have experienced more. This anomaly is principally down to the fact that he only began writing his diary in late September 1928 and the school term ended in mid-November. To begin with, at least, he rarely maintained his diary during the holidays. Furthermore, the date range itself is very limited and we cannot expect these short years to be fully representative of his changing musical allegiances, particularly as he began to engage on a professional career as both a composer and performer. What the data does allow us to observe are patterns, trends and relationships, to either confirm or challenge existing assumptions, which have never been tested in this way. For example, his admiration of Bach and Beethoven is clear, and the dramatic increase in the number of times he listened to Wagner is striking between 1931 and 1934. All of this confirms existing assumptions, but there are other observations that could be made: the different venues that he frequented throughout London (and the fact that so many of his listening experiences were at the Queen’s Hall and the RCM); the sudden change in his listening habits when he moved to London towards the end of 1930; how the increase in his listening experiences via radio broadcasts apparently grew in accordance with his attendance of live performances; and that most were in the company of others, but there was an even split between whether they occurred in public or privately in a domestic setting.

Since the data used in this chapter is on a fairly small scale, much of this analysis could be done manually, but having the data in LED makes the extraction of trends and patterns much easier. Capturing a mass of similar evidence would allow us, for example, to evaluate Britten’s listening habits and practices in the context of others in the same period, social group and/or geographical location. It would also allow us to examine Britten in the context of his contemporaries in other countries and, by extension, listening habits and practices more generally across different cultures and eras.

Select bibliography

Carpenter, H. Benjamin Britten: A Biography. Faber and Faber: London, 1993.

Evans, J. Journeying Boy: The Diaries of the Young Benjamin Britten 19281938, Faber and Faber: London, 2009.

Kildea, P. Benjamin Britten: A Life in the Twentieth Century. Penguin Books Ltd: London, 2013.

Mitchell, D. and Reed, P. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 19131976, Volume 1: 19231939. Faber and Faber: London, 1991 .

Mitchell, D. and Reed, P. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 19131976, Volume 2: 19391945. Faber and Faber: London, 1998.

Mitchell, D. and Reed, P. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 19131976, Volume 3: 19461951. Faber and Faber: London, 2002.

Mitchell, D., Reed, P. and Cooke, M. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 1913-1976, Volume 4: 19521957. Boydell & Brewer: Woodbridge, 2008

Powell, N. Benjamin Britten: A Life For Music. London, Windmill Books: London, 2014.

Reed, P. and Cooke, M. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 19131976, Volume 5: 19581965. Boydell & Brewer, Woodbridge, 2010.

Reed, P. and Cooke, M. (eds). Letters from a Life: The Selected Letters and Diaries of Benjamin Britten 19131976, Volume 6: 19661976. Boydell & Brewer: Woodbridge, 2012.


Practitioner listening

Listening and performing: experiences of twentieth-century British wind players

Ingrid E. Pearson

Ingrid Pearson performs with major UK period ensembles, while also maintaining a profile as a modern clarinettist. An interest in performance practice brought her to the UK from Australia to undertake doctoral studies. In 2005 Ingrid joined the professoriate at London’s Royal College of Music (RCM) and is currently the RCM’s Research Fellow in Performance Practice. This role allows her a broad remit of activities across theory and practice. Ingrid’s research has been supported by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) and the Galpin Society. Her publications appear in English, Chinese, German and Spanish.


Accounts of life in the music profession by orchestral woodwind players have often been neglected in favour of didactic and aural sources. While scholars have interrogated recorded performances, evidence from the players themselves is vital in understanding the profession as a whole and thus the bigger picture. Reflecting on material gathered for The Listening Experience Database (LED), particularly by the clarinettist Jack Brymer (19152003), we appreciate the importance of a player’s listening in shaping their performing practices. Brymer was primarily a listener, and a clarinettist only second. His listening to the playing of the oboist Léon Goossens (18971988) with its prominent use of vibrato became profoundly important to Brymer and to subsequent generations.

In examining contemporary attitudes towards vibrato, we realise that Brymer’s use of the effect was quite controversial for its time. Indeed, the importance of the listening experience is reflected in many accounts by woodwind players whose experiences are included in LED. These musicians, among the first for whom the aural and sonic experience of listening to a recording or broadcast began to resemble the sound itself, enjoyed careers before the era of globalisation. While technological advances have made music more easily accessible, they have also already eroded, and sometimes even eradicated, individual or regional or national characteristics and performing practices.


Scholarly attention to the area of musical listening has blossomed since the late 1990s, when at least four international journals independently devoted an issue to the subject.352 In recognising the value of musicians’ own accounts of listening and of performing, LED has facilitated access to these materials, helping us to fill in some of the gaps left by recordings, themselves the object of much fruitful research.353 For many musicians, recordings provided access to repertoire and to musicians and also therefore to performing practices that they would not otherwise have been able to experience. This complemented the listening they did in the act of live performance, to themselves and to their fellow musicians. Furthermore, in making recordings these performers were also able to interrogate their own practices in a way that had been unthinkable a generation before.

This chapter discusses evidence from prominent British wind players of the twentieth century, including clarinettists Jack Brymer (19152003) and Reginald Kell (19061981) and the oboist Léon Goossens (18971988), focusing particularly on their pioneering and often controversial use of vibrato.354 In detailing approaches to performance and to listening, these fascinating, surprising and often entertaining reports allow us to understand the changing nature of the music profession during the formative years of major UK musical institutions such as the then Covent Garden Opera Company, the London Philharmonic Orchestra (LPO), the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra (RPO) and the BBC Symphony Orchestra. These testimonies also confirm Leon Botstein’s assertion that ‘the historical significance of music, or, rather, the significance of music in history, rests not so much with its creators and performers but with amateurs and those who heard and listened’.355 Indeed, as Rob C. Wegman argues:

the question of listening does seem to offer a constructive way out of the current debate between work- and author-centred approaches and their critiques, a debate that is in danger of becoming increasingly stale.356While musicological attention focused on listening often differentiates between ‘hearing’ and ‘listening’, most players whose experiences have been documented use these terms interchangeably. Both these activities are in fact reflexive and dialectic acts, and elsewhere Ian Cross has argued that ‘musical listening can be interpreted as containing residues of action and interaction’.357 The experiences of twentieth-century British woodwind players certainly confirms these observations and their value lies in their location within ‘the broader category of musical experience’.358 The listening undertaken by Brymer and his colleagues was very much a part of a more holistic musical experience, indeed one with the overtly practical outcome of either a performance or a recorded performance. There is not space here to interrogate what Georgina Born describes as:

the considerable methodological and conceptual challenges posed by the focus on listening as a changing relation or mediation between subjects and objects.359

Nonetheless, it is appropriate to consider three anthropological and sociological perspectives she offers.360 The first of these unsettles received notions of the delineated roles of composer, performer and listener.361 The second positions listeners as cultural consumers, shaped by their gender, age, social class and ethnicity, and it is these factors which shape their listening.362 A third perspective considers the impact of recording and of electronic and digital technologies in mediating the musical experience provided by listening.363 The woodwind players whose experiences are included in LED functioned as both performer and listener, their performances shaping their listening and vice versa. Many were middle-class males of Caucasian ethnicity, but increasing numbers of women were able to enjoy careers as professional orchestral wind players. And, finally, while not in the region of the fidelity we enjoy in the twenty-first century, these players were among the first for whom the aural and sonic experience of listening to a recording or broadcast began to resemble the sound itself. They were playing and listening before the era of globalisation, which, through technological advances, has certainly made music more easily accessible, but has also already eroded, and sometimes even eradicated, individual, regional and national characteristics and performing practices.

Jack Brymer, Léon Goossens and Reginald Kell

Born in 1915, Brymer was largely a self-taught player. His musical ability and instincts were fundamentally shaped by the amateur bands and orchestras of Tyneside and County Durham during the 1920s, as both performer and listener, as well as by other musicians Brymer heard via radio broadcasts and gramophone records. Recalling listening experiences from his formative years as a clarinettist, Brymer mentions:

… the great clarinettists of the day – Charles Draper, his nephew Haydn Draper and Frederick Thurston and well as Reginald Kell would have been astounded at the things they taught me, without a penny piece changing hands. I had no desire to be a carbon copy of any of them, fortunately.364

In July 1947 when Brymer was 32 years old he received an invitation via telephone from Sir Thomas Beecham, founder and conductor of the RPO, to play to him. Beecham enjoyed that particular listening experience to the extent that he immediately appointed Brymer the RPO’s principal clarinet, to replace Reginald Kell. Following the RPO, Brymer was co-principal of the BBC SO from 1963 to 1972 and then principal of the London Symphony Orchestra (LSO) from 1972 to 1986.

During his life he recorded and broadcast orchestral, solo and chamber music.365 Brymer’s obituary in The Times following his death in 2003 reported that:

in the 30 or so years during which Brymer was at the height of his powers, few could rival him for solid technique, golden tone and superior, undogmatic musicianship.366

Brymer’s 1962 recording of Mozart’s Adagio K411 for two clarinets and three basset horns demonstrates his delicate use of vibrato, an important but not the only audible characteristic of his finely-nuanced playing.367 Brymer is joined by Thomas Kelly, Stephen Trier, Walter Lear and Wilfred Hambleton. As one situated outside any pedagogical lineage, real or perceived, Brymer’s playing was truly a synthesis of the sounds he heard or, to put it another way, of his listening. Despite the rapid advances in recording technology he witnessed during his lifetime, Brymer’s music-making was characterised by spontaneity and finesse.

Brymer became a colleague and friend of the oboist Léon Goossens in the years following World War Two. However, Brymer had long been acquainted with, and influenced by, Goossens, as he recalled in an interview in 1991:

My affection for him started at the age of thirteen when I heard him play Ravel’s Habañéra…368 In that special moment I became aware of the sounds of the Spanish night, of warmth and mystery and a hint of the distant flamenco singing. It was an equal revelation every time thereafter when I heard him perform either on radio or on record. He became my idol and … I went to hear him as often as I could. The first time was in an LPO concert in 1933.369 Benvenuto Cellini overture and the Mozart Sinfonia Concertante for Oboe, Clarinet, Horn and Bassoon showed off the virtuosity of the woodwind and the majesty of the orchestral balance that Beecham was able to achieve.370 There was a tremendous crystallisation with Léon right in the middle, the central figure in the orchestra despite other great players…371

Eighteen years Brymer’s senior, Goossens had been born in 1897, into a musical family.372 He studied at the Royal College of Music, as did his brother Eugene (18931962) a conductor and composer, his harpist sisters Marie (18941991) and Sidonie (18992004) and his brother Adolphe (18961916), who played the French horn.373 Léon Goossens’s RCM professor, William Malsch (18551924), taught at all four London conservatoires at the same time, from the late nineteenth into the turn of the twentieth century, and through this pedagogical lineage was able to exert a significant influence on the next generation of oboists.374

To experience something of the Goossens sound we may refer to his 1931 recording with the pianist Clarence Raybould (18861972) in an arrangement of The Swan from Camille Saint-Saëns’s Carnival of the Animals.375 The sound for which Goossens is still remembered today uses a prominent but varying vibrato and is characterised by a warmth unlike that of his predecessors, assisted by a control of breathing which allowed him to weave long melodic lines with ease.376 These characteristics were admired by Goossens’s pupils Helen Gaskell (19062002), Evelyn Rothwell (19112008), Natalie James (19092008) and Joy Boughton (19131963), who sought actively to emulate their teacher’s sound.377

Brymer and Goossens first performed together in 1951, in a work by Darius Milhaud for a BBC Thursday concert. The clarinettist recalled that Goossens ‘played with absolute majesty and complete dedication’.378 Brymer treasured the recordings of Russian music they both made with the RPO in 1954 and of the visiting conductor Artur Rodziński (18921958), when Goossens was deputising for an indisposed Terence McDonagh (19081986).379 As a person, Brymer remembered that Goossens was:

… incredibly adaptable; it’s difficult for some players to readjust to orchestral playing after a solo career but he had no problems. He was never a pompous individual; he never threw his weight about as a colleague. He was always willing to discuss rather than override anyone’s opinion. He was very well tempered and humorous.380

Goossens co-authored a monograph on the oboe with Edwin Roxburgh (b. 1937), which was published in 1977. Describing his first orchestral position, as principal oboe in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra,381 Goossens recalls:

Those first days… represented for me a period of isolation from the prevalent style of sound reproduction. I suffered a great deal of abuse and jibing from other players at this time for persisting with my own concept of a beautiful oboe sound incorporating vibrato as an essential aspect of its singing quality. However, critics were favourably disposed and conductors liked it; so my confidence in the approach was ultimately justified.382

Goossens later explains that:

If all the physical conditions of good playing along with freedom from tensions are achieved, vibrato becomes an expressive inflection of musical personality and sensibility.383

And finally:

There are an infinite number of possibilities which affect the interpretation of a piece. The freshness of each performance can only be maintained if the artist is continually exploring alternative avenues of nuance and expression. Discriminating use of vibrato can be the most valuable of assets in these discoveries.384

The clarinettist Reginald Kell had experienced Goossens’s distinctive and effective sound, with its prominent and varied use of vibrato, first-hand when, in 1932, both became principals in Beecham’s LPO in 1932. They were colleagues until Kell left in 1936/7 to join the LSO. By the time of his emigration to the USA in 1948, Kell had held principal positions in most of the British orchestras. We recall that Brymer had in fact succeeded Kell in the RPO so the two had never been colleagues. Kell’s 1953 recording of the first of Schumann’s Fantasy Pieces op. 73, with the pianist Joel Rosen, typifies his idiosyncratic approach, particularly in terms of tempo rubato and timbre.385 By moving to the USA at the height of his career, ostensibly to concentrate on solo and chamber repertoire, Kell was able to establish and consolidate his reputation on both sides of the Atlantic, a fact which may also account for his position as the most well-documented British clarinettist to play with vibrato in the early twentieth century.

Listening to wind playing

Jack Brymer lived at a time when the recording industry was enjoying a golden age, an era before globalisation began to homogenise national performance practices and erode idiosyncrasies. The ease with which we are now able to access so much music, and the fidelity of digital recordings, can both easily be taken for granted.386 Robert Philip suggests that matters of competence and those of style account for changes in orchestral woodwind playing, as heard in recordings made during the course of the twentieth century.387 And, specifically as regards wind playing in London orchestras between 1909 and 1939, Emily Worthington observes how:

the advent of recording and broadcasting helped to facilitate the expression of changing musical aesthetics in the realm of orchestral wind playing.388

Accounts of British wind sections up to the immediate post-war years have often commented on the instability of the intonation in the section as a whole, but as Philip rightly comments ‘the development of woodwind-playing involves more than just rising standards’.389 He continues:

The styles of individual instruments, and the concept of how they should blend together, changed throughout the twentieth century.390

Philip explains that:

Over the twentieth century British woodwind-playing underwent great change. It began with the appointment of a Belgian oboist, Henri de Busscher,391 to succeed Malsch in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra. De Busscher played with greater delicacy and flexibility than Malsch, and with a French-style vibrato. It was he who inspired Léon Goossens… Goossens in turn influenced other woodwind players to play more flexibly and with vibrato.392

A growing awareness of the role of individual critical listening during Brymer’s formative years appears in 1923 in Gustave Langenus’s advice to ‘the ambitious young player’, to whom he suggests imagining an audience listening to their practice.393 The following comment published fifteen years later, in The Radio Times in 1938, serves to remind us how times have changed:

Apart from the foxy-looking little men who patiently play the instrument at street corners and from the inimitable Mr. Benny Goodman (“Swing low, sweet clarinet”), who broadcast a few weeks ago, one seldom get a chance of hearing the clarinet as a solo instrument.394

This opinion was confirmed by Rendall some fourteen years later:

It is only within the last thirty-five years or so that the clarinet has really come into its own. This is in the writer’s opinion due largely to broadcasting. No instrument lends itself better to recording or is more frequently heard upon the air; there is little doubt that many of its present devotees first heard its voice upon the ether and succumbed to its charm… Every school of playing has its own particular character, its own peculiar excellence… Each makes its own contribution. Fortunately the wireless and the gramophone have made it possible to hear them all… They should do much to mould our taste.395

In his Clarinet Technique, first published in 1956 shortly after his death, Frederick Thurston (1901–53) acknowledges the importance of the listening experience:

All the books, all the articles and technical advice in the world are of little note unless you have in your ‘mind’s ear’ the particular sound you wish to make. Presumably you will have decided this by listening to various fine players, if possible at public performances, because even nowadays the radio and the gramophone cannot reproduce tone quality completely faithfully.396

Clarinettist Gervase de Peyer (1926–2017) also advocated this type of inner listening, remarking in 1957 that if the student cultivates:

a clear ideal of good tone and always keeps this in his “mental ear’, he will… almost subconsciously develop the means to produce it.397

In 1987 Brymer recounted that, as an orchestral clarinettist becomes more experienced, he has also:

developed the ability to listen while playing, which is his greatest achievement… this may sound simple, but it has its difficulties. You may not always be able to hear everything you need. … In spite of all this, everything finally sorts itself out, and that all-important skill, the ability to hear the whole score from the inside, with a sense of balance which makes it intelligible from outside, is achieved.398

And finally:

A generation ago this was a question of instinct…. young people are not only better taught than their fathers and mothers, and play on better instruments; they have also heard more, and absorbed more of the message of music…. These are old heads on their young shoulders because they have learnt to listen.399

Rather curiously, at the current time, many players of historical clarinets have commissioned copies of Richard Mühlfeld’s rather old-fashioned Ottensteiner instruments, on which they not only play all of Brahms’s music for the clarinet but much Teutonic repertoire written between c. 1850 and 1910. The same players, however, fail to consider the evidence that Mühlfeld himself played with vibrato.400 As Brymer remarks:

Is seems scarcely likely that, for over two hundred years, clarinettists should have failed to respond to, and at least to attempt to answer the shapes of phrases and the style of playing which they must have heard around them, both instrumentally and vocally.401

Reconciling documentary accounts of vibrato and wind playing

It is surprising to note that the majority of English-language publications for and about the clarinet provide no information on vibrato. Furthermore, scant documentary evidence exists in support of its use among players of art music.402 Nonetheless, we can discern something of the changing attitude towards clarinet vibrato during the lifetimes of Jack Brymer and Léon Goossens from the various editions of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians and its successor The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians.403 It is also helpful to reconcile these with commentaries by players themselves, many of which emphasise the role of a player’s critical listening in the judicious, intelligent and musical use of vibrato.

Dating from 1893 Harry Deacon’s article on vibrato, published in the first edition of Grove, mentions that:

It is sometimes heard on the flute or cornet. When the vibrato is really an emotional thrill it can be highly effective… but when, as is too often the case, it degenerates into a mannerism, its effect is either painful, ridiculous, or nauseous, entirely opposed to good taste and common sense, and to be severely reprehended in all students whether of vocal or instrumental music.404

Remembered as a singing teacher and piano accompanist who worked mostly in London, Deacon died suddenly in 1890 at the age of 68 and did not therefore live to see the publication of Grove’s Dictionary.405 While capturing something of the sound world into which Léon Goossens was born, we must consider the possibility that vibrato was more commonly used than Deacon’s listening experiences had led him to believe. Despite the addition of new material on vibrato in practice by Olga Racster, Grove’s second edition from 1910 is largely a repetition of information from the first.406 That this information is written almost exclusively from a string player’s point of view is not surprising given that Racster had been a pupil of Eugène Ysaÿe.407 By this time the 13 year old Léon Goossens had already made his debut as a professional oboist, and was to commence lessons with Malsch the following year.

One of the earliest didactic works to mention clarinet vibrato is Gustave Langenus’s 1917 translation of Carl Baermann’s 1861 Vollständige Clarinett-Schule.408 While no mention of vibrato appears in Baermann’s original, Langenus describes the effect as ‘a wavering tone-effect, which should be sparingly used’.409 By 1923, with the publication of his own clarinet tutor Langenus advises the player studiously to avoid vibrato, which he considered ‘extremely obnoxious on any wind instrument’ and a hindrance to maintaining the clarinet’s ‘pure, clear and steady’ tone.410 However, it could be tolerated to enhance the tone ‘when playing very loudly’ or for notes in the altissimo register.411 Robert Philip notes a similar restraint among string players until the 1920s.412

In the third edition of Grove from 1928 Racster’s contribution is shorter, although instrumental and vocal vibrato are discussed separately.413 The gradual adoption of string vibrato is echoed by remarks from the editor Henry Colles, no doubt aware that Deacon’s original commentary on vibrato had certainly begun to age.414 Colles reports that the effect ‘belongs essentially to the art of the string–player’ and is ‘obtainable to a limited extent on wind instruments, notably the flute and cornet…’. 415 By this time Goossens had gained valuable orchestral experience as principal oboe in the Queen’s Hall Orchestra, and life experience as a soldier in World War One. He was teaching at both the RCM and the Royal Academy of Music, and had joined the orchestra at Covent Garden. The teenage Brymer had been teaching himself the clarinet for at least eight years and, as a member of the cadets, had performed with the band of the 1st Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry. At the age of 13 Brymer joined a local amateur orchestra in the town of Tynemouth, journeying each week across the river Tyne by ferry. He later recalled the value of this encounter for bringing him into contact with ‘the glories of Beethoven and Mozart’.416

The fourth edition of Grove’s Dictionary from 1940 reprints the vibrato entry from the third edition verbatim, no doubt due to the exigencies of wartime. By this time Goossens had been a member of the LPO since its foundation in 1932 and was establishing an international reputation, through live performances, broadcasts and recordings. In contrast, 24 year old Brymer, having spent some time in his intended profession as a school teacher, was now Corporal Brymer in the RAF. Based in Morecambe, on the north-west coast of England, Brymer’s work as a physical training instructor also allowed him to maintain his performing activities with local dance bands and in chamber music. For string players and singers, vibrato was no longer a timbral ornament but an integral part of technique.417

Motivated by his desire to impart his practical knowledge towards the end of his performing career, the American clarinettist Robert Willaman (1893–1980) published two monographs on the clarinet, in 1949 and 1954. Willaman enjoyed a substantial freelance career with many of the leading New York-based ensembles across popular and art musics.418 His first book, one of the earliest English-language monographs on the clarinet, considers vibrato exclusively a jazz technique, and a ‘radical departure from ordinary methods of playing’.419 Willaman views the device as ‘a matter of taste’, which can be varied in width and speed, ultimately to obtain a homogenous reed timbre within the ensemble.420 Nonetheless, by the early 1950s practices and attitudes concerning clarinet vibrato had changed to the extent that Willaman’s 1954 revision of his book devotes a whole chapter to the subject. He defines vibrato as:

… the rhythmic interruption of the mechanical uniformity of a musical tone. The need for or desirability of it is in direct ratio to this uniformity, which can result in monotony.421

This confirms that both performers and listeners had outgrown a straight clarinet tone. Since the 1920s jazz saxophonists and their audiences had been accustomed to the presence of vibrato, which was used to mitigate against the sax’s smaller range as well as to add timbral contrast. When these players ‘migrated en masse to the clarinet’ they continued to use vibrato.422 Willaman’s performing career had embraced a wide range of musical styles. He esteemed players who were similarly versatile in employing ‘a straight pure “concert” tone’ in art music, although he believed that ‘the need for vibrato in the clarinet tone is not very great’.423 He continues:

At best, a reed tone needs only the slightest pulsation, either of continuity or of quality to relieve any sense of monotony.424

Willaman’s closing remarks on vibrato leave the reader in no doubt where his preference lies, despite the prevalence of the effect in performances on most other wind instruments by the mid-twentieth century:

It may be that vibrato is a real improvement. Some people put sugar on ice cream. A great many do not and never will.425

A contemporary account from the Belgian émigré, the 72 year old Langenus, distinguishes between saxophone and clarinet vibrato. While Langenus remains unconvinced by the latter he acknowledges that:

… when the composer tells you to play molto espressivo, then the tone must glow with warmth. To obtain this effect most singers and players obtain the vibrato from the diaphragm. Others get it through motion of the glottis, throat, or jaw.426

Across the pond, in the UK attitudes to clarinet vibrato remained ‘controversial’, although the technique was a preoccupation particularly among players of art music.427

Like earlier commentators, Rendall concedes that:

It is of course firstly and lastly a matter of taste in both player and listener. If vibrato is used at all, it is hardly necessary to say that it must be used sparingly and with great discretion. Excessive, even regular use of it cannot but offend in calling to mind the worst excesses of jazz technique and of the theatre organ. Other obvious dangers are damage to purity of tone and particularly to accuracy of intonation and to the musical line in classical music … It may be observed not infrequently in military music when many clarinets are playing together in unison. It is not to be encouraged, however, in the concert hall.428

A more balanced and realistic account of the popularity of vibrato and the role of a practitioner’s own listening appears in a contemporary account by oboist Evelyn Rothwell, a former pupil of Goossens’s. Rothwell writes:

…the use of vibrato has become widely accepted during recent years. Its detractors claim that it destroys the truly characteristic sound of the oboe and prevents it blending well with other instruments in the orchestra. Its advocates feel, I think quite rightly, that a vibrato, wisely used, only enhances the natural tone of the instrument.429

She continues:

A good vibrato should liven the tone as the music demands, but using too much vibrato (or too wide a vibrato) may make the oboe player sound like a second-rate violinist playing cheap café music… it can easily be overdone, particularly in the orchestra when you are playing (and should be blending) with other instruments. Vibrato must be used and varied intelligently and musically… Listen most critically to yourself…430

Robert Donington’s vibrato article for the fifth and final edition of Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians is newly-written, prioritising historical primary source materials, reflecting the author’s expertise in this area. Published in 1954, it is divided into three parts, discussing string, wind and vocal vibrato. Apart from the organ, the flute is the only non-string instrument mentioned, and only in an historical context.431 At this time Goossens was pursuing a solo career and Brymer was firmly established as principal clarinet of the RPO, including regular appearances at the Edinburgh Festival, the Glyndebourne Festival and in concerts of the Royal Philharmonic Society.

In the mid-1950s Alphonse Leduc reissued Hyacinthe Klosé’s 1843 Méthode Complète de Clarinette, with text in French and English.432 Remarkably, this publication is the first of Klosé’s tutors to mention clarinet vibrato.433 This is even more surprising, given the prominence of a fast vibrato in recordings by French clarinettists from about 1920.434 This mid-twentieth-century edition of Klosé also likens clarinet vibrato to that produced by strings, describing it as:

a kind of undulating sound, which, added to its constituent vibrations, gives it a particular intensity and expressiveness… It is used in expressive phrases which demand a sonority touched with emotion. Vibrato, the subject of special practice, should never go as far as bleating.435

Perhaps we should read these remarks as an attempt to dissuade French clarinettists of the time against the fast vibrato of some of their predecessors.436 This apparent disjunction between printed sources and listening experiences, however, reminds us of the need to reconcile the widest possible range of sources in understanding performing practices of the past.

Jack Brymer’s own monograph on the clarinet was published in 1976.437 In this work and two further publications Brymer reflects on his life in music, providing a particularly fulsome commentary on his career with the RPO, the BBC SO and the LSO.438 Brymer’s remarks on vibrato were informed by a lifetime’s practical music-making and a belief in the effect as an expressive device, recognising its use by flautists and violinists, and to a lesser extent by oboists and bassoonists. For Brymer, vibrato was a means by which he transmitted his ‘enjoyment as a performer’.439 He identifies two reasons for its neglect among clarinettists, citing a belief in the clarinet’s ability to:

… depict the sort of cool, flawless beauty of a marble statue or a piece of perfectly polished wood. The pure sound has a fascination which makes one think at times that the slightest dimple on its surface would be a blemish….440

The second reason concerns his dissatisfaction with the manner in which jazz players have used vibrato.441 Brymer continues:

Whichever method is used, one thing seems certain – it should not be used all the time, nor should it be switched on and off like the vox humana stop of an organ. In fact, although it must be very much under the control of the player, in the end it should be so much a part of his technique that he is not aware… The choice should in fact… be … dictated by the music, out of which it must grow naturally, or not at all.442

In acknowledging the role of a player’s listening, Brymer’s comments remind us of the impact of the advent of recorded sound for players of his generation, remarking:

The player himself, in these days of electronic marvels, may be surprised at the absence or presence of vibrato in the recording he has just made, because he was thinking only of the music as he played. He would be wise to ponder before making a decision to alter his first impulse, because such studied decisions can sound what they are – the result of cogitation rather than instinct.443

Obviously a musician who placed a high value on intuition, the practically-minded Brymer acknowledges the role of vibrato in correcting intonation. His connection between a lack of clarinet vibrato among clarinettists in art-music repertories and its prevalence among jazz players is confirmed by listening to recordings made in the first half of the twentieth century.

In The New Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians, published in 1980, Donington expands on his previous article on vibrato while still prioritising an historical approach.444 Given the overwhelming evidence of the frequent use of vibrato by wind players in performances, recordings and broadcasts since the middle of the twentieth century, Donington’s account does not accurately represent musical practices. Furthermore, its bias against non-art music is surprising for the time. While Goossens, aged 83, had retired from teaching at this time, he was still performing. The 65 year old Brymer was half-way through his tenure as principal clarinet of the LSO. He was about to take up a teaching post at the then Guildhall School of Music, following similar positions at the RAM and the Royal Military School of Music, Kneller Hall.

In 2001, with the second edition of the New Grove Dictionary, a more balanced and comprehensive article on vibrato by Greta Moens-Haenen observes that vibrato was ‘accepted as an ornament until the first quarter of the twentieth century when its continuous use gradually became the norm.’445 Nonetheless, she reminds us that vibrato is still eschewed by many clarinettists, as well as horn players and exponents of the Viennese oboe.446 In the light of these remarks, we could argue that Jack Brymer managed to combine the predominant British woodwind sounds of his era, that is, the somewhat self-effacing, straight-toned playing of Frederick Thurston,447 the more rhythmically-liberal and timbrally-colourful playing of Léon Goossens and a similar approach to the clarinet manifest in performances by Reginald Kell with a prominent use of vibrato.


It could be claimed that by 1890, with the existence of three music institutions in London alone, an identifiably English if not British clarinet school had emerged.448 And, by 1947 when Brymer joined the RPO, the majority of orchestral clarinettists, based in or emanating from the UK, were performing on Boehm-system instruments. Brymer himself used the Symphony 10-10 model, made in London by the Boosey & Hawkes firm for about 50 years from the early 1930s.449 Nonetheless, claims for a national clarinet school have yet sufficiently to reconcile the differing approaches of Brymer and his contemporaries Thurston and Kell. It seems more likely that any such tradition has been invented, in order to mitigate against an increasing homogenisation of style, a result of the effects of globalisation.450 It seems more likely that Brymer was able to synthesise the sounds around him to create an engaging and sensitive style, because he was firstly and foremostly a listener, and a clarinettist only second.

The importance of his listening experiences in shaping Brymer’s musical practices also allows us to appreciate his use of vibrato, a controversial performance practice which still divides clarinettists today. Vibrato, as with most performance practices, in particular western art repertories, continues to be employed according to each player’s taste and intuition, reflecting the priorities of each era. As an expressive device it relies on the player exercising a judgement about its suitability for the particular music concerned. While there is little doubt that the advent and impact of recording technology on the musicians themselves is partly responsible for the emergence of a homogenised international style of vibrato, most of the wind players discussed here were not exponents of continuous vibrato. By ensuring its judicious use, players such as Goossens and Brymer were helping to maintain the expressive potential of vibrato. Furthermore, in enhancing a player’s own musical personality and sensitivity vibrato enabled some to make their mark as an individual and a non-conformist.

For mid-twentieth-century commentators, including Willaman and Rothwell, the subject of vibrato allows them deliberately to distance art music from jazz. Perhaps this reflects an underlying bias towards the type of training and education needed to become a leading orchestral musician at this time, against a tradition of auto-didacts and more relaxed approaches to musical literacy and the realisation of the score.

In conclusion, we should let the music speak for itself by listening to Jack Brymer in the opening of the third movement, Andante, of Mily Balakirev’s Symphony No. 1 in C. This recording, with the RPO under Sir Thomas Beecham, was made in Studio One at Abbey Road in November and December 1955, and was produced by Lawrance Collingwood.

Select bibliography

Born, Georgina. ‘Listening, mediation, event: anthropological and sociological perspectives’, Journal of the Royal Musical Association 135/Supp1, 2010, pp. 79–89.

Brymer, Jack. Clarinet. London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1976/R1979.

Brymer, Jack. From Where I Sit. London: Cassell, 1979.

Brymer, Jack. In the Orchestra. London: Hutchinson, 1987.

Deacon, Harry Collins [sic]. ‘Vibrato’, Grove’s Dictionary of Music and Musicians, ed. George Grove. London: Macmillan, 1893, vol. IV, p. 260.

Goossens, Léon and Roxburgh, Edwin. Oboe. London: Macdonald and Jane’s, 1977.

Philip, Robert. Performing Music in the Age of Recording. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2004.

Rendall, Francis Geoffrey. The Clarinet. London: Ernest Benn, 1954/R/3/1971.

Rosen, Carole. The Goossens: A Musical Century. London: André Deustch, 1993.

Willaman, Robert. The Clarinet and Clarinet Playing. New York: Carl Fischer, R/1954.

Practitioner listening

‘Pulse music’: listening to Steve Reich listening to Africa

Robert Fraser

Robert Fraser is Professor Emeritus of English in The Open University, having previously taught at the Universities of London, Cambridge and Leeds, and at the University of Cape Coast in Ghana. He is a performed playwright, and has published over twenty books, several of them on the literature of Africa. In his youth he was a chorister at Winchester Cathedral, and he subsequently studied Harmony, Counterpoint and Composition at Morley College in London. He has had several of his compositions performed, and for three years was a Co-investigator of The Listening Experience Database (LED).


One of the salient factors in the musical history of the late twentieth century was a radical relocation of the multiple distinction between listening, performing and composing. A personal encounter with Steve Reich in Ghana in the summer of 1970 acquainted the author with one aspect of this shift. Reich was in Africa to study the drumming traditions of the Ewe people, whose music had been the subject of an influential monograph by the ethnomusicologist A. M. Jones (1889–1980). The following year saw the first performance in New York of Reich’s work Drumming for nine percussionists and two sopranos. Through a comparison of Jones’ field recordings with his and Reich’s transcriptions, and an analysis of the score and successive recordings of Drumming, I examine the processes of Reich’s listening, and the ways in which he absorbed and transformed certain elements in African music. After a brief look at works by Georgio Ligeti influenced by Africa and Reich, I conclude with some remarks about the ramifications of this revolution for recent musical history.


The tripartite, yet complementary, relationship in Western art music between composer, performer and listener depends upon a comparatively stable understanding of these terms and agencies. Of course, the distinctions have never been absolute. All composers listen, to their own work as well as that of others, and so do all performers: to themselves and, in an orchestra or other ensemble, to those around them. When running through a piece of music in my mind – the activity sometimes known as ‘chant intérieure’ or ‘haunting’451 – I could be said in some sense to be performing it; if I alter it in the least (say, by misremembering it) I could also be said to be acting as a part-composer.

There are, however, limitations to these elisions. In a classical concert hall the audience occupies the stalls, boxes and galleries and, in so doing, identifies itself as a body of passive listeners. Interventions by them are for the most part unwelcome, except by means of the ritualistic response of applause and, even then, the etiquette surrounding such expressions of approval – its timing, length and disposal within an individual piece (should we clap between movements?) – has shifted over time, and has been the subject of sometimes heated debate. Expressions of disapproval are not encouraged, nor are bouts of coughing and the accidental sounding of mobile phones, against which dire strictures are habitually announced before each concert. The temporary lifting of some of these restrictions, for example at the Last Night of the Proms, is remarkable for its rarity; indeed, the euphoria greeting that annual exception in the British music calendar may well be the expression of relief at the relaxation of otherwise sacrosanct rules.

Correspondingly, the term ‘orchestra’ derives from the ancient Greek word for the space in which the action of the drama took place; its occupation by a group of musicians identifies them as an active body of performers. If, at the end of the performance, the composer steps forward and takes a bow, he or she is thereby identified as the intellectual progenitor of the music just heard.

In his chapter on listening practice in the English provinces during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, David Rowland has called our attention to important exceptions to this rule. Drawing on the word of James Johnson and others, he has noted the gradual emergence at the time of what Johnson has termed ‘absorbed’, as distinct from ‘inattentive’ listening. That said, it remains a fact that, by the beginning of the twentieth century, audience members were by and large assumed to be passive recipients of a pre-composed piece. Yet medieval music had not operated in this way, and neither does most folk music. Most significantly for our purposes here, a thoroughgoing revolution in the dynamic between our three classic capacities since the late 1960s has transformed our expectations of certain kinds of musical event. In the closing decades of the twentieth century the boundaries between composing, performance and listening moved dramatically, invading one another as seldom before. As a result, in musicological parlance, the traditional verbs ‘to compose’, ‘to perform’ and ‘to listen’ have lost ground before the comprehensive gerund ‘musicking’.452 Within this fundamental re-orientation are ranged a set of subservient changes. The making and reception of music have over the last half century opened out in several directions at once. Improvised music, which learned much technically from jazz, and musical minimalism are just two of these trajectories. As we shall soon see, they are not entirely consistent with one another.

In the chapter that follows, I identify one of these seminal shifts at a certain moment in time, of which I was an accidental witness: not as composer, performer or primarily as listener (though I have been all three), but as discussant. I begin with an anecdote or moment of recall – a testimony involving Steve Reich, Africa and drumming, then pass on to consider the implications of that instant in time before turning to certain facets of Reich’s influence. I end by returning to the aesthetic and musicological considerations with which I began.

1970: Ex Africa Semper Aliquid Novi

It was a solitary August for me: the dead vast and middle of the long vocation at the end of the first year of my first job, lecturing at a small, recently-founded university college by the seaside in Ghana. So one afternoon I climbed into my second-hand Volkswagen Beetle and drove the 100 odd miles down the coast to the swankier national university, situated at Legon, about seven miles to the North of the capital, Accra. That evening I entered its staff club, empty save for a lone figure, an American in his late 30s wearing a baseball cap, and hunched over his beer by the bar. I approached and asked how he was. Rather queasy, he told me. I asked him what he did, and he told me he was a musician. Then he asked me how I was spending the hols. I told him that I had formed a drama group of young people in the housing estate where I lived near Cape Coast to perform Vulture, Vulture, a ‘Rhythm Play’ by the local playwright Efua Sutherland,453 for which purpose I had acquired a goat skin from the village butcher, and had it shaved and stretched on a wooden rectangle by the neighbourhood carpenter to create a frame drum that, 47 years later, I still possess. That’s interesting, he said, because he was in Africa to study drumming, so for two hours we drank and ranged in conversation over his specialism, music, and mine, poetry. He seemed very interested in the rhythms of both. After six or seven beers, I rose to my feet and said ‘It has been a great pleasure, but I must go now. My name is Robert Fraser.’ ‘Mine’, he replied, extending his hand, ‘is Steve Reich.’

I had no idea that I was talking to a world-famous composer, for the perfectly good reason that he wasn’t. In 1970 few music lovers had heard of Reich beyond a tiny Manhattan avant-garde. This situation didn’t last for long. His queaziness was malaria; after a further couple of weeks he returned to New York, where the following year he created Drumming, first performed at the Museum of Modern Art on 3 December 1971. It is a work that, by Reich’s own admission, draws on his listening and studying in Ghana. It is the connection between the listening and the studying, and the subsequent composition and performance, that I am concerned with here, and the first step is to recognise that all of these relate to a very particular local tradition.

A. M. Jones, as ethnomusicologist and influence

The Ewe people, about six million strong, straddle the border between eastern Ghana and the neighbouring territory of Togo. It was at the feet of an Ewe master drummer, Gideon Alorwoyie, Master Drummer of the Ghana National Dance Ensemble, that Reich had come to study. No wonder he seemed interested in affinities between poetry and music, since the Ewe scarcely distinguish between them: one single word ‘heno’ serving for both their singers and their poets. The most distinguished cantor of the period was Vinoko Akpalu (1878–1974), then 92, of whom several of my own students were keen admirers, and who always performed with a drumming ensemble. Two decades previously, his art and those of his fellow recitalists had been studied by the British missionary and ethnomusicologist Arthur Morris Jones (1889–1980), who had brought out a two-volume account of his researches, entitled Studies in African Music in 1959, ‘addressed in the first place to musicians’.454 Eleven years later, ethnomusicology was yet to enter the American conservatoire to any significant extent. There were important exceptions since, as Philip Glass remarks in his 2015 memoir Words Without Music, Jones’ book had been in the library of the Julliard School in the mid-1960s, when both he and Reich had studied there.455

Jones is obviously a pivotal figure in the story, so it is as well to spend a while thinking about his ideas. A seminal figure in the history of African musicology, his conceptions – his ways of thinking about the rhythmic dimension in music in particular – have spread way beyond that regional field. Born in 1889, he was an Oxford theology graduate who, after ordination, had taken a teaching diploma and then spent 29 years as a teacher and missionary in what is now Zambia, 21 of them (1929–50) as Principal of St Mark’s College, Mapanza.456 On resigning from this post he had taken up a lectureship in African music at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) in the University of London, from which he had retired in 1966. It was in London that Jones seriously applied himself to the study of Ghanaian percussive music, with the assistance of the Ewe drummer Desmond K. Tay.

In 1959, the same year as the publication of his book, Jones had recorded a series of programmes for the BBC Transcription Service, in which he had set out, perhaps for the first time, an all-embracing African musicology.457 In melody he had noted the prevalence of fourths, and in harmony the habit of organum. Rhythm, though, was the core of the tradition. To account for it, he had already coined the term ‘cross-rhythm’, now a stock in trade of musical analysis but then quite new: a phenomenon which he had carefully distinguished from mere syncopation.458 African music, he asserted, possessed an ‘intoxicating rhythmic harmony’, demanding to hear and very hard to transcribe. Its salient quality was that, in African rhythmic polyphony, the down-beats of the various parts did not coincide. Instead, they played against one another, obliging the listener’s mind to work on several levels simultaneously. Such effects were the rule; percussive coincidence, when and where it occurred, was an incidental effect of no structural significance. ‘With Western music’, he had generalised in his book, ‘deliberate synchrony is the norm from which our music develops…If our suggestion has any truth, then the African also uses synchrony of pattern, but in a much more subtle way. His norm is the cross-rhythm, and the synchrony is derivative.’459 The result, he concluded, ‘is a principle which our Western musicians are yet to exploit.’ Was this an invitation?

Making sense of cross-rhythms

Jones’ book abounds in transcriptions of Ewe music set out in full score. In 1971 he was 82, and had long retired from teaching at SOAS where, in the year of the composition of Drumming, Reich visited him. It seems fairly likely that, on this occasion, Jones played some of his recordings back to him; they are now kept in the National Sound Archive in the British Library. If we want to understand the way Reich heard African music, we have to bear in mind the transcriptions in Jones’ book, his original recordings and Reich’s own exposure during those brief weeks when I met him.

Here is a transcription of the Ewe Nyayito funeral dance from Jones’ Studies in African Music, as reproduced from my own book West African Poetry of 1986.460

Figure 1: Transcription of Ewe drumming music (Source: A. M. Jones, Studies in African Music (1959), as reproduced in Robert Fraser, West African Poetry: A Critical History (1986))

And here for comparison is Reich’s own transcription of the Ewe Agbaza dance, first published in 1972.461

Figure 2: Transcription of Ewe Agbadza dance (Source: Steve Reich, Writings on Music 1965–2000 (2002))

It is quite evident, even at a glance, that the line-up of percussion is very similar, and that neither have uniform bar-lines because, as Reich himself remarks, Ewe music has no unitary down-beats, consisting as it does of the superimposition of self-generated, individual drum patterns.

The challenge of transcription

At first hearing, both Jones and Reich manifestly experienced some difficulty making sense of these elaborate superimpositions. Instead of recording the whole ensemble in the first place, Jones had started by asking each of the drummers to perform their motifs as a single line, working from simple repetitive to more complex patterns, and gradually combining several strands together so as to recreate an integrated composition. The way in which he did this was to get each performer to record the individual pattern allotted to his part onto a moving roll of paper that was electronically marked each time the musician tapped one of his metal pencils onto a sensitised plate. In an essay of 1972, Reich is very clear about the method involved:

As Dr Jones tapped out the bell pattern, an Ewe master drummer would tap out one of the drum parts, and both patterns would be recorded in accurate graph form on the moving paper. This was then transferred to conventional notation.462

The superimposition of the notated parts produced the full score, as reproduced in Figure 1 above. Jones’ method had been additive and analytic, building up the total sound picture from its barest elements. Here, from one of his recordings, is a snippet from one line of the Agbaza dance, later transcribed by Reich.463 The opening, for gong gong then sogo drum, may remind those of you who know of Reich’s Drumming; the rest is vividly reminiscent of his work Clapping Music of the following year.

In the ensemble that results from the combination of several such lines, all of the sonorities – drumming, clapping and singing – are superimposed. The first difference to note between Reich’s work and this African paradigm is that in the first three movements of Reich’s Drumming, the sonorities are separated out. The instruments featured in the first movement are tuned bongos; in the second movement these give way to marimbas, whose repeated patterns and tuning are imitated by monosyllables intoned by two sopranos; in the third these give way to glockenspiels, which, in turn, are imitated by the players whistling. In the fourth and final movement, all of these resources come together. In each movement, simple reiterated patterns are rendered more complex as additional players join in at short intervals from the basic pulse.

Reich’s Drumming and Africa

If you listen to the excerpts from Reich with Jones’ field recordings in mind, it is clear that, in one respect, Reich is adopting an equivalent approach. Drumming is a dramatic work, but it is also a cleanly analytical one, which derives at least some of its bearings from Jones’ research methods, or something very much like them. A player enters and sets up a basic pulse consisting of a twelve-quaver phrase, eleven of the twelve beats being rests. After repeating the phrase between three and six times, he fills in one of the rests, thus amplifying the pattern. After repeating the new pattern, he fills in a third quaver and then a fourth, before being joined by a second percussionist, who in turn is joined by a third. There is an intellectual fascination in the way in which the complexity of sound gradually builds up from these basic cells to form a whole rhythmic soundscape. Like Jones, Reich clearly wants us to experience each component element in isolation before we tackle the combined effect, to attend to the rhythms before we confront their combination. He is studying the rhythms as well as listening to them, with the result that parts of the work have the air of being a sort of demonstration of how sophisticated effects derive from simpler ones.

In assessing this effect, it is useful to bear in mind the principles that Reich had already set out two years before visiting Ghana in a personal manifesto written in San Francisco in 1968, Music as a Gradual Process, in which his preference for explicit musical procedures is very clear. ‘I am interested,’ he had written, ‘in perceptible processes. I want to be able to hear the process happening through the sounding music.’ And again, ‘To facilitate closely detailed listening as musical process should happen extremely gradually.’

The listener as performer

What is especially remarkable in both of these statements is the extent to which Reich places the listeners themselves in pole position. For Reich, the music happens in order to enable the listening, or rather a special sort of concentrated, analytical listening. For Reich, it seems, the music or musicking in which he is interested properly occurs only when it is listened to.

Theoretically, perhaps, a CD or record player playing a movement from Beethoven’s Eroica symphony in an empty room might be said to be delivering the music. Even with nobody around to attend to it, the symphonic movement might conceivable be said to have happened. The same could never be said of a CD player enunciating Drumming to an empty space.

Reich had always been quite happy with automatic and impersonal elements in a performance. He is even prepared to subordinate the contribution of live performers to the presence of tapes, just so long as the listener is conscious, animate and alert. As he himself put the matter in 1968:

As to whether a musical process is realised through live human performance or some electro-magnetic means is not finally the main issue. One of the most beautiful concerts I even heard consisted of four composers playing their tapes in a dark hall. (The tape is interesting when it’s an interesting tape.)

The operative verb in this declaration is ‘heard’: only a listener can find a tape interesting. (Is Beethoven interesting in himself?) Thus what advertises itself as a charter for an objective musical aesthetic comes to depend in the last resort on a kind of induced and structured subjectivity. If a listener happens to find Beethoven boring so, one might claim, the music itself is untouched. The same could never be claimed for Reich. A process can never be interesting in itself, but only if a listener finds it to be so. Listening, therefore, is a creative act and so, it might be said, is musical analysis.

Yet this analytical approach, in line with ethnomusicological theory and pedagogic practice, sets up a very different set of expectations from those underlying actual African performance. As Ali Momeni has observed in a study of Reich’s use of polyrhythms, ‘There is a disparity between the complexity of the rhythmic material in traditional African music and the single rhythmic cell present in Reich’.464 Just as other forms of minimalist music endeavour to build and recreate traditional harmonic and melodic effects from the ground up, educating the human ear to hear again and more appreciatively what over the centuries it has learned to take for granted, whether in melody or harmony, so Drumming strips down and rearticulates the basic materials out of which the tapestry of rhythmic polyphony is woven, in order to show us what goes into the mix. It is a sort of defamiliarisation technique which places strict demands on the audience, precisely by depriving them of the props and clichés that support lazy listening.

Listening, in our turn, we may be reminded of the fact that, prior to concentrating on music, Reich had been a philosophy student at Columbia, where he wrote a dissertation on Wittgenstein. Just as Wittgenstein had been interested in the procedures involved in various language games, so Reich had become fascinated by the workings of what you might call percussive sound games. Remember the second paragraph of Philosophical Investigations: ‘That philosophical notion of meaning is at home in a primitive idea of the way language functions. But one might instead say that it is the idea of a language more primitive than ours.’465 Just as Wittgenstein had endeavoured to dig down to the deepest roots of meaning, so Reich is attempting to uncover the most essential roots of rhythm. The problem is that, in Africa, the roots are far from being simple.

Reich’s debt to Africa

So what did Reich learn from Africa and what, just as importantly, did he resist? To appreciate both questions, it might be helpful to note that Reich seems to have arrived in Africa with a strong and individual sense of the sort of input that he did, or did not, require. So much was clear from our absorbing conversation, and it had already been spelled out for all to see in Music as a Gradual Process. First, he had already set certain conditions for composition as a determining process. He had also driven a gulf between his own approach and, on the one hand, the sort of improvisational music associated in America with the name of John Cage and, on the other hand, the serial technique cultivated in Europe by the Second Viennese School. His objections to both were founded on the fact that, while both deployed processes in their own sense of the term, in both instances the procedures involved were invisible or inaudible or, as he himself put it, ‘compositional ones that could not be heard when the music was played.’ Implicit in his critique is the further reservation that improvisation à la Cage is dependent on a sort of arbitrariness in which Reich was and is simply not interested. ‘One can’t improvise in a musical process,’ he had declared emphatically in 1968. ‘The concepts are mutually exclusive.’ Reich is interested in the inexorable working out of structured and audible ideas: the aleatoric has never been his thing.

More can be elicited about Reich’s predisposition immediately prior to his listening experiences in Accra from an interview with Michael Nyman, recorded in London in July 1970 while in transit to Ghana. Here Reich studiously avoids any reference to the now cliché term ‘minimalism’ (originally borrowed from art criticism), preferring his own term ‘pulse music’. Describing his earlier experiments with tape recorders, he explained how he had let tapes drift out of synchrony with one another to produce a kind of syncopation through delay. The resulting repetitions as the tapes disjointedly echoed one another had given rise to a technique of ‘phasing’ or what, in a beautifully modulated phrase, he called ‘a surrealist rondo with all kind of elements recurring’. The resulting work seemed to him to require, not simply new ways of composing and performing, but a fresh take on listening as well:

You listen to developmental music, and you can’t just stay with it, or you can’t stay with it once you’ve seen the way you can say with something else. I’m interested in a process where you can get on right at the beginning and literally rest on, uninterrupted, from beginning to end. Focusing on the musical process makes possible a shift in attention away from he and she and you and me, outward towards it.466

The required listening attitude has something in common with what nowadays is sometimes known as ‘trancing’.467 Eventually, though, Reich told Nyman he had come to feel ‘like a mad scientist trapped in a lab’. What he felt to be missing was the element of live performance: ‘I was aching to do some instrumental music.’ It was at this stage that he had decided to go to Ghana.

The very last intention Reich had in his mind, however, was to replicate the style and set-up of African music:

What I don’t want to do is to go and buy a bunch of exotic-looking drums and set up an Afrikanische Musik in New York City. In fact what I think is going to happen more and more is that composers will study non-western music seriously so that it will have a natural and organic influence on their music.468

Reich’s approach to African music was thus what, in a different context, the poet Gerard Manley Hopkins once described as a compulsion to ‘admire and do otherwise’.469 Through the activity of listening, Reich would convert this music into something completely his own.

Those pre-conditions granted, and given that a certain amount of controlled improvisation is essential to Ewe drum music, Reich’s debt to Africa is clear in at least two respects. Firstly, he convinced himself that a large-scale work made up of mostly percussive means could be built from quite elementary structures. Secondly, he seems to have copied the idea of a cuing technique, according to which one performer starts a new set of riffs, and invites the others to follow. According to Jones, this is an important element in Ewe ensembles, where the Master Drummer initiates each new stage of the proceedings. Reich was soon to rediscover a similar approach in Balinese Gamelan music, on which he was soon to write, and which Jones had been convinced had infiltrated African music at some point in the past.470

Africa, Reich and phasing

Apart from this, Reich seems to have assimilated lessons that he was already primed to learn. Much can be gleaned about the sound world of Drumming by examining the score. When he first prepared the work between the fall of 1970 and the following autumn, Reich jotted down his ideas in a series of notebooks, before teaching the piece to his fellow performers. Only after the premiere did he reduce the music to a pen and ink score, which circulated in manuscript for 40 years before Reich requested the Chicago-based composer Marc Mellits to rationalise the transcription.471 The result is a 79-page score set out in two-stave systems, with a uniform time signature of 3/2 or 6/4, and a key signature of five sharps. The apparent regularity serves as a guide or clue to what, in other respects, is quite a flexible mode of delivery. Since each pattern may be repeated between two and eight times (with permissible parameters being indicated in each case above the upper stave), the piece lasts between 55 and 75 minutes. Despite this, by Reich’s own admission, ‘there is one basic rhythmic pattern for all of Drumming which governs pitch, phase position and timbre’. The audible variations are caused by a scripted instruction that successive performers should delay slightly the beginning of each phrase. The phasing that results is quite in line with Reich’s practice in earlier works such as It’s Gonna Rain, in which two tapes are allowed to drift out of sync with one another and then to merge again, the difference being that in the new work these conditions are met by instructing the percussionists gradually to fall out of step. Listen to this snippet from the first movement of Drumming,472 where the phasing technique is easy to detect.

In the score there is a footnoted instruction to the effect that, in the first movement for example, the second drummer to enter should gradually accelerate his strokes so that, by the end of bar 20, he is a full crotchet ahead. Yet, after gradually parting company, in all movements the parts are designed eventually to realign and coincide. In Jones’ terminology, therefore, ‘synchrony’ is still ‘the norm’, since the rhythmic interest of the whole piece consists in listening to the parts as they sever company, and then join up again. Reich was to adopt an exaggerated form of the same procedure in Clapping Music where, as he explains, one performer remains fixed:

repeating the same basic pattern throughout, while the second moves abruptly, after a number of repeats, from unison to one beat ahead, and so on, until he is back in unison with the first performer. The basic difference between these sudden changes and the gradual changes of phase in other pieces is that, when phasing, one can hear the same pattern moving away from itself with the downbeats of both parts separating further and further apart, while the sudden changes create the sensation of a series of variations of two different patterns with their downbeats coinciding.473

Thus expounded, it is clear that what Reich achieves in all of these early works is a compromise between the synchronicity Jones had thought characteristic of the western tradition and the rhythmic polyphony and density he had discovered among the Ewe and other sub-Saharan African peoples. There is, however, in Africa no precise equivalent for the processes of addition, elimination and substitution (beats for rests, and vice versa) that Reich employs.

Ligeti and Reich

The very year in which Clapping Music was first performed, the Hungarian composer Gyorgy Ligeti (1923–2006) was in residence in Stanford, where he discovered an early recording of the work and an LP of Its gonna rain in the college library. The following year, he returned to Berlin, where he met Reich and heard a performance of Drumming. At the time he was writing Clocks and Clouds, featuring a wispy ostinato pattern akin to the humming of bees passed on from high cellos to flutes and thence to clarinets, Holst-like female voices and bells. It was a work avowedly ‘heavily influenced by Reich’. Soon he had embarked on an African adventure of his own as the echoing, hollaing polyphonic choral music of the Aka pygmies furnished him with a slightly schizophrenic listening experience caused by the repetition of its rhythmic cells and the asymmetry of the cells themselves.

At the time, Ligeti was in revolt against a two-fold tyranny: the Soviet totalitarianism still reigning supreme in his native Hungary and the artistic dictatorship of the Second Viennese School, more especially Anton Webern by whose work he had once been entranced. He was drastically in need of alternative modes of liberty. What seems to have attracted him to African music, just it had attracted Reich, was a combination of discipline with freedom. In the music of the Aka pygmies, for example, he had discovered a set of procedures that operated on two levels: the macro-level of its overall structure; and the micro-level occupied by individual performers free to devise their own rhythms, the separate patterns being reconciled at the level of the ensemble-performed piece.

In Ligeti’s own words:

Gradually through repeated listening I became aware of this music’s paradoxical nature: the patterns performed by the individual musicians are quite different from those that result from their combination. In fact the ensemble’s super-pattern is itself not played and exists only as an illusory outline, I also began to sense a strong inner tension between the relentlessness of the constant, never-changing pulse with the absolute symmetry of the formal architecture on the one hand and the asymmetrical internal divisions of the patterns on the other. What we can witness in this music in a wonderful combination of order and disorder which in turn merges together to form a sense of order at a higher level.474

Ligeti also suspected that these tendencies reflected some of the guiding principles of the Balkan folk music he had grown up listening to during his youth in Romania.

The legacy

There had thus been a sort of procession of influence: Ligeti listening to Reich listening to Africa, then listening to a different region of the continent with ears, in turn, trained by Reich. The response of both composers was partly dictated by their respective backgrounds: Reich by his earlier experiments with recorded tape, Ligeti by modernist practice overlying his own regional folkloric inheritance. If we pan out, I would suggest what we are observing is a kind of partition within modernism, stemming in Ligeti’s case from the two schools to which he had previously been exposed: the experimental Darmstadt School taking its cue from Shoenberg and the folkloric, regionally-based approach of his countrymen Bartok and Kodaly. It is no coincidence that by the 1980s western music gave the strong impression of looking forwards and backwards at the same time, so that by the century’s end the contemporary scene was dominated by this Janus-like stylistic face.

Nevertheless, it is clear that, just as Reich had taken what he wished from African music and then integrated it into his own practice, so Ligeti had taken what he wanted both from Reich and from Africa. Personally, he seems to have baulked at the idea of music as process. Wary as he seems to have been of all manner of imposed or necessary order, Ligeti was far more open to the idea of improvisation than was Reich. In a sense, both men were fleeing different varieties of orthodoxy associated with the mainstream avant-garde: Reich fleeing implicit invisible or inaudible structures, and Ligeti the inexorability of explicit form. Supposedly akin, both in their revolt against Darmstadt and all its works and in their shared attraction to the African paradigm, they ended as complementary opposites.

For both of them, however, the formal requirements of their art came to be fulfilled at the level of perception and reception as much as composition and performance. Structure is what is heard as much as – if not more than – what is intended.


What is undeniable is that in 1970 I had accidentally witnessed the stirring of a development that was to pay rich dividends in the musical history of the following half century, a period during which ‘world music’ came to be accepted as a field of inquiry and endeavour, and barriers between national musical traditions gradually broke down. The consequences of this mutually informed mode of listening, and the opening up of perspectives that ensued, has proved rewarding for all of us.

A further question arises as to how far the regional African musical traditions on which Reich and Ligeti drew were generically characteristic of the continent as a whole, though the thinking of both composers does seems to have been in step with Jones’ ideas as to a holistic African musical aesthetic, with rhythm as its bedrock. Finally, however, this question is far less important than might appear. In 1970 the Reich whom I met was in search, not of a local musical tradition as such, but of a formal indigeneity common to all cultures. The meeting between African and American that then occurred (with its side-occurrences in the music of Eastern Europe and Indonesia) has been but one facet of a far broader entente, with implications for listeners everywhere. As Reich himself emphatically stated in 1968, ‘All music is ethnic music.’

What the comparisons drawn together in this chapter further suggest is that, beginning in the late twentieth century, listening became an activity taking place at more than one level. Rules and departures from rules, pulse and the departure from pulse, perfection and incidental imperfection came to coincide in the listener’s ear. Impression superseded expression as the criterion of gainliness and value. The post-Romantic ideal of personal originality gave way before an aesthetic of communal appreciation. The listener assumed an active role, emancipated from passivity into collaboration.

Select bibliography

Fraser, Robert. West African Poetry: A Critical History. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Glass, Philip. Words Without Music: A Memoir. London: Faber and Faber, 2015.

Jones, A. M. Studies in African Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1959.

Jones, A. M. Africa and Indonesia: The Evidence of the Xylophone and Other Musical and Cultural Factors. Leiden: Brill, 1964.

Reich, Steve. Writings on Music 1965–2000, edited with an introduction by Paul Hillier. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Reich, Steve. Drumming: For Percussion Ensemble. New York: Hendon Music; London: Boosey and Hawkes, 2011.

Listening and recordings

Prefiguring the Spanish recording diva: how gabinetes fonográficos (phonography studios) changed listening practices, 1898–1905

Eva Moreda Rodríguez

Eva Moreda Rodríguez is Lecturer in Music at the University of Glasgow, having completed her PhD at Royal Holloway College in 2010. She specialises in the political and cultural history of Spanish music during the twentieth century and is the author of Music and Exile in Francoist Spain (Ashgate, 2015). Her second book, Music Criticism and Music Critics in Early Francoist Spain, has recently been published (OUP, 2016). Her work has received funding from the Music & Letters Trust, the Carnegie Trust for the Universities of Scotland and the University of Indiana’s Lilly Library, among others. 


This chapter situates early commercial recordings made in Spain by local gabinetes fonográficos between 1898 and 1905 in the aural landscape of their time. In order to do so, it examines a range of audio-visual media, including original wax cylinders, advertisements, trade publications, press articles and other accounts of listening experiences from the arrival of phonographs in Spain in the late 1870s to the demise of the gabinetes around 1905, when they were absorbed or rendered obsolete by multinational recording companies. Such early recordings must be interpreted alongside the thriving theatrical culture that prevailed in Spain at the time, especially that of zarzuela – the preferred genre of theatre-goers and the best represented, according to available evidence, in catalogues of gabinetes fonográficos. A range of primary sources suggest that recordings were intended as a memento to go hand-in-hand with the experience of listening to music live; as such, the gabinetes fonográficos industry was uniquely built in close connection to the theatrical culture.


This chapter examines the place occupied by early commercial recordings made in Spain by local gabinetes fonográficos (phonography studios) between 1898 and 1905 in the aural landscape of their era, including how listening to recorded music related to other listening experiences that Spanish listeners regularly engaged in at the time. My focus on this body of recordings has been partially fuelled by my admiration for Catalan soprano María Barrientos (1883–1946) and her Paris recordings of Manuel de Falla’s Siete canciones populares españolas (1928), Soneto a Córdoba and ‘Canción del fuego fatuo’ from El amor brujo (1930). With Falla himself accompanying Barrientos on the piano and closely supervising the recording sessions, the output of these can certainly be labelled as one of the very first examples of creator’s recordings in Spanish art music,475 and Barrientos was an obvious choice for Falla’s endeavours: she had championed Spanish music since the mid-1910s, being the dedicatee and first performer of Enrique Granados’s song Elegia eterna (which, however, she never recorded) and frequently giving recitals of Spanish music, both old (Blas de Laserna) and new (Joaquín Nin, Joaquín Turina, Amadeo Vives, Francesc Alió, Falla himself). She had also enjoyed from a very young age an international career as a bel canto specialist, and as a result of this she was one of few Spanish singers to feature in the catalogues of multinational record companies in the late 1900s and 1910s. Barrientos was starting her career at the time of the gabinetes fonográficos, but there is no evidence that she ever recorded for any of them: in fact, her first set of recordings was made for the Italian label Fonotipia in 1906 and it included both the bel canto repertoire in which she specialised and zarzuela arias.

Figure 1: Advertisement by Fonotipia and Odeón, including María Barrientos as one of their featured artists, published in La Vanguardia, 20 September 1908

At a time in which Spanish nationalist composers fought for recognition abroad and also within Spain, Barrientos’s career as a recording artist significantly capitalised on her dual status as an internationally successful singer and champion of the developing Spanish repertoire. Barrientos’s standing as one of the first – if not the first – Spanish divas of recorded music,476 though, cannot be understood without reference to her predecessors, that is, the singers who recorded for the gabinetes fonográficos around the turn of the century, and especially those singing Spanish vocal repertoire – which at the time was not predominantly Spanish art song or opera, but rather zarzuela, as I will explain later. Fifty years separate the arrival of the first phonographs in Spain in the late 1870s and the Barrientos-Falla recordings. It is outside the scope of this chapter to provide a full account of this period; my aim is instead to illustrate and interrogate a crucial moment in the history of early recordings in Spain in which they began to be commercially produced for the first time, and to elucidate how new listening practices developed in close interrelationship with their context. In fact, evidence reveals that the gabinetes’ recordings were intimately connected to the place and context in which they were made, bought and/or listened to. This connection between recorded artefacts and attachment to place can be found in Barrientos’s recordings too.

How to listen to recordings

Early accounts of the phonograph written by Edison himself with a view to market it were based to a considerable extent on the concept of fidelity: phonograph recordings as perfect reproductions of reality.477 Nevertheless, central to the issue at hand is the notion that one does not simply know instinctively how to listen to recordings as if they were merely an identical substitute of reality; instead, one needs to learn how to do so (in the same way as, several decades before the phonograph was invented, photographers needed to learn how to codify meaning in their photographs and spectators needed to learn how to decode it.)478 Much of the bibliography on recorded music and recording technologies published in the last 20 years has focused precisely on this issue. It could be argued that, with the increasing attention paid to recordings as sources of performance history,479 there soon came a sense that, as with any other source, recordings should not be taken at face value, but the ways in which historical audiences listened to them, thought about them, negotiated them should also be examined critically. Here I briefly cover some concepts relating to how early audiences of recorded music learned how to make sense of recordings.

Ashby defines phonographic literacy (a ‘culturally instilled skill’) as ‘the ability to enjoy music away from the place and perpetrators of its performance’.480 This may involve, particularly at the early stages of the history of recorded music, audiences, musicians and producers working out the relationship between live and recorded sound: is the latter supposed to replace the former, or are they supposed to work together? Patrick Feaster’s concept of ‘performative fidelity’ is especially useful here:

the extent to which the socially situated playback of an indexically recorded action is accepted as doing whatever the original would have done in the same context.481

Edison’s marketing materials indeed relied to a great extent on the notion that audio fidelity would inevitably lead to performative fidelity: if a recording was sufficiently similar aurally to the original, it would also automatically absorb its contextual functions. In particular – and this is especially relevant in the context of turn-of-the-century Spain with its thriving theatrical culture, as I will explain later on – recorded music changes what Lisa Gitelman calls the ‘visuality’ of music (‘the sum of visual experiences that bolster and accompany musical practice and that extend to the societal norms of visually apprehending practice’),482 thus leaving it to audiences to negotiate new understandings of performative fidelity in the absence of visual elements. With the emergence of recorded music, live music becomes thinkable for the first time too (before recording, ‘live music’ would be a redundancy).483

Much discussed in the study of how recorded music changed listening practices is the commodification of music, which has often been portrayed as negative for audiences and musicians, who have no choice but to accept commodification passively.484 Nevertheless, commodification is not always a top-down or uniform process, but is, instead, context-specific, its evolution and form dependent on a variety of factors, including the means of reproduction themselves and the various agents involved.485

These and other critical concepts have never been applied to the history of early recording technologies in Spain (Mariano Gómez-Montejano provides in his book an informative, if non-theorised, account of the gabinetes fonográficos).486 Rather tellingly, such critical concepts have emerged mostly from accounts of early recording technologies in technologically advanced countries, or within musical cultures considered prominent (for example, Germany for art music, the United States or the United Kingdom for popular music). Focusing on a country like Spain, which was neither, can help emphasise the importance of context (both in space and time) in the development, reception and fashioning of recording technologies: listening practices connected to recorded music, we could argue, are not only time-specific, but can be place-specific as well.

Before I launch into detailed discussion, I would like to offer an overview of the broader context. 1898 has repeatedly been singled out as a crucial year in modern Spanish history, as this was the year in which Spain lost its last overseas colonies (the Philippines, Puerto Rico and, perhaps more famously, Cuba). The loss accelerated debates which had been taking shape in the preceding two decades concerned with the regeneration of Spain (regeneracionismo) on an existential, economic, political, cultural and, perhaps more importantly for the purposes of this chapter, scientific level; in fact, turn-of-the-century Spain saw a renewed interest, which partly echoed a trend stemming from earlier in the nineteenth century, in scientific and technological advances as a way of improving the country’s education system, its industry and agriculture. Based on these principles, the Ministry for Public Instruction was founded in 1900, followed by a restructuring of university teaching and infrastructure to make it more empirical.487 Recorded sound, thus, has to be understood not only as a cultural product, but also as a technological achievement.

Gabinetes fonográficos: an overview

Spaniards first had the opportunity of seeing and listening to Edison’s phonograph shortly after its invention in 1877; in the next decade or so, phonographs were occasionally exhibited and played as a scientific curiosity in front of audiences belonging mostly to the middle and upper classes.488 Edison’s Perfected Phonograph, introduced in 1888, revitalised interest in recording technologies: phonographs started to be toured around the country by funfair impresarios and scientific popularisers, and exhibited at inns, civic centres, church halls and private homes at a cost affordable to the working classes. Some educational institutions, notably secondary schools, also acquired phonographs for teaching purposes.489 Individuals who bought phonographs for their own private use were still a minority, while recordings were produced on an ad hoc basis by the operators or owners of the phonographs themselves, and not intended for being sold independently.

It was not until the launch of Edison’s Standard Phonograph in 1898 that we can speak of a record industry starting to develop in Spain: phonographs imported from abroad were sold either by pre-existing retail businesses, mostly in the healthcare and technology areas, or by newly created establishments. Since customers needed access to a reasonably broad range of recorded repertoire in order to make the acquisition of a phonograph worth the money, such establishments started to produce and sell recordings on wax cylinder support; thus came about the gabinetes fonográficos. Preserved cylinders and written records suggest that about 40 gabinetes were in operation between 1898 and 1905 in Spain, mostly in the cities of Madrid, Barcelona and Valencia.

Figure 2: Advertisement by Viuda de Aramburo, published in Blanco y negro on 22 May 1897 (The fact that it was published in 1897 suggests that some gabinetes may have started their business before the Edison Perfected Phonograph.)

Although I consider the gabinetes fonográficos to mark the beginning of a recording industry in Spain, it must be noted that this industry still had a significant artisanal side to it. Indeed, the state of technology at the time still did not allow wax cylinders to be reproduced on an industrial scale while preserving an acceptable level of audio quality. Most wax cylinders sold at the time were thus one-offs, but this was not necessarily regarded as a negative thing; indeed, a number of gabinetes – including Sociedad Fonográfica Hugens y Acosta and Álvaro Ureña, both based in Madrid – took pride in the fact that they did not sell copies of their own or others’ cylinders, while at the same time implying that other gabinetes did.

The fortnightly magazine El cardo, one of the first to dedicate its attention to the nascent industry under the form of a standing section called ‘Boletín Fonográfico (Phonographic newsletter), supported Hugens y Acosta and Ureña in their endeavours, and suggested that copies of original cylinders should be labelled as such and sold at a cheaper price to protect the interests of both musicians and consumers.490 Articles published in El cardo, though, suggest that no more than about a dozen copies could be made of the same cylinder without quality being compromised; this, again, is hardly on an industrial scale.

The development of the gramophone and the technological innovations enabling the reproduction of recordings on an industrial scale encouraged recording multinational companies to open subsidiaries in new markets all over the world,491 including Spain from 1903, with Compagnie Française du Gramophon (Compañía Francesa del Gramófono) being the first.492 By 1905, most gabinetes were no longer operative as such, with Sociedad Fonográfica Española Hugens y Acosta, one of the most successful, liquidating its assets on 9 December 1905.493 Meanwhile, other gabinetes, such as La Fonográfica Madrileña, managed to survive as resellers of equipment and recordings manufactured by the multinationals; however, they stopped producing any recordings themselves, at a time in which multinational companies in other industries were also settling in Spain following similar strategies of partnership working with local companies.494

Figure 3: Advertisement by La Fonográfica Madrileña, published in ABC on 6 January 1909

Learning to listen to recordings in turn-of-the-century Spain

In this section, I discuss what available evidence indicates about the ways in which early listeners of recorded music in Spain started to build phonographic literacy by listening to, decoding and making sense of the gabinetes’ recordings in their specific cultural and social context. Two caveats precede my discussion: firstly, even though the gabinetes made it easier for customers in the upper and middle classes to acquire phonographs, we must not infer from this that they operated a generalised change in the ways in which the Spanish population listened to music. In fact, the evidence suggests that those being regularly exposed to recorded music were still in a minority. After two years operating as a society, the Sociedad Fonográfica Española Hugens y Acosta declared that it had 2,000 customers.495 This certainly does not mean that only 2,000 people had listened to Hugens y Acosta’s recordings; although it is not clear what the word ‘customer’ means, it seems reasonable to think that it referred to repeat customers who regularly bought in person or by correspondence from Hugens y Acosta; the gabinete probably had a number of ‘one-off’ customers as well.

Similarly, it is very likely that, through those 2,000 customers, other people became exposed to recorded music (for example, their families and friends). Even considering that other gabinetes may have had their own pools of customers (likely smaller, since Hugens y Acosta was one of the most prolific gabinetes, as well as being one of the most active in their publicity efforts), the numbers remains small considering that the population of Spain exceeded eighteen million in 1900.

The second caveat refers to the types and the scope of the evidence available about the experience of listening to recordings. In testimonies written by or about early listeners of recorded music and, more generally, discourses about recorded music, it is striking how little detail there is about the music itself. This is the case with the two main industry publications of the time of the gabinetes: El cardo, which I have already mentioned, and Boletín Fonográfico in Valencia (which published 40 issues from January 1900 to October 1901). Boletín Fonográfico focused primarily on technological developments and provided detailed accounts of devices and techniques developed by their readers themselves to improve the recording capabilities of the phonograph.496 Profiles of individual singers, on the other hand, were rather generic and included little detail on their technical or interpretative capabilities; when they did mention aspects such as range, articulation or timbre of the voice, it was almost invariably to explain why some voices are more suitable to be recorded than others.497

El cardo’s Boletín Fonográfico, on the other hand, focused mostly on the industrial and commercial aspects of recorded music, with extensive advocacy against the duplication of cylinders and for the signing of exclusive rights contracts between specific singers and gabinetes.498 In itself, though, this focus on the technological and industrial aspect of recordings is a valuable piece of evidence – a reminder that these should not be regarded solely as artistic artefacts, and were not regarded as such in their own time. Data about the repertoire recorded, the singers taking part in the recordings, and the strategies followed by the gabinetes to market their products can also offer valuable information about how recordings were received and decoded by their audiences.

In order to understand how recordings were understood in the era of the gabinetes, I would first like to refer back to the era of the Perfected Phonograph between 1888 and 1898. The new artefact was first marketed by Edison and his agents, in Spain and elsewhere, as a business aid intended mostly for dictation and correspondence;499 entertainment did not feature highly among the uses Edison envisaged for his invention and, if anything, it was rather branded as a mixture of entertainment and preservation. Edison himself, naming Rubinstein, stated that one of the aims of the phonograph was to preserve the voices or playing of those known for their rhetoric, acting or musical skills.500 Such arguments were soon put forward by Spanish writers too, sometimes enhanced with references to Spanish or local personalities whose voices were deemed worth preserving, such as tenor Julián Gayarre.501

Technologies, nevertheless, do not always end up filling the roles their creators envisaged for them. Indeed, what emerges from accounts of travelling phonographs around Spain is not a fascination with well-known singers, actors and orators, but, rather, with the recorded voice per se, in the first place, and, secondly, with the voices of people who were personally known to the audience. It was not often that announcements and accounts of phonographic sessions published in the press mention the names of specific singers featuring in such events, or of specific pieces to be played back; at most, they would give a general overview of the selection of genres available for listening (which were almost invariably opera, zarzuela, traditional music and military music, together with non-musical recordings including jokes, speeches and short stories).502 This suggests that it was recorded music per se, and not the voices of specific internationally well-known singers, which was the main appeal and focus of the listening experience in many phonographic sessions.

When the focus was on one voice specifically, this would be the voice of someone known to the audience personally, that is, as a prominent musician or speaker at the local level. For example, in a visit to Madrid of Edison agents Mr Sean and Mr Warring to present the Perfected Phonograph in Spain, the Count of Aguilar de Inestrillas spoke out a voice of command in front of the phonograph which was promptly played back; as the commandant of the royal guard, Aguilar de Inestrillas was well-known locally, and certainly to the middle- and upper-class audience which had been invited to the event.503 The same format can be found in a variety of events all over Spain, not necessarily organised by Edison’s agents. In 1894, at the Coliseo of Logroño, local lawyer Pedro Montero gave a short speech and cornet player Lorenzo Colís played a solo, which were both subsequently played back by the phonograph – to audiences who would have known Montero and Colís at least by name. The programme also included a mandolin solo recorded in New York City, but one whose performer the audience would have probably been familiar with: José Olaguenaga, who was also from the region of La Rioja.504 José Navarro Ladrón de Guevara (who would later on open his own gabinete in Madrid) visited Cartagena in 1896 with a phonograph, and made the recording and playback of local amateur singers into one of the pillars of his shows.505

These instances must be understood in a context in which audio fidelity was still one of the main attractions of the newly introduced recording technologies: in such phonographic sessions, what mattered to the organisers and presumably the audience was to check that the phonograph, as promised by Edison’s propaganda, could be an acceptable means to reproduce sonic reality as it was. This is hardly exclusive of Spain, but can, rather, be interpreted as a logical reaction to the perspective of hearing recorded sound for the first time; in Spain, though, this concern with the phonograph as a means to reproduce reality ties in with a key question of Regeneracionismo: how to best apprehend and reproduce reality, as a means of changing it; this is the implicit aim, for example, in Pío Baroja’s realist literature.506 The phonograph too was regarded by some as an artefact which might be able to change reality for the best by capturing and leaving a record of it for reference and reflection: some jurists argued that it could revolutionise the law, since it could allegedly record any person’s words as they were spoken, hence smoothing out any ambiguities in the recording of wills and other documents.507 The phonographic literacy of listeners of the Edison Standard Phonograph, though, still relied heavily on the connection between live and recorded music, and performative fidelity was regarded as the same as auditory fidelity; the fact that attempts at turning the phonograph into a notary of sorts never came to fruition, though, suggests that there was indeed a gap between both concepts.

The advent of the Standard Phonograph changed to some extent the way in which recordings were listened to and understood. There was, first of all, a key change in the technology: apart from being more affordable to at least the middle classes, the new phonograph allowed users to not only play back wax cylinders, but also to record their own. In fact, many of those buying phonographs from the gabinetes seem to have used them to this end: Valencia’s Boletín Fonográfico organised a contest in which readers were encouraged to send in recordings they had made themselves, suggesting it was a popular entertainment.508 But the true business of the gabinetes fonográficos was not based on their customers’ familiarity with their immediate circle of friends, families and acquaintances anymore; it had moved a step beyond to voices which had a certain local or national profile, but with whom audiences would still have felt some close identification.

The repertoire recorded by the gabinetes fonográficos indeed speaks of the interrelation between live events and recordings of them. Advertisements of the gabinetes became more specific than those for phonographic sessions: a list of singers recording for the gabinete in question would normally be included, but not always the specific pieces or repertoire. The gabinetes may have chosen to do so for practical commercial reasons: with the recordings being one-offs and with each singer normally recording a range of pieces in their repertoire, it was probably a safer strategy to lure customers with singers’ names than with recordings of specific pieces which may have been sold out by the time a customer enquired about them. But it is also likely that the owners of the gabinetes were aware that the voices of specific singers played a crucial role in most of their customers’ experiences in listening to live music and they wanted to make the most of it: in fact, I suggest that the recordings made by the gabinetes fonográficos, albeit situated in a different level of phonographic literacy than the phonographic sessions with the Perfected Phonograph in that they did not rely anymore on the close association between the live experience and the recording, were nonetheless intended to work as a memento of the theatre-going experience of their customers rather than as a stand-alone product. This must not be understood as a failure of audiences to acquire a sufficiently refined standard of phonographic literacy, but rather as a testimony that, throughout history, recorded music has different types of relationships or dependency to the actual live experience.

Theatre-going was indeed big at the time in Spain, and especially in Madrid, which was host to more gabinetes than any other Spanish city. Opera had a strong followership at the Teatro Real, but it was predominantly zarzuela which monopolised much of the theatre-going activity of madrileños across all social classes. From the evidence in the catalogues of the gabinetes, it is likely that zarzuela prevailed here too: there is certainly some preponderance of zarzuela over opera performers, although from the catalogues alone it is not possible to ascertain how many recordings each singer made. A survey of surviving recordings at the Biblioteca Nacional de España (BNE), digitised at Biblioteca Digital Hispánica, may illuminate further the distribution of recordings across genres (with the caveat that, with most recordings being a one-off, those preserved at the BNE are but a very small fraction of the total produced): out of 243 cylinders produced by Spanish gabinetes and containing some form of music, 98 are of zarzuela, 48 of traditional music, 47 of opera, 32 of instrumental music and 18 of other genres of light vocal music. El cardo also complained on a few occasions that zarzuela was more popular among the gabinetes and their customers than other genres their authors regarded as more refined.509

In order to examine what the listening experience for zarzuela audiences may have been like at the time the gabinetes were in full swing and the place that recordings may have played in it, I will first offer some context about the history of the genre. The beginnings of zarzuela in its modern form are conventionally dated back to the premiere of Francisco Asenjo Barbieri’s Jugar con fuego in 1851. The following two decades were the reign of the so-called zarzuela grande: full-length pieces in three acts (that is, three to four hours), made up of numbers rather than through-composed; most zarzuelas were set in present-day Spain or in its recent past and, as such, offered a discourse of national identity which is perhaps best highlighted by the integration of a number of folk dance and musical forms, especially for choral and ensemble numbers. Young authors José Vallés, Juan José Luján and Antonio Riquelme pioneered in 1868 the so-called ‘teatro por horas’ (hourly, or hourly-paid theatre),510 which was based on shorter pieces with a more condensed and streamlined plot.

During the 1880s, all zarzuela theatres in Madrid ended up adopting this format due to the costs and risks of putting together a full-length zarzuela grande: indeed, with the new teatro por horas format, theatres offered three or four one-hour plays – the so-called género chico. Tickets were sold for each play individually at cheaper prices, which attracted audiences from a broader range of social classes, and an unsuccessful play was easier to replace than a full zarzuela grande without incurring great losses.511 Most plots were still set in contemporary Madrid and cast an ironic if ultimately amiable eye on political and social issues while negotiating an integrative, yet still ideologically conservative, view of an industrialised, urban, modern Spain.512 Nevertheless, with plays being shorter and the production process more streamlined, some changes needed to be introduced: folk-inspired numbers were not the province of choirs and ensembles anymore, and were instead introduced in the soloist’s arias as well. This made them indeed easier to remember both for the audiences and for the singers themselves, many of whom were selected predominantly on the basis of their acting capabilities: indeed, a beautiful or trained voice in a zarzuela performer was seen as a welcome bonus, but not necessarily as a must. Dance numbers became more prominent as well.

At the time of the gabinetes around 1900, género chico was undergoing a transformation itself, its potential to critique or even represent social context becoming exhausted.513 A new genre started to develop: género ínfimo, with plays becoming even shorter and more condensed, and comicality and dancing taking precedence over plot and musical development. In the next few years, zarzuela disintegrated even further: the género sicalíptico took the erotic aspects of the género ínfimo to the extreme; the cuplé, on the other hand, was equally risqué and took the style of the musical numbers of género ínfimo and transformed them into stand-alone songs to be sung in a cabaret-style setting.514 Both the género sicalíptico and the cuplé were primarily the province of male audiences, with the purely listening experience being punctuated by visual enjoyment and sexual excitement.515 But even in the less risqué genres such as género chico and ínfimo, it is clear the listening experience of theatre-goers in turn-of-the-century Spain was made up of many other aspects apart from the purely musical.

Indeed, evidence indicates that the gabinetes’ recordings fed off the live music experience of theatre-goers. The locations of both gabinetes and zarzuela theatres in Madrid around 1900 is in itself illustrative. At the time, nine zarzuela theatres were active in Madrid which programmed género chico exclusively or to a significant extent (Alhambra, Apolo, Comedia, Eslava, Lara, Martín, Novedades, Parish and Zarzuela), with up to four plays being programmed each day. A simple mapping exercise  shows that some of the gabinetes were next door or across the road from zarzuela theatres (and sometimes from each other). This opens up questions about the patterns and the locality of the production and consumption of early recordings. Unfortunately, the available records about the gabinetes do not offer much information about why their owners chose to open them in specific places, but their locations on the map suggest that some phonography impresarios may have considered proximity to a theatre as a desirable characteristic when studying potential locations to open their gabinetes. Similarly, for existing businesses such as Viuda de Aramburo (originally a store of electrical equipment) and Obdulio Villasante (pharmacy), the comings and goings of zarzuela audiences past their establishment may have encouraged them to open a side-line to their business publishing and selling wax cylinder recordings.

The repertoire recorded also suggests that recordings were intended to go hand in hand with the live listening experience, rather than replace it. Some of the surviving recordings were likely intended to capitalise on a specific singer’s success on the stage: for example, soprano Ascensión Miralles recorded the duet from Federico Chueca’s La alegría de la huerta for Viuda de Aramburo shortly after she premiered it at the Teatro Eslava – though not with her original partner in the premiere, tenor José Riquelme, but with a Mr Navarro instead. The choir of the Teatro de la Zarzuela also recorded for Viuda de Aramburo the choral number ‘Los de Calatorao’ from Gigantes y cabezudos in 1898; Gigantes was perhaps the biggest zarzuela success of the year, with its commentary on the loss of Spain’s last colonies. With zarzuela companies changing theatre and often also city on a yearly basis,516 gabinetes also tried to capitalise on a singer’s success after they had left the city; this is the case with sopranos Avelina Corona and Dolores Millanes; both were in Valencia as part of their tours around 1900 and recorded for local gabinetes there (Corona for Pallás, Millanes for Puerto and Novella); in both cases, the fact that they had been in the city and were hence known to the audiences was duly publicised among customers.517


A look at the evidence available about the recordings made by Spanish gabinetes fonográficos provides a refreshing counterpoint to accounts of technological inevitability by illuminating the roles of listeners, small and medium-sized business owners, and singers in the process of experimenting with, adopting and spreading recorded music. But perhaps its primary interest lies in the fact that it highlights the role of local and national contexts in order to fully account for the changes that recorded sound introduced in the listening experience; from the turn of the century, as has been discussed earlier, multinational companies indeed took an interest in recording and marketing indigenous repertoires (and zarzuela and other Spanish genres such as flamenco were no exception), but this must not be regarded as the first time in which the recording business went global. Indeed, countries such as Spain had already started to create their own recording business – which, at least in the case of Spain, was then dismantled by the arrival of the multinationals – based not only on the recording of their own music, but also on a complex relationship with the unique context in which those genres developed and thrived. It is in this way, I would like to argue, that it makes sense to place the first stars of recorded zarzuela as the predecessors of Barrientos later on, not simply because Barrientos herself recorded some of their repertoire, but because her dual status as both a performer with an international career and a champion of Spanish music still echoed some of the relationship between recorded music and the stage culture to which it belonged in its live status.

Select bibliography

Ashby, Arved. Absolute Music, Mechanical Reproduction. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

del Moral Ruiz, Carmen. El Género Chico. Madrid: Alianza, 2004.

Feaster, Patrick. “Rise and obey the command’: performative fidelity and the exercise of phonographic power,’ Journal of Popular Music Studies 24, no. 3, 2012, pp. 357–395.

Gitelman, Lisa. Scripts, Grooves, and Writing Machines. Representing Technology in the Edison Era. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999.

Gómez Montejano, Mariano. El fonógrafo en España. Cilindros españoles. Madrid: Industrias Gráficas Caro, 2005.

Katz, Mark. Capturing Sound: How Technology has Changed Music. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2010.

Membrez, Nancy Jane Hartley. ‘The Teatro Por Horas: history, dynamics and comprehensive bibliography of a Madrid industry, 1867–1922 (género chico, género ínfimo and early cinema)’, PhD dissertation, University of California, Santa Barbara, 1987.

Rothenbuhler, Eric W. and Peters, John Durham. ‘Defining phonography: an experiment in theory,’ The Musical Quarterly 81, no. 2 (1997), pp. 242–264.

Young, Clinton D. Music Theater and Popular Nationalism in Spain, 1880–1930. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2016.

Listening and recordings

Early 78s, celebrities of the Italian operatic tradition, and audiences

Barbara Gentili

Barbara Gentili studied at the University of Perugia (B-Hons in Law, 2003), at the University of Pavia (PGCE in Music, 2007) and then at the Conservatoire of Milan (MA in Singing, 2012), before moving to the UK to pursue a PhD in Music at the Royal College of Music in London. Barbara’s current work focuses on changes that verismo opera, with its completely new musical vocabulary, brought about on the bel canto technique. To this end, historical recordings from the pre-electrical era are analysed to reveal tendencies and performance practices developed by singers in those years.


Early recordings from the pre-electrical era have something magical and unique about them: they preserve the fresh impression of live performances, unmediated by the adjustments of technology. The singers’ lack of any previous experience in what recording a disc of a cylinder consisted of explains why they failed to appreciate the profound differences between singing on stage and singing in front of a phonograph.

Emma Calvé could not be convinced that stamping her feet while recording Carmen’s Seguedilla was pointless for the listener, who was unable to see her acting. The negotiations which often preceded great singers’ involvement with the recording industry were exhausting, such as in the case of Nellie Melba. In particular, Melba’s reluctance to release her recorded material, and her skepticism regarding the ability of the early reproduction process to capture the quality of her voice, show how traumatic the advent of recording was for some interpreters of those days.

From the exclusive perspective of the Italian operatic tradition, I will focus on the reactions of singers and audiences to the advent of recorded sound, and its revolutionary impact on the personal experience of listening to music.


The primary purpose of this chapter is to present an overview of the different reactions expressed by some of the most celebrated singers of Italian opera at the beginning of the twentieth century while listening to their own recordings. Enrico Caruso, John McCormack, Nellie Melba and Luisa Tetrazzini, among many others, are inextricably linked to the history of the recording industry, which first took off at the beginning of the last century. These singers had the advantage of being considered pioneers in the rudimentary technology of acoustic recording; they risked all in terms of its limitations and its sonic experience, which to the ears of any contemporary listener sounds quite primitive.

How did these singers approach the recording experience? How did they respond when they listened to their own recordings? To what extent were they aware that in participating in these early recordings they were among the first performers in the history of music to leave sonic evidence of their singing? These considerations must have played a subtle psychological role at the exact moment when the 78 was put on the gramophone machine and they had the opportunity of being able to hear themselves for the first time. In some respects, acknowledgement of their own efforts must have been a quite shocking experience, analogous to the experience shared by many of us when we hear the playback of a recording of a talk or performance we have given. Indeed, who among us has not thought with disappointment: ‘Is this how my voice sounds? I had a completely different idea!’ Common though that reaction might be, anyone who has had that experience should bear in mind the vast difference between recording in a modern studio and hearing the result in high fidelity sound, in contrast to the experience of Nellie Melba or Enrico Caruso who sang into a horn and heard their performances played back through very rudimentary machinery.

In addition to examining the reaction of singers to their early recordings, this chapter will also assess whether the first listening experiences of recorded material had any tangible impact on performers’ habits and/or audiences’ expectations. In singers’ writings or interviews from those years, it is perhaps surprising that we hardly find any reflections regarding the ways in which their recordings might have influenced their performing habits. Obviously, the influence of one’s own recorded performance is much more of a concern to contemporary performers, who are used to the perfect recording, where any mistakes can be removed and the final result depends on a copy and paste process, which includes only the most perfectly realised takes. In contrast, early recordings from the pre-electrical era cannot be manipulated. The singer goes into the recording room, sings with their lips a few inches from the recording horn and listens to the accompanying instruments placed behind their head. This creates an unnatural distance between the performers.518 Moving back from and forward towards the horn, the singer is hampered in many ways. There are also time constraints, as the seven-, ten- and later twelve-inch gramophone discs last between two and a half and four and a half minutes, a factor which inevitably affected the speed of performances. Furthermore, sound quality was compromised due to the fact that the recording apparatus is not able to capture all partials of the voice and even, at times, interferes with them by introducing its own sympathetic vibrations.519

No matter where the recording session took place, in a hotel room, in the lavish drawing room of the most magnificent villa or in the fancy recording studio of the Gramophone London site on the top floor of a commercial office building in City Road, the feeling of being constricted by a hostile environment could not be overcome. The vision of the singer was restricted to the edges of the recording horn, the body firmly still, the ears anxiously expecting the two bell rings that signalled the starting point, and the breath held until the whirring of the recording mechanism came to an end.520 Although the recorded performance is just one of hundreds that the singer had already performed live, could the simple fact that this is a recorded example, and therefore can be listened to many times, affect the way in which the recorded solo will be performed in the future?

The same question can be asked with respect to the audiences. Could the recorded version of a solo, heard many times inside the domestic privacy of the listeners’ drawing room, create some expectations in the listeners themselves when hearing it in the concert hall or opera house? Early recordings preserve the fresh impression of live performances: defects and even plain mistakes are evident, conferring upon them a sense of magical uniqueness. In her biographical volume Melodies and Memories, Melba suggested that she had received numerous marriage proposals from men at far ends of the world who fell in love with her having heard her angelic voice on a disc.521 In their letters, these men claimed that they felt the heavenly beauty of her soul behind the pure sound of her voice. Clearly one cannot take these statements at face value, given that Nellie Melba was a beautiful and extremely wealthy woman at the peak of her career at that time. Nevertheless, they suggest the strong impact that early recordings exerted on audiences.

In contrast, feeling the soul of an artist through a recording is hardly a common consideration nowadays in terms of critical listening. Judging from the reviews that most modern recordings receive, our first preoccupation would be with technical aspects of the performance, such as the clarity of the phrasing, the articulation of the words, the length of the breaths, the covering of the passaggio area and the effective projection of the voices. We only feel able to engage with the performance at an expressive and emotional level, if the technical aspects of the singing are completely secure. Moreover, we bring the same expectations to a live performance, where we expect the same faultless precision and finesse that we are used to hearing in recordings.522

Early recordings, therefore, represent a world belonging to a thoroughly different era, with its own specific performing habits and its own idea of what the artistry of a singer was. A number of scholars from the 1990s onwards have assessed the way listening to recordings has exerted a very powerful influence in changing the tastes of audiences throughout the last century.523 What I will argue here is that at the beginning of the twentieth century the individual personality of an interpreter was even more of a crucial element in the expectations of the audience than today. The early twentieth century was the era of the singer, where conductors had to bow to the singer’s absolute power. When the Russian bass Fedor Chaliapin finally signed his gramophone contract in 1910, he was little concerned with the choice of the conductor for his recordings: ‘…anyone will do, for it is I who will direct’ was his answer to the company inquiry on the topic.524 As Gemma Bellincioni, a famous Italian soprano of those years, pointed out, the opera-goer of her days went to the opera house expecting to find a specific singer creating a specific role from an opera whose authorship had in effect been transferred from the composer to the singer themself. Audiences were going to theatres in order to listen to Les Huguenots of the tenors Stagno, or Gayarre or Masini, forgetting that the actual composer was Meyerbeer.525

The problematic relationship between Nellie Melba and her recordings

Reactions to the early recordings of Nellie Melba (1861–1931) are among the most fascinating of early twentieth-century examples in the Italian tradition. Her first recording session took place in March 1904 at her London house in Great Cumberland Place. Melba’s drawing room was large enough to make space for a small orchestra and all the technical equipment of horns and turntables used by the technicians of the Gramophone and Typewriter company. After having listened to the ‘scratching screeching’ results of this first session – which includes, among seventeen other surviving sides, versions of Donde lieta from Puccini’s La Bohème, and Caro nome and Sempre libera from, respectively, Verdi’s Rigoletto and La Traviata – she stated:

Don’t tell me I sing like that, or I shall go away and live on a desert island, out of sheer pity for the unfortunate people who have to listen to me.526

Melba’s voice had a particularly pure quality, described as silvery or shining by critics such as W. J. Henderson or H. Klein, who heard Melba during her glory days.527 The splendour of her timbre was probably not captured by the acoustic recording system, which cut out all her upper partials.528 In effect, comparing the early pre-electrical recordings with her 1926 farewell concert at Covent Garden, the listener almost has the impression of hearing two completely different singers, as these two examples of Donde lieta uscì from Puccini’s La Bohème attest:

Apparently, the electrical recordings made later in her career proved to have exerted the same impression on Melba herself. The Australian baritone John Brownlee, who sang with the great prima donna during her last recording session in December 1926 at the Small Queen’s Hall as well as in her farewell concert earlier in June, tells us the very characteristic story of the diva working at her last recording session. At first, she stared at the microphone, asking ominously: ‘How can anything good come out of that obnoxious looking box?’529 But then, after listening to the playback of her sound test, she cried out: ‘For the first time I hear something of what I think my voice really sounds like. Why wasn’t this thing invented before?’530 This remark seems to confirm that the aural results of her pre-electrical recordings caused considerable anxiety and a sort of embarrassment for the great soprano.

The root of Melba’s discomfort may lie in a mismatch between the very pure tone of her voice and the limited capacity of pre-electrical recording techniques to capture that quality. Melba’s vocal training was completed under Mathilde Marchesi, one of the most accomplished singing teachers of the late nineteenth century, at whose school many operatic celebrities of those decades were trained.531 Marchesi was a pupil of Manuel II Garcia, the author of the famous treatise the Art of Singing, which is considered the bible of bel canto style.532 The explicit intentions of Mathilde were to perpetuate the teaching tradition of her great Master, and Nellie Melba’s vocal production relies on the technical features outlined by this tradition. The neat manner of blending the vocal registers, supported by the costal-diaphragmatic breathing, might have conspired to produce a recorded sound that Melba could not recognise as her own voice.533

Melba was aware of the historical relevance of her recordings. She was anxious that any mistakes, ‘any faint error in breathing [….] will remain, mercilessly reproduced, to all eternity’.534 Therefore, she approached the recording process with a great sense of responsibility towards the audience of her own time and also the future. Long and difficult were the negotiations that eventually overcame her opposition to release her first recordings – those realised in her drawing room by the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in 1904. Melba judged them unreliable, as they would have left a completely deformed impression of her voice for the listener. This decision is surely evidence of Melba’s acute aesthetic conscience, rather than the irrational and narcissistic response of a prima donna. Melba was genuinely concerned about the kind of evidence for posterity that such recordings would have transmitted, not just of her own singing but also of an entire vocal tradition of which she was a major representative.

Contemporary opinions on the recordings of Melba

In stark contrast with the concerns raised by Melba on her pre-electrical recordings, the opinions of other qualified witnesses of this early stage of the recording industry express different views. Frederick Gaisberg was the Gramophone and Typewriter Company’s technician. He recorded the greatest opera stars during the early decades of the twentieth century, including Adelina Patti, Francesco Tamagno, Enrico Caruso, Pol Plaçon and Feodor Chaliapin. Gaisberg claims that the acoustic process was especially suitable for sopranos, whose voices sounded bigger and more full-bodied when recorded with this system.535 In his opinion, Melba’s voice was fairly represented by her early recordings, as we can assume from his remark: ‘For long she doubted, or pretended to doubt, our ability to reproduce her voice’, but ‘… in those pioneer days … enough was achieved to convince Melba that, under favorable conditions, the engineer could make a successful record of her voice’. 536

Another influential testimony comes from the critic Hermann Klein, who closely followed the rise and the technical development of the recording industry, becoming one of the musical advisors for the Columbia company.537 Klein was a man of many talents. A singer himself, and one of the last pupils of Manuel II Garcia, he played the roles of singing teacher, impresario, music critic and journalist. He was acquainted with the major opera stars of his days: from Melba to Marcella Sembrich – between whose voices he could not decide which was the best; from Emma Eames to Lillian Nordica – the latter gave him the idea of a singing method with recording examples, which became the Phono-Vocal Method; from Tamagno to Caruso, to name a few. Klein was an acute judge of vocal recordings, and did not spare Nordica from a harsh judgment of her recorded voice, which to him seemed ‘thin and pinched and even muffled in tone’.538 However, he had nothing but praise for the quality of Melba’s voice as heard in her pre-electrical recordings, in stark contrast to the singer herself.539

From this divergence of opinions, one might conjecture that Melba’s reaction to her own recordings was partly a consequence of the striking effect of hearing her voice for the first time at the age of 43. Since her early twenties, she had been first trained and then acclaimed for her roles throughout Europe and the Americas, celebrated by wildly enthusiastic audiences, praised for her sweet, flexible, pure tone and the unprecedented perfection of her coloraturas. She now found herself faced with the aural reproduction of her voice. Melba recorded regularly for the Gramophone Company from 1904 to 1926. Admittedly, she was not happy with the results of her pre-electrical recordings, but she must at least have listened to the discs produced from any recording session in order to authorise the public release of the discs themselves. Melba must have speculated on the sound of this voice and, because of the lack of any instrument of reproduction until then, the mental image that she had of her own voice could have been dramatically contradicted by the sound that came out from the horn that morning in March 1904.540 It is also possible that the invention of the electrical system of recording, from which Melba’s voice surely benefited, helped her to become reconciled with the sound of her recorded voice during the years spent hearing her discs. Eventually the trauma of listening to her ‘external’ voice might have been overcome by a combination of technology and habit.

Melba and her colleagues

By comparing Melba’s pre-electrical recordings with those of Luisa Tetrazzini (1871– 1940) we can evaluate how the vocal characteristics of the latter were more suitable for the acoustical recording system than those of Melba. For example, Tetrazzini’s rendition of Violetta’s grand aria E’ strano … è strano  conveys a more full-bodied and rounded voice: her top notes in particular resound in a broad and powerful manner, supported by a strong use of the appoggio. In the Italian vocal technique, the word appoggio indicates a specific system of breathing, where the pressure of the air is perceived to be in the lower region of the chest, under the breast bone. The features of Tetrazzini’s vocal production could be linked to the new repertory created by the giovane scuola italiana – young Italian school, also known as verismo opera – which, between the 1890s and 1920s, shaped a new operatic style where declamation and dramatic accentuation were essential. To fulfill these new demands, the earliest interpreters of these roles had to reinforce their breathing technique, which in turn altered the way of blending together resonances from the various registers. The more satisfying – due to it being more true to life – vocal colour that we hear in Tetrazzini’s recordings may perhaps depend on such changes in vocal technique.

In stark contrast, Nellie Melba, educated on the basis of the traditional rules of bel canto, sang her top notes in the pure head register, as the Victor recording of 1907 demonstrates. For this reason her singing resembles the style of old-fashioned singers such as Adelina Patti much more than that of her contemporary colleagues. It is instructive to compare Melba’s reaction to her own recordings with those of Patti (1843–1919), probably the most famous operatic celebrity of any age. Patti, in fact, was ecstatic while listening to her own voice on the discs recorded in 1903 at her castle of Craig-y-Nos in Wales, as the conductor Landon Ronald confirms, recalling her words: ‘O mon Dieu! Now I understand why I am Patti. Oh yes! What a voice! What an artist! I fully understand it all!’541 This enthusiastic attitude was shared by Ronald himself who affirms: ‘the fact that she (Patti) was praising her own voice seemed to us all to be right and proper’.542

Patti’s response to her own recordings sheds light on the subjective aspects of the listening experience. This experience also depends on psychological and emotional elements of which the listener is hardly aware. Patti, even more so than Melba, belongs to an era in which the power of the opera singer was unrestrained and absolute. Patti is known for not taking part in any kind of rehearsals during her stage career; she would appear the night of the performance moving and lying on stage at her ease, avoiding any prior consultation with colleagues, none of which seemed to bother her audiences, who continued to adore her.543 This degree of self-confidence might have led Patti to an uncritical appraisal of her own voice on record, as the cheerful, child-like reaction recalled by Ronald’s narrative would suggest. Ronald himself reflects on the fact that the great singer never previously heard her own voice and ‘when the little trumpet gave forth the beautiful tones, she went into ecstasies!’544 However, this kind of uncritical response is hardly unknown to contemporary listeners. If we think of audiences’ behaviour at a live concert of any acclaimed opera singer, we realise this simple fact: no matter how the great star in question is actually performing, they will be greeted by a delirium of unconditional praise. Therefore, the purely emotional appraisal of a performance is surely typical of the listening experience of any age.

Francesco Tamagno

Until now we have focused on reactions to recordings of prima donnas who faced the challenge of the gramophone. Were similar issues of consequence to male singers? Consider, for example, Francesco Tamagno (1850–1905), who is linked to Giuseppe Verdi’s last dramatic opera Otello, whose main male role was written for the tenor’s colossal voice. Tamagno was aged 53 when, in 1903, he recorded for the Gramophone and Typewriter Company in his villa of Ospedaletti in Italy. In those days hotel rooms were the usual site for travelling recording studios, but operatic stars were often extremely reluctant to accommodate to this necessity. Therefore, as in the cases of Adelina Patti and Nellie Melba, the recording studio and its technicians had to travel to Tamagno’s mansion. The recordings that he approved to be released were sold at the astonishing price of £1 each – the average weekly wages for common workers – while the company paid Tamagno £2,000 for the session plus the royalties for every single sold item. In comparison, Enrico Caruso’s discs made in 1902, at an early stage of the tenor’s career, were sold for 10 cents each. Differences in prices and label colours on the discs – the greatest stars had their own recognisable colour – were the elements that identified the higher or lower status of a celebrity.545

On the occasion of one of his visits to Tamagno’s house in Varese, Herman Klein recalled that the great tenor was leaning on the gramophone with amazement and delight, enjoying the rich tones of his huge voice, repeating ‘Che bellezza’ – ‘What a wonder’ – or ‘Com’è bello, non è ver?’ – ‘It is gorgeous, isn’t it?’546 Tamagno belongs to the same golden age of Patti and, like Patti, was a first-rank singer. Not only were their habits and level of self-confidence alike, but also the age at which they were able to listen to their recorded voices was quite advanced. Therefore, the sentiment expressed by Tamagno while listening to his own voice is unsurprisingly close to that of Patti. Both these singers considered recording as an enjoyable addition to the ways in which they experimented with their voices during their careers: an addition that arrived at the very end of Tamagno’s career and after Patti’s retirement. Therefore, it neither added to nor detracted from their huge reputations and the eternal praise that they felt ought to be paid to their art.

Tamagno’s recordings display the features of bel canto style: fluid phrasing, clear diction, open timbre, slow and flexible tempos, free use of decorative notes and the ability to sing the top notes at any degree of volume. His repertoire encompassed the middle and late nineteenth-century Italian and French operas, while he only occasionally performed roles of the giovane scuola operas, such as Turiddu from Cavalleria Rusticana and Canio from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci. From this latter repertoire, the only aria he recorded is Un dì all’azzurro spazio from Giordano’s Andrea Chenier.547 It displays the characteristics of a manner which was about to disappear shortly after his death and which is preserved in a few early recordings.

Enrico Caruso as a gramophone singer

In 1901 Tamagno sang with Enrico Caruso (1873–1921) at the Teatro alla Scala at Giuseppe Verdi’s memorial concert. Tamagno predicted the splendid rise of the younger tenor, whose career is closely associated with the history of the recording industry. Caruso threw himself into this new adventure with no qualms. Gaisberg depicts the late arrival of Caruso at his first recording session at the Hotel Milano on 11 April 1902, his confident approach to the recording machine and the tremendous commercial success of his first recordings. That day Caruso poured his voice into the horn for two hours, obtaining ten recordings. He earned £100 from the recording session, which was paid on the spot, while the company profits were later estimated at more than £15,000.548

The great tenor created several roles from the giovane scuola repertoire, such as Loris in Giordano’s Fedora, Federico in Cilea’s Arlesiana, and Dick Johnson in Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West. Moreover, his interpretations of the roles of Canio in Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci and Turiddu in Mascagni’s Cavalleria Rusticana defined certain stylistic features, which were widely imitated by others. In his biography of Caruso, Michael Scott stresses the fact that the great singer became the archetypal tenor voice thanks to the influence of the phonograph.549 His muscular singing, where any recourse to falsetto was progressively abandoned, as well as his taste for consistent covered tones throughout the vocal range, explain the words of the composer Sidney Homer:

Before Caruso came I never heard a voice that even remotely resembled his. Since he came I have heard voice after voice, big and small, high and low, that suggested his, reminded me of it at times even forcibly’.550

Herman Klein claimed that Caruso was the greatest tenor of the twentieth century for the purity and the clarity of his singing.551 In other words, Caruso defined the archetype of the modern tenor in developing a more dramatic and declamatory vocal style, in order to capture the essential realism of the giovane scuola. This sort of style affected female voices in turn, as the cases of Tetrazzini and her colleagues, such as Bellincioni, Boninsegna and later Ponselle, demonstrate.

Is the emergence of this vocal type connected with the recording experience and with the possibility of hearing the progressive development of one’s own voice? This question may be illuminated by another: did the attitude of Caruso towards the recording process and the outcomes of the recording session change at all while he was experimenting with this new technology? In other words, did the assessment of what he heard on his discs become critically oriented over the years of his recording career? While the recordings of 1902 were made in two hours, and all items were approved without any being re-recorded, two impressions of the session made on 16 March 1908 for Victor were destroyed,552 and the rate of the non-approved recordings rises as we progress through the years. For instance, in the Victor session of 23 February 1916 eight out of the eleven songs and solos that Caruso sang that day were apparently destroyed. As John Bolig, the editor of Caruso’s discography, explains, these unpublished items were not approved by the singer.553

This circumstance seems to confirm an increasing preoccupation on the part of Caruso with the sonic evidence of his recordings that could be attributed to several factors. On the one hand, the recording industry was becoming a serious business. It could no longer be treated with the spontaneity and boldness that Caruso showed at first, as the personal prestige of an artist more and more depended on the cylinders and 78s that delivered their art. The link between stage and recording career was crucial for Caruso if it is true, as Gaisberg suggests, that the manager of the Metropolitan Opera House, Heinrich Conried, engaged Caruso at the prestigious New York theatre after having listened to one of his recording in Paris.554 Moreover, Caruso had the chance to hear the several steps and phases of his own vocal and technical development on disc. This continuous aural reproduction of what he was elaborating in terms of technique and style might have been nerve-racking, now that Caruso was becoming an international star, whose professional and artistic achievements were increasingly measured by his recordings.


In conclusion, listening to early recordings influenced several kinds of listeners during the first two decades of the twentieth century. First, I attempted to reconstruct the responses of singers brought up within the Italian operatic tradition to the novel experience of hearing their own recorded voice. I then suggested that these early recordings, even with all their limitations, could have conditioned singers’ performing habits and audiences’ expectations. Finally, I mentioned critics’ and musicians’ opinions regarding the influence of early recordings in the creation of modern vocal archetypes.

As I have tried to show, this influence works in two ways. The first relates to the singer’s experience of listening to their own voice. Bearing in mind that listening to their own sound constitutes the primary guide in any performer’s daily practice, the unquestionable fact that this opportunity was denied to singers added a peculiar relevance to the invention of the recording machine in their case. As we saw in the introductory paragraphs, the shock of hearing one’s own recorded voice is still a common experience in the present day. For this reason the impact of this experience on the pioneer singers who experimented with that primitive technology should not be underestimated. The revolutionary transformation of singing technique and style within the Italian operatic tradition at the turn of the twentieth century must surely have been influenced by singers’ experiences of hearing their own voice for the first time in history.

The second way in which the invention of recording played a role in the emergence of the new singing style was in the rapid dissemination of that style across the globe. Singers and listeners could hear the voices of Caruso, Martinelli, Tetrazzini, Ponselle and others in their own living room, anywhere in the world. This created a standardisation of vocal types and a new conception of what constitutes a ‘good voice’, as the new style triumphantly swept all before it – an early example of ‘globalisation’ in the cultural sphere. To suggest that recording had such a profound influence on the emergence of new singing styles is not implausible, when one considers that listening to recordings has drastically changed our conceptions of tempo, rubato, vibrato and portamento over the last century.

Many other factors have a bearing on the issues discussed in this chapter. They include speed, pitch, the nature of the accompaniment, duration, the variety of equipment used for the reproduction of early recordings, and also wider issues such as the commercial interests connected to their dissemination, or the trademark battles between rival recording companies. While these questions have been touched on in numerous studies – some of which are included in the bibliography to the present contribution – a critical and systematic discussion of the impact of records on singers at the beginning of the recording era has yet to be undertaken. This chapter is a modest first step in that direction.

Select bibliography

Cook, Nicholas, Clarke, Eric, Leech-Wilkinson, Daniel and Rink, John (eds) Cambridge Companion to Recorded Music. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Gaisberg, Frederick William. The Music Goes Round. New York: New York Times Company, 1977.

Homer, Sidney. My Wife and I. New York: The Macmillan Company, 1939.

Melba, Nellie. Melodies and Memories. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1980.

Millard, Andre. America on Record: A History of Recorded Sound. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, second edition, 2005.

Moran, William R. Herman Klein and the Gramophone. Portland: Amadeus Press, 1990.

Philip, Robert. Performing Music in the Age of Recording. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2004.

Ronald, Landon. Variations on a Personal Theme. London: Hodder and Stoughton LTD, 1922.

Schmidt Horning, Susan. Chasing Sound: Technology, Culture & the Art of Studio Recording from Edison to the LP. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2013.

Scott, Michael. The Great Caruso. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.

Suisman, David. Selling Sounds: The Commercial Revolution in American Music. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Listening in non-western contexts

Listening in semi-colonial Shanghai: the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra and its Chinese audience in the 1920s

Irene P. Pang

Irene P. Pang obtained her BA and MPhil in Historical Musicology from The Chinese University of Hong Kong, and finished her PhD in Musicology at The University of Hong Kong. Her dissertation, ‘Reflecting musically: the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra as a semi-colonial construct’, examines the history of the first western orchestra established in China, with an emphasis on its relationship with the historical and social context of semi-colonial Shanghai. In the past few years, she has presented different parts of the project at international conferences in the UK, the Netherlands and Taiwan. In 2016, she contributed to the writing of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Brass Instruments (forthcoming), which introduces the development of brass instruments in China.


The Shanghai Municipal Orchestra was one of the earliest western orchestras in China. It started as a wind band in 1879, when part of Shanghai was occupied by the western powers. The band initially served the western community by performing light music in the Public Garden and playing martial music in the military parades. A Chinese audience was almost absent in these musical activities, since western music was foreign to them. The existence/non-existence of western and Chinese audiences echoes Pierre Bourdieu’s theory of social distinction, which suggests that accessibility to culture differentiates social status.

This chapter examines the emergence of a Chinese audience for the orchestra through the writings of Chinese critics. It begins with a discussion by Xiao Youmei (1884–1940), the principal of the National Conservatory of Music, of the reasons for the absence of a Chinese audience. We shall then see how and why the Chinese critics had expended so much effort in promoting western music in the Chinese community. While writing about their personal experience and the behaviour of other Chinese audiences, these critics also compared Chinese and western music and expressed their admiration of western culture after attending the concerts. These writings record the first attempt of the Chinese in crossing social and cultural boundaries.


In 1843, the earliest batch of foreign residents arrived in Shanghai after the end of the First Opium War (also the First Anglo–Chinese War, 1839–42), which was concluded by the signing of the Treaty of Nanjing in 1842. Under the treaty, Shanghai and four other Chinese cities, Guangzhou, Xiamen, Fuzhou and Ningbo, were opened to Britain as treaty ports. In the next two decades, Shanghai witnessed the establishment and expansion of the British concession, American concession and French concession, as well as the merging of American and British concessions into the International Settlement.

Figure 1: Map of Shanghai, 1937 (source: (accessed 21 May 2014)
Figure 1: Map of Shanghai, 1937 (Source:, accessed 21 June 2017)

Foreigners living in Shanghai assumed a special status in the city and were ruled or ‘protected’ under the law of their own countries. The British and French were the two dominating forces in this region and they formed two separate councils, which were independent of the Chinese Manchurian Government. The Municipal Council dominated by the British was set up in 1854 and continued until 1943, while the French Consul-General created the Municipal Administrative Council in 1862 to preserve the independence of the French concession. Jürgen Osterhammel suggests ‘semi-colonialism’ as a phenomenon where the weaker government retains only nominal ownership but effectively loses control of its territory to the colonial power.555 The political situation of Shanghai meets the definition, since the Chinese Manchurian Government, although conceding part of the city to the western powers, remained as an independent polity. Shi Shumei further explains that the divided foreign concessions administered by multiple western powers (mainly British, French and American in Shanghai) is one of the key features of ‘semi-colonialism’.556

The purpose of this chapter is to illustrate the characteristics of semi-colonialism through the Chinese audience of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra, one of the earliest western orchestras in China. I will begin with the concept of semi-colonialism and the historical background of the orchestra. Then we shall examine the writings of different people who attended the Municipal Orchestra concerts. These writings will give us the reasons for the absence of a Chinese audience in the early years of the orchestra, the effort of the Chinese critics in promoting western music in the Chinese community, and different views on western art music among the Chinese in the mid-1920s.

The concept of semi-colonialism

The main theme of this study is semi-colonialism. To begin with, a survey of the meaning of a few related terms, such as ‘imperialism’ and ‘colonialism’, will provide a useful ground for the discussion. According to Edward Said, ‘imperialism’ is the ‘practice, the theory, and the attitudes of a dominating metropolitan center ruling a distant territory’ and ‘colonialism’ is ‘the implanting of settlements on distant territory’ as a consequence of imperialism.557 This concept becomes the point of departure when semi-colonialism is discussed in this chapter. The next question would then be the difference between ‘colonialism’ and ‘semi-colonialism’. Here, Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire is taken as a reference. He explains that empires are ‘territories under the formal rule or informal political domination [i.e. zones of influence]’of another state.558 This elaboration on the one hand suggests the importance of considering ‘political significance’ in our understanding of these terms and on the other brings out the significance of the term ‘informal empire’, which is inextricable from the concept of semi-colonialism.

In Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview, Osterhammel offers a useful classification of three different forms of colonialism: 1) colonial rule, 2) quasi-colonial control and 3) non-colonial determinant influence.559 These categories sub-divide different forms of colonialism according to the power relationship between the ruling and ruled countries. In colonial rule, ‘[i]ndigenous rulers are replaced by foreign rulers’ and this results in the establishment of a formal empire.560 This form of colonialism can be illustrated by the control exercised by the British Government over India in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In the second type, quasi-colonial control, ‘[t]he weaker state remains intact as an independent polity with its own political system. … There is no colonial administration, but occasionally especially in the area of finance – a mixture of foreign and indigenous administration.’561 Osterhammel suggests that the formation of informal empire as a result of this quasi-colonial control is more or less an economic phenomenon: ‘Informal empire, unlike colonialism (formal empire), presupposes a distinct economic superiority of Big Brother.’562 Robert Aguirre uses the term to describe the relationship between Britain and nineteenth-century Mexico and Central America, that is, the period after the independence of Mexico from Spain until the Spanish-American War in 1898, when British influence gradually diminished. He explains that ‘Britain’s primary interests in the region were driven by exchange, trade, and commerce’ and it ‘formally recognized the political independence of the Latin American republic … by signing commercial treaties.’563 British imperialism did not originate in a master plan to occupy the territory, and the imperial practices in the region were ‘conflictual, contingent, heterogeneous, and partial’ in quality.564 As to the last form of colonialism, non-colonial ‘determinant’ influence, ‘the economic superiority of the stronger national partner or of its private enterprise and/or its military protective function confers upon it opportunities to influence the politics of the weaker partner.’565 Here, the discussion of ‘quasi-colonial control’ is the most relevant to the foreign administration of the concessions in Shanghai. In fact, Osterhammel has used the term ‘semi-colonialism’ to describe the political and social situation of China in a book chapter, where he attempted to develop an analytical framework.566 His model, however, mainly focuses on the political and economic aspects of the society, rather than the cultural dimension.

On the cultural facet of semi-colonialism in China, Shi Shumei provides a more thorough discussion in her book, The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937. Her explanation is particularly instrumental for this study. She uses the term ‘semi-colonialism’ to ‘describe the specific effects of multiple imperialist presences in China and their fragmentary colonial geography (largely confined to coastal cities) and control, as well as the resulting social and cultural formations.’567 China, which conceded its control over many of its cities during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, illustrated certain features of semi-colonialism: the ‘rivalry’ and ‘co-operation’ among the foreign powers, the multiple, layered, intensified, incomplete and fragmentary nature of the colonial administration, a lack of cohesion and an abundance of strife within the cultural sphere, and the diverse responses of the Chinese towards semi-colonialism.568 This chapter will examine the writings of Chinese intellectuals in order to obtain an understanding of their ideological, political, and cultural positions within the semi-colonial setting.

To divert slightly from the current topic, Shi brought out the notion of asymmetric cosmopolitanism in her discussion and proposed that it is an intermediary in the social transformation of a city from the ideology of semi-colonialism to cosmopolitanism. She explains that ‘[w]hen applied to Third World intellectuals, ‘cosmopolitanism’ implies that these individuals have an expansive knowledge constituted primarily by their understanding of the world (read: the West), but when applied to metropolitan western intellectuals there is a conspicuous absence of the demand to know the non-West.’569 When this is applied to the case of China, we shall notice that Shanghai actually underwent a social transformation from a semi-colonial to an asymmetric cosmopolitan city before moving towards a cosmopolitan metropolis, since the Chinese were initially neglected in the settlers’ concept of ‘cosmopolitanism’.

For the purpose of this study, the term ‘semi-colonialism’ is defined as a concept that grows out of Hobsbawm’s ‘informal political domination’ and Osterhammel’s ‘informal empire.’ Semi-colonialism will be viewed as an ideology that facilitated Shanghai’s development towards cosmopolitanism in the twentieth century. Initially, the transformation began with asymmetric cosmopolitanism where the Chinese were not involved. Cosmopolitanism gradually became the shared value in the settlement when the Chinese were included in the semi-colonial hierarchy in the 1930s. This chapter will focus on the emergence of the Chinese audience in the performances of the municipal orchestra since the 1920s.

A history of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra

The Shanghai Municipal Orchestra began as a wind band in 1879, consisting of fourteen Filipino bandsmen led by the French bandmaster Jean Rémusat (1815–80).570 It was financed by the British-dominated Shanghai Municipal Council and the French Municipal Administrative Council since 1881; and was managed by a Band and Orchestra Committee (thereafter ‘Band Committee’). The orchestra was an important cultural institution in semi-colonial Shanghai, as it was the one with the longest history in China and was omnipresent in many social and cultural activities of the settlement. Its 64-year history can be divided into three stages: the formative years (1879–1906) when it was a brass band; the transitional period (1906–19), which witnessed its growth into a symphony orchestra; and the matured period (1919–42).

The orchestra began as a wind band serving the parade of the Shanghai Volunteer Corps, a military force formed by the Municipal Council in 1853 for defending the settlement.571 In the parade the rangers, artilleries and infantries marched along the main streets of the settlement, and the public band accompanied the procession with martial music. The band also entertained the foreign community with light, popular dance tunes and opera medleys in open-air concerts and at private functions. In 1906, the Band Committee proposed to reconstruct the band by transforming it into a municipal orchestra. With the effort of two conductors, Rudolf Buck (1866–1952) and later Mario Paci (1878–1946), the orchestra was once known as ‘the best orchestra in the Far East’.572 By the mid-1930s, the Municipal Orchestra consisted of over 30 members from Russia, Italy, the Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Hungary, the Philippines, Japan and China. It also expanded the repertory to include the orchestral and chamber works from the Baroque to the modern period. As reported in The Musical Quarterly in 1935, the orchestra’s programmes comprised ‘works of Respighi, Rieti, Malipiero, de Falla, Ravel, Kodaly, Bartok, Graener [and] Hindemith.’573

The orchestra offered many different types of performances, which can be grouped into three main categories: regular concerts; accompaniment in the military parades; and private engagements. At the inception period, the public band performed several times a week during the summer in public gardens to entertain the foreign residents. This tradition was maintained even when the band was expanded into a municipal orchestra in the early twentieth century. Music in the open-air concerts was played by the wind band and was generally light-hearted in nature. As the orchestra grew, it also offered some easy-listening orchestral pieces in these outdoor performances to raise public interest. In 1899, the erection of the Town Hall in Shanghai provided the first indoor venue for regular concerts during the winter concert season. In addition to the weekly symphonic concerts, the orchestra had also offered educational concerts, subscription concerts, chamber concerts and dance music concerts since the beginning of the twentieth century. As discussed, the orchestra was initially created for the military parade. This function also remained, even when the band was later developed into a symphonic orchestra. To increase its income, the orchestra also engaged in other performances, such as accompanying the theatrical productions of the local drama clubs and visiting opera troupes. Sometimes, ensembles were formed by members of the orchestra for playing in private or social functions. In this chapter, I will focus on the regular concerts, as they had the broadest reach in the settlement and draw the most attention in today’s literature on the orchestra.

The Shanghai Municipal Orchestra is considered a semi-colonial construct for several reasons. The orchestra was managed by the Band Committee and was mainly financed by the Municipal Council, which made it a good representation of the settlers. Through the music it played, the orchestra became a useful tool for circulating the voices of the colonisers. Although the British dominated both the council and the orchestra, membership of the management was multinational, suggesting that the voice was not necessarily monolithic. Initially, the players of the orchestra were recruited from the Philippines, rather than China, and were trained by the European bandmasters. This suggests that the settlers did not intend to impose western culture and values on the Chinese people by forcing them to learn western music. The primary purpose of the orchestra was to serve the settlers’ community, and the Chinese were almost ignored in the conception of the foreign settlers. On the other hand, the exclusiveness of the western cultural activity seems to allude to the supremacy of its participants. While most Chinese were indifferent to what the foreigners did, some others were made to believe that the ability to comprehend or even play western music would elevate their social status. Here, the belief in western superiority was induced, rather than imposed in a strong and direct manner by the foreign residents. The Municipal Orchestra, as a tool serving the settlers, became an institution reflecting ‘semi-colonialism’ in Shanghai under this context.

Current literature on the orchestra generally pays more attention to the western side of the story by focusing on the western musicians, the Municipal Council’s financing of the orchestra, and the contribution of Paci in recruiting the Chinese musicians to the orchestra. This chapter attempts to broaden the existing research on this topic by bringing in the voice of the Chinese audience. It will focus on the indoor concerts in the 1920s, the early years of its matured period when the Chinese audience started to grow in number. I will propose that the reaction of the Chinese audience, in addition to other personnel associated with the orchestra such as the conductors and players, would enhance our further understanding of semi-colonialism in Shanghai.

Chinese audience – from absence to presence

The Chinese were almost absent in the early years of the Municipal Orchestra concerts, despite the limited records about the appearance of Chinese officials and local amahs accompanying their European masters in the open-air concerts in the late nineteenth century.574 Other early records on the Chinese audience were unavailable until Tanabe Hisao, a Japanese musicologist, wrote about a concert he attended in 1923:

There were 500–600 guests in the hall that evening, making the room quite full. However, it seemed that most of them were Westerners; about 10% were Japanese, and only 10 Chinese individuals were in attendance. So one might conclude that Chinese people’s interest in Western music was rather limited at that time.


One important obstacle that hindered the Chinese from accessing the concerts is that they were not allowed to enter the Public Gardens where open-air concerts were given. Lacking the opportunity to hear western music through the cheap outdoor concerts made it even more improbable for the general Chinese to buy tickets to the indoor concerts, since they had no reason to pay for music with which they were not acquainted. Xiao Youmei, the President of the National Conservatory of Music, noted the reasons for people’s reluctance to attend western music concerts:

… but the majority of attendants of the concerts are still foreigners. The Chinese did not even constitute 10% [of the audience]. What are the reasons? I think there are no more than the following two reasons. First, they did not know about this type of opportunity; second, although they know about it or have attended and listened to [the concert], the music played is too difficult to comprehend and so they would rather not attend the concert again.


Therefore, when the restriction on park access was removed by the Municipal Council in 1928, the situation changed. The opening of the public parks to the Chinese meant that approval was granted to the Chinese for attending the summer concerts. It appeared that the Chinese were gradually accepted as part of the settlement community and were allowed to participate in social and cultural activities previously exclusive to the foreign residents.

Although the setting of open-air concerts was less formal than that of indoor concerts, the opportunity to attend outdoor performances would actually help to promote the latter. As Xiao suggested:

… many new musical compositions require repeated listening. After continuous training of the ears, one would be able to appreciate their merits.


The Chinese were given admission tickets to make their first step to cross the cultural borders and familiarise themselves with western musical culture. The increasing contact with western music through the outdoor concerts would make them less resistant to the indoor concerts, since the biggest hurdle for the Chinese was probably their unfamiliarity with the sonority of western music.

On the other hand, interest in western music actually had existed among the Chinese elites in the early 1920s, although written evidence is limited. Zhang Ruogu (1905–67), a freelance critic of Shen bao (a popular Chinese newspaper), noted the presence of a Chinese audience in a Municipal Orchestra concert in 1926:

Recently in the venue of the Town Hall concerts, there have also been many Chinese listeners. I recalled that in the fifteenth concert last Sunday, except for the students in the gallery – those from several local universities and institutions [names omitted here], who frequently attended the concerts, there were unexpectedly also tens of Chinese buying tickets and sitting in the stalls. What’s more is that they were the literati famous in Shanghai. This is exactly a good phenomenon for the future of arts in China.

(近來市政廳音樂會中 ,也有很多中國的聽客了。記得上星期日第十五次音樂會,除樓上有常到的藝大、美專、同文、震旦,各學校一部份學生外,樓下居然也有數十位中國人買了票子入場的,而且都是上海很知名的文藝家。這正是中國藝術前途的一個好現象啊。)578

Voices from the Chinese audience

By that time, Zhang and some other critics had made much effort in promoting both the indoor and outdoor concerts to the general Chinese public. In 1923, for instance, a music journal in Chinese, Yinyue jie (Musician’s World), was published. The first issue includes an introduction to the Municipal Orchestra concerts. The writer clearly pointed out his purpose of encouraging Chinese participation in these concerts:

In the Municipal Town Hall of Shanghai, from October every year to May of the following year, in every Sunday afternoon between 5–7, there must be a concert given by the orchestra. It is called the symphony concert season. Now for the purpose of promoting our compatriots’ interest in the Western high-art music, [I] especially listed below the programmes of the 35th concert on 29 April and 36th concert on 6 May. The conductor is the Italian musician, Paci.


In this section, we shall see some of the writings of these critics, who shared their experience as members of the audience in the Municipal Orchestra concerts.

During 1925–27, Zhang wrote several articles about the Municipal Orchestra concerts in Shen bao. In an early piece, he explained the reason for paying so much effort in raising his compatriots’ interest in western music:

Up to here when I was writing this article, my friend visited. He asked: ‘This type of writing is too much of a promotional advertisement in nature. Do you mean to ask all of our compatriots to study music? I have a further question: What are the benefits of attending the concerts?’ I replied with a smile, ‘Of course not everybody has the ability to study music. I do not dare to impose this on other people. But not to study does not mean not to understand or not to like it. … Men are born to like music, although every person’s degree of interest in music, as well as their capability to appreciate music are different. … As to the benefits of attending concerts, this is mainly for cultivating personality and instigating courage through lyrical and harmonious, magnificent and exciting melodies. To take a look at the Westerners, no matter men or women, old or young, they all have much interest in music. … If our compatriots can attend Western concerts, they will feel ashamed psychologically. This might be able to encourage them to strengthen themselves. These are the benefits and impacts brought out [by the concerts].’


Zhang suggested that music possesses the quality to cultivate people and incite different feelings and emotions – an idea quite consistent with the general belief in the West. In his opinion, the Chinese should therefore share the same interests with the westerners and appreciate the value of western music. By attending the Municipal Orchestra concerts, the general Chinese public would acquire knowledge about other cultures. Western art music would widen their views – western harmony, instruments, musical genres and orchestration – these would make them realise the advancement of western culture and the deficiency of their own culture. This might make them feel ashamed, which would then arouse their eagerness to learn from the West.

In addition to the articles introducing the works performed by the Municipal Orchestra, Zhang also shared every minor detail of his experience as an audience member in another article in 1925:

The venue is the grand meeting room on the second floor [of the Town Hall]. At the entrance, there are Chinese police. After entering, there are two large staircases, each on the left and right wing respectively, where one can select either one for going upstairs. The box office is located there [at the end of the staircase]. … At the entrance, there are attendants collecting tickets. One can enter and get the programme notes of the concert on that day after presenting one’s ticket. In the hall, there are about 1,000 seats, which are free [for the audience] to sit. At the back, there is the gallery, which also has seats like the downstairs. Entrance to upstairs is free of charge, and is accessible by another stair, which is inside a small room next [to the hall]. There are staff holding the programme notes at the end of the staircase. Audience members can obtain a copy from them. However, space in the gallery is small and seats are filled quickly. Latecomers will thus be rejected and have to buy tickets for entry.

Before the concert begins, there is no person on the stage but the chairs, music stands, heavy and bulky instruments. Soon before the performance, all players come out from the resting room on the left and sit in order, then adjust the strings and tuning. When the noise suddenly stops, it is then followed by thunderous applause, because the conductor steps onto the stage.



This is not only an account of Zhang’s concert going experience; for the Chinese readers, this would also give them a clearer picture about what the Municipal Orchestra concert was like. In comparison to previous articles introducing the concerts, this sharing probably helped to mitigate people’s fear and embarrassment about attending concerts due to ignorance. By publishing the article in Shen bao, a more broadly distributed local paper, the message would be able to reach a wider potential audience as well. Here, Zhang took an important step forward in promoting western music to the Chinese community.

The article also manifests how foreign and exclusive the concert was to the Chinese audience. The interior design of the Town Hall, the location of the box office, the Chinese police guarding the hall entrance, the ticket collectors who also distributed the programme notes, where people should be seated, and when they should keep quiet – all of these were unknown to the Chinese who had never attended a concert. In fact, the Chinese audience seemed to ignore western concert etiquette, which made them looked silly in front of the westerners. In 1926, Zhang wrote an article to remind people about proper behaviour in concert hall:

I am worried. There are many Chinese who failed to observe the etiquette that they have to follow in public venues. A few rules are especially listed in the following. Attendants of Western concerts must pay attention at all times.

(i) Before entering [the concert venue], if one wears a hat in Western-style, s/he can leave it to the attendants at the entrance and obtain a numbered ticket for claiming back the hat, or s/he can put it next to his/her seat. (ii) Do not speak loudly and gesticulate in the venue. (iii) Do not spit, or throw scraps of paper or skins of food on the floor. (iv) If the performance has already begun, one can wait outside the door for a moment. Do not knock the door and shout. (v) When seated, do not leave the seat arbitrarily and walk outside if the performance on the stage has not yet finished. (vi) If the performance on the stage is excellent, one must wait till the end of the music to applaud. Do not shout in a strange voice. (vii) During the performance, one must keep quiet, do not speak to the neighbouring people. (viii) At the end of the concert, leave the hall in an orderly fashion. Do not run and push, or socialize with friends in the crowd. To conclude, these are common social manners that citizens of a civilized country should have. I very much hope that readers no matter where they are in the public venues, should always follow the above eight rules on concert attendance as a minimum requirement.



If, as Zhang felt, the Chinese could not behave themselves, this would mean that they were less cultivated than, and thus appeared inferior to, westerners. This idea was echoed by Eileen Chang (1920–95) when she wrote about her musical experience in her book Liuyan (Written on Water):

When my mother first took me to a concert, she warned me over and over before we even arrived, ‘Whatever happens, don’t make a sound, and don’t say a thing. Don’t let them say Chinese people don’t know how to behave properly.’ And indeed I sat silently, without so much as moving a muscle, and did not fall asleep.


Here, Chang’s writing suggests that the increasing contact of the Chinese with western culture in effect made them believe in their ignorance and their marginality in the settlement’s social hierarchy, as well as the backwardness of their artistic development and the less civilised quality of their people.

The sense of shame that Zhang refers to also relates to the view that Chinese music sounds primitive when compared with the complexity of western orchestral music. For the Chinese, western music is more advanced in terms of harmony, instruments, texture, form and design. This point was elaborated in an article printed in Yinyue jie, in which the writer expressed his thoughts after attending a concert of the Municipal Orchestra in 1923. He rejected the thought that blindly valued ancient Chinese music and disdained western music, suggesting that most Chinese should be ashamed of their own music:

A few stubborn audience members, however, shamelessly said, ‘Our music in Tang and Sui dynasties [AD 618–907 and AD 518–618 respectively] is no worse than modern Western music. We also invented theory in music harmony before they did. It is a pity that those studies have been lost.’ They were only overstating. They were only sighing. They were only worshipping the past. They have never thought of how to revitalize ancient music, however. If they failed to search diligently for the lost treasure, what’s the use of sighing?

To criticize fairly, the pentatonic instruments inherited from our ancient past, how would they be comparable to the elegance of the Western instruments? The aforesaid [Chinese] theory, how would it be as accurate as the Western harmony? These hypocritical overstatements do not mean to respect our own country, but are evil fallacies that hinder the study of Western music.




The writings above illustrate two poles of discourse on the cultural encounter among the Chinese – one admiring and the other rejecting western musical culture. The varied responses of the Chinese as the colonised towards the colonial culture are characteristics of semi-colonialism, as I suggested in my study of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra.585

Ju Qihong categorises thought in early twentieth-century China about western music into three different camps, namely revitalisation, abandonment or impoverishment, and syncretism.586 While the first two factions represent two poles of the dispute as seen from the article above, the last proposes an eclectic approach to the question. Revitalisation was a repercussion against the influence of western music. It loathed school songs, the adoption of the western music education system and other western influences on the development of Chinese music; and supporters asserted the revitalisation of ancient court music and traditional music. Abandonment or impoverishment, on the other hand, proposed an almost wholesale adoption of western music in place of Chinese traditional music. Proponents of this camp urged the learning of western music for the purpose of improving traditional Chinese music or creating new Chinese musical style. Syncretism, as suggested by Nettl, is a ‘fusion of elements from diverse cultural sources’ and the resulting ‘hybrid styles seem to have developed most readily when musical similarities between non-western and western cultures can be identified, when the musics are compatible and most important, when they share central traits.’587 The thought of Liang Qichao, an important figure in the New Culture Movement,588 is representative of this attitude. He pointed out that:

…reformation of [Chinese] music should rely on the import of Western music … with a strategic and selective adoption of foreign compositions. As to the foundation [of the reformation], we should rely on our musical tradition, and abandon the biased view to expel other traditions.


Here, the diverse views of the Chinese reveal the tensions in the cultural encounter. As noted by Shi Shumei, this is also a feature of semi-colonialism, where ‘the Chinese intellectuals [possess] more varied ideological, political, and cultural positions than in formal colonies.’590

From the various writings above, we can understand the reasons behind the absence of a Chinese audience in the early years of the orchestra, as well as the effort of the critics to promote western music in the Chinese community. These writers not only shared their concert-attending experience, they also expressed their own views and reported other Chinese people’s views on western music. The polarised opinions on colonial culture demonstrate one characteristic of semi-colonialism in Shanghai as suggested by Shi Shumei. These views were also translated into the varied responses of the Chinese musicians when they collaborated with the Municipal Orchestra in the next decade, and to a greater extent led to the multi-directional development of Chinese music in the next century.

Selected bibliography

Bickers, Robert. Britain in China: Community, Culture and Colonialism, 1900–49. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000.

Bickers, Robert. ‘The greatest cultural asset East of Suez: the history and politics of the Shanghai Municipal Orchestra and Public Band, 1881–1946’ in Qixiong Zhang (ed.) Ershi shiji de Zhongguo yu shijie lunwen xuanji (China and the World in the Twentieth Century). Taipei: Institute of History, Academia Sinica, 2001, vol. 2, pp. 835–875.

Enomoto, Yasuko. Xifang yinyuejia de Shanghai mong: gongbuju yuedui chuanqi. (Western Musicians’ Dream of Shanghai: Story of the Municipal Orchestra), transl. Yi Zhao. Shanghai: Shanghai cishu chubanshe, 2009.

Lee, Leo Ou-fan. Shanghai Modern: The Flowering of a New Urban Culture in China, 1930–1945. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1999.

Osterhammel, Jürgen. Colonialism: A Theoretical Overview. Princeton: M. Wiener, 1997.

Shen bao (Shanghai News), 1925–27.

Shi, Shumei. The Lure of the Modern: Writing Modernism in Semicolonial China, 1917–1937. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2001.

Xiao, Youmei. ‘Tingguo Shanghai shizhengting da yinyuehui hou de ganxiang’ (‘Feelings after listening to the symphony concert in Shanghai Town Hall’) in Yinyue zazhi (Music Magazine) 1/1, 10 January 1928, pp. 1–6.

Listening in non-western contexts

Still, silent listening in India: the meanings of embodied listening practices

Chloë Alaghband-Zadeh

Chloë Alaghband-Zadeh is a Research Fellow at Emmanuel College, University of Cambridge. Her research is on North Indian classical music, which she studies through a combination of ethnography and music analysis. She received her PhD from the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London (2013), for a dissertation on the semi-classical genre ṭhumrī. She is currently working on a project on expert listening and connoisseurship in North Indian classical music.


With this chapter, I explore the social meanings of embodied ways of listening to North Indian classical music. I focus especially on still, silent listening, a mode of listening that has been neglected in scholarship in this context. This scholarly neglect reflects the fact that most North Indian classical musicians and listeners tend either not to discuss this form of listening or else to cast it in a negative light, preferring instead to celebrate more active, noisy ways of listening to music. However, by not considering the full range of listening practices at North Indian classical performances, scholars have not theorised how competing value systems shape different ways of listening within a single performance environment. Here, I consider how certain North Indian classical musicians and listeners invest still, silent listening with positive significance. I argue that embodied modes of attending to music are implicated in social negotiations over prestige and status. Moreover, embodied listening demeanours have the power to reproduce musical ideologies.


What shapes the embodied ways listeners engage with music? What are the social meanings of embodied listening practices? And what can scholars learn by asking listeners about their listening behaviours and experiences?

A diverse field of embodied listening behaviours can be observed at live performances of North Indian classical music. At a typical performance, some listeners sit still, perhaps with their eyes closed, silently attending to the music. Others are more conspicuous. They interact with the musicians and with each other throughout the performance and frequently comment out loud or gesture in response to the music.

I am interested in the sociality of these embodied listening practices. With this chapter, I explore the significance listeners attach to embodied ways of engaging with music. I focus on still, silent listening, an area neglected in scholarship on North Indian classical music; I consider what this particular listening practice means in the context of contemporary performances of North Indian classical music. This research is based on ethnography and interviews with musicians and listeners. By asking listeners about their listening experiences, I highlight powerful intersections between embodied listening practices and (verbal) discourse on music. I show how individual listeners each mobilise the discursive resources available to them in order to make sense of their listening behaviours, preferences and experiences. Moreover, I argue that embodied ways of listening to North Indian classical music sustain particular musical ideologies.

This work builds on diverse existing scholarship on the embodiment of ways of listening to music.591 This has included work on still, silent listening in various global contexts. In Listening in Paris, a study of the ‘historical construction of listening’ in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paris, James Johnson links the emergence of still, silent listening practices with broad shifts in musical ideology (towards romanticism).592 The ethnomusicologist Lorraine Plourde, meanwhile, has discussed the still, silent practices of listeners to the Japanese new music genre onkyo. She links their particular ways of listening to the aesthetic of the music and shows how listeners’ experiences and behaviour were shaped by pamphlets and other written materials, as part of a niche culture of musical connoisseurship.593

This chapter is especially inspired by the work of Jonathan Gross. He has conducted a rich ethnographic study of audiences for the BBC Proms (a concert series of mainly western classical music held in the prestigious Albert Hall every summer in London).594 He uses interviews with individual listeners in order to examine the social norm of still and silent listening, exploring ‘the ends to which diverse audiences put this very particular way of using music’.595 He argues that listeners practise this behaviour in part ‘in order to cultivate versions of themselves (that is, as ‘technologies of the self)’.596

Like Johnson and Plourde, my aim here is to highlight relationships between conventional (embodied) listening behaviours and ways of thinking about music. Like Gross, I am interested in the individual ways in which listeners make sense of their own embodied listening practices; I will show how shared discourses and ideologies intersect with the personal ways listeners engage with North Indian classical music. In doing so, I draw on Gross’ idea that listening can function as a ‘mode of using music’, a way for individuals to fulfil social and emotional needs.597

This chapter also contributes to a growing body of research on the embodied listening practices of North Indian classical music. So far, however, this work has focused on the behaviour of the most active, noisy listeners at North Indian classical concerts.598 Often great musical experts, these listeners demonstrate their musical engagement with their bodies and voices: they gesture or comment out loud during performances, as a way of signalling their appreciation for what the performers are doing. Through their embodied and audible reactions to music, they show what they make of what they are hearing, both to the performers on stage and also to each other.

It is not surprising that these extrovert listeners have been the focus of most scholarship on North Indian classical listening so far: they are conspicuous at concerts and their ways of listening are valued by musicians and listeners alike. However, not all listeners engage with North Indian classical music in this way. Some audience members move and talk more than others. Many do not move or talk at all. Despite this, scholars have largely ignored the still, silent mode of listening in this tradition. I will suggest, however, that there is much to gain by examining this way of listening to North Indian classical music: as I will demonstrate, this can shed light on powerful intersections between embodied ways of listening, on the one hand, and ideologies of music, on the other.

With this chapter, I consider how listeners make sense of (and, following Gross, make use of) still, silent listening practices at performances of North Indian classical music.599 This work is based on ethnography and interviews with musicians and music-lovers in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, conducted during research trips in 2014 and in 2015. As part of this fieldwork, I conducted formal interviews with 20 music-lovers. I also arranged a series of listening and discussion sessions, attended concerts and other musical events, and had many informal conversations with musicians and listeners. During my interviews, I asked listeners about their listening experiences at live performances. This is the main source of data I employ here: in what follows, I quote from a number of these interviews, in all cases anonymising the names of my participants.

Based on this research, I highlight the social meanings of embodied ways of listening to North Indian classical music. I discuss some of the individual and highly personal ways listeners make use of the listening behaviours available to them. In doing so, I consider the implications of the fact that there are social boundaries around the most valued and high-status ways of listening: these listening practices are more accessible to some listeners than others. By focusing on still, silent listening in this context, I show how some individuals rationalise and legitimise a typically devalued mode of listening to North Indian classical music. Finally, I explore ways in which discourses on embodied ways of listening intersect with other discourses and musical ideologies. In particular, I draw attention to powerful meeting points between ideas about still, silent listening and a discourse of spirituality in North Indian classical music. I argue that the coexistence of different modes of listening to North Indian classical music is a result of (and reproduces) a complex discursive field, shaped by competing musical ideologies, themselves the traces of particular, intertwined histories in the tradition. Thus I suggest that musical ideologies in this context are performed and sustained, in part, through listeners’ embodied engagement with North Indian classical music.

Noisy, active listening versus still, silent listening in India

At the performances of North Indian classical music I attended in Delhi, Mumbai and Pune, audience members displayed a range of embodied listening practices, including noisy, active listening and still, silent listening. These different practices, however, do not have equal value.

Noisy, active listening has a privileged position at performances of North Indian classical music. It is valued by musicians and listeners alike. As Martin Clayton and Laura Leante have shown, listeners’ gestural and audible contributions are integral to North Indian classical performances. For example, Clayton writes that:

it appears to be more productive to see the performance as an event constituted by all its participants, rather than to see the audience as the ‘context’ for the musicians’ performance.600

This co-production is a source of value for performers and listeners. Musicians value the instant feedback they get from the most active listeners, which allows them to gauge how their performances are going, helping them to decide what and for how long to perform. Some musicians also told me that a responsive audience can help them to perform at their best. Expert music-lovers expressed great pride in the fact that their contributions are crucial to a successful performance.

Conspicuous, noisy listening also serves important social functions. Responding to music with gestures and comments can be a way for listeners to perform the high-status, prestigious, classed identity of the rasika, or music connoisseur, as I discuss elsewhere.601 Being a rasika is often associated with having musical expertise; and so many musicians and listeners take an active audience as a sign that that audience is knowledgeable. For example, the music organiser Raj told me that a knowledgeable audience would usually be ‘a little more responsive than the non-knowing audience’. He said that when there is ‘an audience which knows what is happening’ and ‘approves of what is happening’, that that ‘[generates] a little more positivity into it’. And, as well as implying musical expertise, responding audibly and visibly to music also has positive ethical connotations, evoking generosity, sincerity and patience. Many associate this behaviour with a past Golden Age of North Indian classical music.602

On the other hand, many listeners see still, silent listening as a problem: they interpret it as a sign that listeners are not engaged in the performance, as evidence of an undiscerning, ignorant audience, or as a symptom of North Indian classical music’s much lamented move from small, intimate performance environments, to large, impersonal concert halls.

For example, Radha, a lifelong music-lover, told me that the best kind of audience is an ‘appreciative audience’. She compared this with audiences who do not appear to be listening to the performance, who, she said, made her feel ‘sad’. Likewise, Sunny, another very keen music-lover, compared the ‘very good’ audiences he remembered in Calcutta in the 1970s, who were very active, with an audience he had recently seen on the television:

I remember this guy, this nice guy […] – in Calcutta I used to go to these concerts – it was a guy sitting and he would just go absolutely like he was having an epileptic fit almost: his reaction to the music [was] like that. And talking about listening like that, it’s really funny: I was watching some classical music concert on TV the other day, recently, and when they’re panning the audience, […] the singer is doing his best, he is singing, it wasn’t bad, but the audience, my goodness! People looked like, Jesus, is this a depression? Everybody looked like the last thing they enjoyed was music.

For Sunny, then, not responding to music is a sign of a lack of enjoyment. He makes clear that the music here was good and that the singer was not at fault. Rather, these immobile listeners themselves must be to blame. The implication is that they are deficient as listeners, unable to discern good music from bad.

There are various practical reasons why listeners might not participate in active, noisy listening. Newcomers and audiences outside India may simply not be familiar with these conventional ways of responding to music. Audience members may feel uninspired, or not in the mood to respond conspicuously during a performance; or they might find it difficult to engage with an uncommunicative musician. Many listeners believe that it is more difficult to interact with musicians in a large concert hall than in a small, intimate environment. And certain parts of the music seem to invite responses more than others. (As John Napier, Martin Clayton and Laura Leante have documented, interaction between performers and audiences is often fairly limited at the start of a performance, but intensifies as the performance continues.)603

Active, audible listening practices are also distributed (unevenly) according to social hierarchies. Brian Silver, for example, has considered how the different social status of audience members in influences their behaviour at performances. Social status, in this context, is determined by a variety of factors, including age, gender, whether one is a patron or ‘honored guest’ and, importantly, musical expertise. Silver notes that it is the audience members with the highest social status who tend to sit closest to the musician during the performance and it is with them that musicians interact the most.604 Similarly, Leante has described how both status and the ‘expected degree of freedom of interaction with the performers’ are ‘directly proportional to the proximity to the stage’.605 As Clayton and Leante have shown, social hierarchies at performances of North Indian classical music are both spatialised (that is, distributed unevenly in the performance space) and also embodied (made manifest in the different embodied demeanours of that individuals present).606

This spatialised, embodied social hierarchy is sustained in part through social policing. For example, Brian Silver describes how soloists might ‘deliver a lecture’ during a performance to ‘presumptuous’ junior musicians who are ‘too vocal in their praise’ of a performance ‘in an attempt to attraction’.607 Similarly, the music-lover and amateur performer Ravi told me that, although he would not generally ‘be bothered about judging other listeners’, he does disapprove of those who ‘[make] a nuisance of themselves’ by being ‘too loud’. Daniel Neuman has also discussed the risks for non-experts of participating in noisy, active listening in this context: ‘inappropriately timed responses’ can reveal a person’s musical ‘naivete’.608 In each of these cases, an individual’s audible responses to music expose them to criticism (and moral judgement) from musicians or other listeners. Elsewhere, I have discussed other examples of the ways extrovert listening behaviours are policed at performances of North Indian classical music: I show how the social boundaries around these listening practices reproduce social hierarchies within the music world (especially around levels of expertise) and also broader class distinctions.609 Although participating in noisy, active listening affords unique pleasures and offers the promise of social rewards (especially for the most high-status listeners), it also carries risks.

The different kinds of listening behaviours evident at performances of North Indian classical music are thoroughly implicated in social hierarchies and questions of value. In this context, musicians and music-lovers typically view still, silent listening in a negative light, often interpreting it as a sign of ignorant or unengaged listeners. However, there are various reasons (including social policing) why some listeners might nevertheless adopt still, silent listening practices at performances of North Indian classical music. In the next section, I will consider how individual listeners inhabit this generally devalued mode of embodied listening.

How listeners make sense of still, silent listening

How do still, silent listeners make sense of their listening experiences? In contrast with most music-lovers’ frequent celebrations of extrovert listening practices, a minority of the music-lovers I interviewed invested still, silent listening with positive significance. They included some very expert listeners and patrons, with a high status in the music world. These listeners understood still, silent listening not as inexpert or inattentive, but rather as a legitimate and valuable way of engaging with music. In this section, I shall explore how these listeners craft this minority position, drawing on the discursive resources available to them in order to negotiate with the dominant position on listening still and silently to North Indian classical music. I shall show how, for certain listeners, listening in this way is what Gross calls a ‘mode of using music’: a pattern of behaviour which people can take up and employ, according to their own individual needs.

Shivika, a prominent music organiser, made the case for still, silent listening by drawing attention to the negative side of noisy, active listening. She said:

A person like me, I will not say ‘Ah, ah, ah, ah!’ I don’t want to attract attention to myself. I may say a subtle ‘Vāh!’ [Wow!] or ‘Ah!’ […] But there are some people: ‘Are vāh! Are kyā!’ You have seen [it]. So sometimes people also do a lot of theatrics.

She interpreted these ‘theatrics’ as a sign that audience members want to show off, asserting their superiority over others. As she put it:

Some people, meaning connoisseurs, they want to let other people know, ‘Here is what I understand.’ You know that person has come on the sam [the first beat of the metrical cycle] and I understood. And if you have not understood … It is not only very innocent appreciation, genuine appreciation of good but is also, ‘Oh, that happened and I knew it; I understood it; I understand it.’

Here, Shivika highlights a negative aspect of the fact that noisy, active listening can be a performance of expertise: this exposes the more extrovert listeners to the accusation that they are not being ‘genuine’. For Shivika, listening quietly is not a sign of ignorance or inattentiveness, but part of how she is able to take a principled stance about enjoying music in a genuine way and not showing off. In Gross’ terms, listening in a restrained way is a means by which Shivika cultivates a version of herself that is ‘genuine’ or authentic.

Similarly, the music patron and connoisseur Arun told me that in the ideal kinds of performances, with a small number of expert listeners, noisy, active listening can be unnecessary:

So, within a […] space of ten or fifteen listeners, and the artist who is really doing a magnificent job, something great is happening. And you know something great is happening because you have had a history with the same artist and you have had a history with the same music, a history with the same rag, even a history with most fabulous accompaniment coming together, you know, collaboratively. [It’s] an ambiance. You have friends, an artist is coming: it takes a lot of things for something really, really great to happen. When it’s happening, you’re part of it. You’re happy to be part of it and you are silent, my dear.

He described his experience of listening silently at a small house concert as a ‘reverie’ and an ‘inner purge’, and said, ‘If something magnificent is going on, […] it transcends vāh vāhs and all that.’ Here, Arun reverses the usual formulation, in which interaction between musician and audience is associated primarily with intimate performance environments; for him, silence is the ultimate sign of musical enjoyment in such contexts.

At another point in our conversation, he compared this with his experiences of western classical music:

Sometimes when the going is good, […] you’re just caught up in the sheer magic of the music and you’d rather keep [your eyes] closed, like sometimes when you’re listening to great Bach, even on headphones, you keep your eyes closed. Or Chopin.

One might speculate that it is in part his engagement with western classical music which caused him to adopt this embodied demeanour (which is normative in the context of western classical listening) in relation to Indian classical music.

Meanwhile, where he did discuss the advantages of noisy, active listening, he framed this in pragmatic terms, telling me that he might praise a tabla player out loud if they appear to be taking over the performance with too much virtuosity, to ‘cajole’ them into being more ‘sedate’. Like Shivika, Arun too understands still, silent listening as a more genuine engagement with music than the more conspicuous, extrovert embodied mode. For him, listening silently is what happens when one is ‘caught up in the sheer magic of music’; responding audibly to music, on the other hand, is only necessary as a way of manipulating certain musicians into holding back, lest they mar the performance.

Another theme that came up in a number of my interviews was the idea that getting people to close their eyes could be a good way of enticing newcomers to North Indian classical music. As well as the fact that non-experts are subject to social policing when they engage in extrovert listening, getting people to close their eyes is often used as a strategy to encourage beginners to engage with the music.

Chirag, a prominent listener and music organiser, described a listening session he had organised, featuring the renowned santur player Shivkumar Sharma:

See I give an example of Pandit Shivkumar Sharma. He had come for a lecture demonstration in the afternoon. We used to have this thing on Saturday afternoon, soon after college, so that students, before they go home, they could get a taste of this music. […] And he said, ‘Now I am going to play an ālāp. And an ālāp, it’s a gradual development of the ālāp, without any percussion instrument. But I will request the whole audience to close your eyes and listen.’ After those ten or twenty minutes, the ālāp, then he would say, pick up someone, a young lady, ‘What did you feel while listening?’ Somebody would say, ‘I could hear waters gushing from a river, or from the mountains.’ Somebody would say, ‘I am seeing the image of some god.’ Somebody would say, ‘I feel saddened.’ The effect of music on different people at the same time! […] And [this was] how he created an audience.

According to this anecdote, an extremely famous North Indian classical musician asks an audience of non-experts to close their eyes as a way of fostering engagement with the music. Since non-experts are liable to face social policing for engaging in noisy, active listening, this makes sense; but by telling this story, Chirag also invested this mode of listening with positive significance, as something which can improve listeners’ engagement with music. This anecdote served to validate this as a legitimate mode of listening.

Note here also how the mechanism of closing one’s eyes produced various statements that sit within a broader discourse of spirituality in North Indian classical music, such as the listener who is reported to have said that they saw ‘the image of some god’ on hearing this music. This was typical of a broader trend. Ideas about spirituality or meditation came up frequently when listeners made the case for still, silent listening. A discourse of spirituality informed Arun’s description of listening to music (above), in which he described it as an ‘inner purge’. Similarly, it also coloured this description of still and silent listening by Shekhar, a record collector. He told me:

Well when I am listening in a concert, by default I am not allowed to even look at the other person nor speak. So usually I will sit in yogic posture, eyes closed. Because I will enjoy myself. And even if somebody is making a comment, I will feel offended.

Another prominent organiser, Neeraj, also used the language of spirituality when he described his embodied engagement with a particular instrument:

If I listen to a flute, of a certain particular person, I go into a trance. But the same raga if it is played on sitar, my responses are totally different. […] Vocal music, my responses are totally different. I’d hardly do any vāh vāh and ah ah for the flute. […] After time, people think that I am asleep, but I am not. I go into a trance. I enjoy each and every note. […] I may just nod, ‘Aha!’ like this, to myself, because my eyes are closed.

In each of these cases, listeners drew on a shared set of ideas about music as an inner, spiritual experience in order to craft their own discursive stances on still, silent listening practices.

Thus for certain listeners, listening still and silently goes beyond simply not participating in the noisy, active listening that characterises the tradition. Rather, they find their own ways of understanding and representing their listening in a positive light. For some, listening in this way is tied to ideas about being genuine or authentic, while for others it signifies spirituality or a way for newcomers to engage with North Indian classical music. In the next section, I will consider what broader ideological work is being done through these individual discursive negotiations on ways of listening.

Embodying discourse and ideology

What is the relationship between embodied ways of listening to North Indian classical music, the individual ways in which listeners make sense of their listening experiences, and the broader discursive landscape of the tradition? My discussions with listeners about still, silent listening revealed how shared sets of ideas have emerged around a generally devalued mode of listening to North Indian classical music. Listeners individually mobilise the discursive resources available to them in order to invest their embodied ways of listening with positive significance; however, although each listener I spoke with crafted their own, unique position, certain themes came up repeatedly.

Most often, still, silent listeners understood their own listening in terms of spirituality and meditation. Such ideas are an important part of the discursive landscape of North Indian classical music.610 (They have also been central to western appropriations of North Indian classical music.)611

A similar discourse on spirituality is a common lens through which North Indian classical musicians and listeners understand musicians’ embodied demeanour in performance. John Napier has described how performers commonly start their performances with a ‘closed-eyed, self-contained demeanour’, before gradually becoming more animated and interacting more with their audiences. He writes that this ‘self-contained’ embodied stance gives the impression of ‘drawing on the subconscious’, linking this with ‘the long-standing association of Indian performance with an almost meditative act’.612

As Napier observed, some musicians I interviewed also drew a link between closing one’s eyes and meditation. For example, the singer Urvashi described how ‘when I reach that state of meditative level of consciousness in my music, then once in a while I might just shut my eyes and go in deep within’.

Meghna, an amateur singer, too, told me that:

You get into a different zone, so even when you are performing you really don’t pay attention to the audience beyond a point, or at least I don’t. You get into a zone which is much more about you, the music and the higher self. It’s like a very, a very sort of self-contained space. […] When you are listening as well you enter that level of space. It’s very similar in a way. It’s not a self-conscious space at all. […] It’s very meditative and it’s very – it really takes you into a different realm.

This was in tune with her other comments about North Indian classical music. Throughout our discussion, she emphasised the spiritual dimensions of North Indian classical music, saying that for her music is a source ‘of beauty, of something that comes closest to a spiritual experience’. Thus there are parallels between the ways certain listeners understand still, silent listening as a spiritual or meditative act and a wider discourse on embodied spirituality, typically applied to musicians.

Moreover, this discourse on the embodied spirituality of musicians is itself one side of a discursive binary surrounding North Indian classical music, in which ways of understanding of music as spiritual compete with courtly associations. Daniel Neuman has discussed the semiotics of different performance styles adopted by musicians. He compares what he calls a courtly (or darbār) model of performance with a devotional (or bhakti) model, and notes some of the implications this has in terms of performers’ stage behaviour and dress. He further suggests that these ‘represent the bipolar traditions of music as a way for and a way of life’ and ‘continue a fundamental ambivalence in the meaning of musicianship’ in North Indian classical music.613 Likewise, in Brian Silver’s book chapter ‘The Adab of musicians’, he describes what he calls two ‘behavioural models’ available to musicians: the ‘simple man’ and the ‘courtly man’. In his description, while the ‘simple man’ pursues music as an expression of spirituality, the ‘courtly man’ cultivates an aristocratic musical demeanour.614 These different embodied demeanours are the traces of different (but frequently overlapping) imagined histories for North Indian classical music: while some musicians and listeners link contemporary North Indian classical music primarily to its Mughal, courtly past, others prefer to emphasise pre-Mughal musical practice, hearing music primarily in terms of Hindu spirituality.615

I would suggest that the models of listening behaviour I have discussed here are indicative of that same discursive binary, between courtly and spiritual understandings of music. While extrovert listening practices tend to be associated with past courtly patronage, courtly etiquette and elite, expert connoisseurship, still, silent listening is more often aligned with ideas about spirituality and the universality of musical expression. Ways of listening are thus implicated in wider conceptual frameworks for understanding music. They are shaped by competing ways of understanding music. Moreover, these two kinds of embodied listening are an important way in which these discourses are internalised, performed and reproduced.

As well as a discourse of spirituality, attitudes to the embodied aspects of listening also intersect with other discourses, too. Recall how, in Chirag’s anecdote (above), a spiritual interpretation of music was aligned with ideas about making the tradition accessible to newcomers. This in turn resonates with a broader ideology of the universalism of North Indian classical music. This ideology circulates through discussions about the extent to which expertise and musical knowledge are necessary for someone to be a ‘good’ listener of North Indian classical music. While some musicians and listeners believe that experts make the best audiences for North Indian classical music, others think that the tradition is, and ought to be, accessible to everyone. Thus celebrating still, silent listening can support a particular ideological position on musical universality.

In linking ideas about spirituality with ideas about musical universality, Chirag makes a common discursive move. Note how Urvashi also uses the idea of spirituality in order to support her view that musical knowledge is not necessary for someone to have a legitimate musical experience. She described a concert she had given at which:

Everybody in the audience had tears in their eyes. […] I sang […] a beautiful composition on Shiva [a Hindu deity]. And it was Shivaratri [a Hindu festival associated with Shiva]. So it’s like everybody said, ‘We literally felt we could see Shiva sitting there in meditation.’ They all had that kind of spiritual experience – for a spiritual experience, you don’t need to know which is which svar [note].

This stance is in line with Urvashi’s personal career trajectory. She is a performer who has had a successful international career, performing frequently outside of India. For Urvashi, highlighting the spirituality of still, silent listening is a means of legitimising the way in which many of her audiences engage with North Indian classical music. She also, by extension, validates her own position as someone who performs to such audiences and the broader idea that North Indian classical music should be for everybody, not just the experts.

Thus, in each of the cases I have discussed in this chapter, listeners form their positions on listening by drawing in their own way on the shared discursive resources available to them. These, in turn, intersect with and reproduce broader musical ideologies. In this context, embodiment, discourse and musical experience are thoroughly interrelated.


With this chapter, I have discussed some of the social meanings of embodied ways of listening to music. I identified two contrasting modes of listening to North Indian classical music and explored some of the ways contemporary listeners make sense of their own embodied listening behaviours. I showed how certain listeners have negotiated with the normative model of listening in this tradition, imbuing still, silent listening with positive significance. And I considered ways in which attitudes to listening intersect with and reproduce broader discourses and musical ideologies.

This work highlights how discourse and musical ideologies can be variously embodied in, and reproduced through, listeners’ ways of attending to music in performance. Ways of listening to live performances are shaped by broader sets of ideas about music and musicians. As a result, the choices individuals make about how to attend to music are deeply meaningful. By listening to music in particular ways, listeners take a position within competing discourses on music, with implications in terms of prestige and social status.

Ways of listening are not ideologically neutral. Individuals understand and employ listening practices in highly personal ways, specific to their own unique circumstances and agendas; but embodied listening practices are also implicated in broader discursive negotiations. Embodied ways of listening are thus deeply personal, while they also have the power to sustain collective musical ideologies.

Select bibliography

Alaghband-Zadeh, Chloe. ‘Listening to North Indian classical music: how embodied ways of listening perform imagined histories and social class’, Ethnomusicology 61, no. 2, 2017 (forthcoming).

Clayton, Martin. ‘Time, gesture and attention in a Khyāl performance’, Asian Music 38, no. 2, 2007, pp. 71–96, doi:10.1353/amu.2007.0032, accessed 10 March 2017.

Clayton, Martin and Leante, Laura. ‘Role, status and hierarchy in the performance of North Indian classical music’, Ethnomusicology Forum 24, no. 3, 2015, pp. 414–442, doi:10.1080/17411912.2015.1091272, accessed 10 March 2017.

Gross, Jonathan. ‘Concert going in everyday life: an ethnography of still and silent listening at the BBC Proms’, PhD dissertation. Birkbeck College, University of London, 2012.

Johnson, James H. Listening in Paris: A Cultural History. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994.

Neuman, Daniel Moses. The Life of Music in North India: The Organization of an Artistic Tradition. New Delhi: Manohar, 1990.

Plourde, Lorraine. ‘Disciplined listening in Tokyo: Onkyō and non-intentional sounds’, Ethnomusicology 52, no. 2, 2008, pp. 270–295.

Silver, Brian. ‘On the Adab of musicians’ in Moral Conduct and Authority: The Place of Adab in South Asian Islam, ed. Barbara Daly Metcalf, pp. 315–329. Berkeley; London: University of California Press, 1984.

Listening in contemporary British social contexts

Atmosphere Creator: the sounds of the fairground

Ian Trowell

Ian Trowell is a PhD candidate in the School of Architecture in the University of Sheffield, working as part of a wider project within the White Rose College of Arts and Humanities. His recent publications include research on Northern post-punk identities in the journal Popular Music History and a critical analysis of photography in the early punk scenes in the journal Punk & Post-Punk.


The fairground offers a complex soundscape that incorporates both music and non-music in a variety of patterns, frequently pushing towards multiple manifestations of noise through modes of distortion, cacophonous overlay and sheer excess. After proposing a reading of the totality of the soundscape of the fairground, this chapter argues that music is an integral part of the fair, and is listened to in a variety of collective rituals in a heightened state of anticipation. The chapter focuses on the Waltzer ride, and follows the work of a particular ride called Atmosphere Creator, which prioritises modern dance music within its armoury of attractions and effects. An extended film clip of the ride in action is included in the chapter, and a key part of my analysis involves a detailed study of this clip, identifying various actors and their relationships, choreographed through the diegetic soundtrack. I then take the music of the fairground and the Atmosphere Creator as a specific genre and look at its social uses outside of the fairground. The sound of the fairground and the crossover between music types and subcultures is a subject that has avoided academic research or serious documentation, and this chapter is a start to redress that absence.


King’s Lynn Mart Fair traditionally marked the start of the season for travelling fairs in the UK,616 setting out amusements on the Tuesday Market Place from 14 February for a period of two weekends. In recent years, the notion of an end and start to the season has been somewhat eradicated with the preponderance of Christmas and New Year fairs, while the claims of King’s Lynn to be the season opener have diminished under the onslaught of newly implemented Valentines fairs up and down the UK. However, the Mart Fair maintains a sense of importance, including an official opening ceremony and a thickened sense of belonging and history in this economically struggling and isolated market town and seaport.617 In the run up to the fair, talk around the town in the coffee shops and meeting places becomes predicated on the encroaching event. On numerous occasions I have heard reference to the prevailing climatic conditions being ‘fair weather’, such that the vicissitudes and disobedience of the British weather temporarily bend to the will of the Mart Fair. Part of the tradition of this fair is ‘half-price Monday’, or ‘children’s day’, when all attractions run for the day at a heavily discounted price. While this is emblazoned on the posters around the town, it is also engrained into the memories and habits of the populace; the Monday is a busy day, insanely busy.

The content and organisation of the Mart is typical for a twenty-first century UK fair. The rides and stalls are enclosed in the bounded square, overlooked by historical Georgian buildings, encompassing hotels, businesses and the Victorian Corn Exchange Theatre (see Figure 1). The principal element of the fair is the large ride, split roughly between white-knuckle thrill rides and family rides, while a number of smaller children’s rides, round stalls, side stalls and food joints complete the topography. The days of the fair being tightly bounded by an assortment of bawdy and eye-catching shows slowly fizzled out during the latter half of the last century. The magical nature of the fair does, however, remain. The attractions arrive (and depart) under the cloak of darkness and fit together ‘just-so’. Mechanical arms studded with lights extend out and rotate in all directions, creating what appears to be a functional whole. As the fairground rides begin to resemble complex machines-in-themselves, as opposed to simulative devices, the fairground becomes one huge and complex device or contraption.

Figure 1: King’s Lynn Mart Fair 2014 with Albert Evans’ Waltzer, photograph by author
Figure 1: King’s Lynn Mart Fair 2014 with Albert Evans’ Waltzer (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)

At the heart of the fair stands a ride that carries its own tradition within the wider tradition of the Mart. Albert Evans’ Waltzer has been attending this event for decades, and since the 1980s has provided the endearing musical experience for the Mart. February 2016 was typically cold, and the ice wind was whipping in from the Wash and River Great Ouse, finding its way between the sealed buildings around the square and the seemingly sealed fair within the square. Evans’ Waltzer – named ‘Atmosphere Creator’ – was thronged with a crowd of teenagers, working to full sensory effect.

The front canopy is studded with colour-changing LED lights and has the strapline ‘Prepared for Peace Ready for War’ picked out in bright letters.618 Underneath the canopy are fitted a bank of ten DMX sharpy lights, prowling and projecting beams across the square and into the night sky, illuminating the high-tech checker-plate steps (see Figure 2). Inside the ride a further ten beams pick out the chaotic motions of the cars and riders. The interior is finished in matt black, allowing the lights, strobes and smoke machines to have maximum impact. Sound is amplified through Martin Audio speakers mounted on uprights, while bass speakers lie underneath the ride itself, creating an earth-shaking sonic experience. The whole ensemble has been carefully assembled to a high standard over many years, and the operator is always looking for something new, something better, something different from the other Waltzer operators.

Figure 2: Albert Evans’ Waltzer steps and canopy, King’s Lynn Mart 2016, photograph by author
Figure 2: Albert Evans’ Waltzer steps and canopy, King’s Lynn Mart 2016 (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)

The music played is a relentless happy hardcore merged into new styles such as bounce, donk and power-stomp. The operator, Albert John, oversees proceedings from the centre paybox, interjecting on the microphone to direct customers to empty cars in the brief moments when the ride is stationary, or spieling the patter of the Waltzer operator with demands of ‘I want to hear you scream’ or ‘D’ya wanna go faster?’ Using the modern method of digitally sourced and delivered music, the mix segues into a frantic track peppered with bass and breakbeats around the clearly enunciated sample ‘Who is Elvis?’ For a brief moment over 50 years of pop culture has progressed to eat its own tail, and it is clearly loving every minute of it.

Fairs and their soundscape

In any week there are up to 150 travelling fairs set up across the UK. Each fair may last anything from a single day to a couple of weeks. The fair may occupy a dedicated grassed site such as a common or park, a discrete plot of concrete within the urban enclave such as a car park, or in the best cases it will stretch out in a rhizomatic fashion within the urban space, refashioning dead zones and interstices of the urban epidermis with a new thrill of lights, sounds, smells and anticipation. The perceivable acoustic environment, or soundscape,619 of the fair is complex and seriously understudied. It carries an understanding across time in a diachronic fashion (the cacophony of the event was equally so when contributed to by steam- powered organs as it is today with amplified pop music),620 while also evolving with regard to aspects and essences in a synchronic fashion.

The soundscape of the fair breaks down into three aspects: a collection of elements (sound sources or essences), a collection of effects and distortions accompanying the elements, and a collection of associated synesthetic measures. The elements of the fair include the music itself played on the major rides,621 the noise of the mechanical operation of the ride itself, the screams and shouts of the riders and onlookers, the voice of the showman, and (in the modern era) a panoply of amplified samples. The effects accompanying the sounds include a competitive layering to create a cacophony, the experience of listening to music while in motion (Doppler Effect) and a frenzied collective listening of music. Synesthetic measures include the artwork associated with a fairground ride through the development of iconographic and figurative designs corresponding with music genres, and also a synchronising of the movement of the fairground ride with the music to stimulate an extreme bodily feeling of music.622

A fairground such as King’s Lynn Mart, set out as an uninterrupted and tightly bounded whole, presents a topological paradox. A ride such as the Waltzer will form its own micro-environment in a monadological fashion, with the space between the fairground whole and the iterative whole of the individual fairground ride navigated by illusionistic patterns of circular structures with repeating motifs and designs. The sound of the fairground is concentrated within the outermost whole (the fairground itself) but escapes its boundaries by sheer volume and cacophony. The fairground can be heard (and seen, and smelt) before you enter into its realm. At the level of individual fairground rides we see a mix of acoustic strategies with speakers from some rides positioned outward facing, such that sound is centrifugally amplified into the general fairground space, and inward facing, such that sound is centripetally amplified into the enclosed space of the specific ride. It is clear that the soundscape of the fair is both complex and heteroclite. However, in turning again to Albert Evans’ Waltzer, I wish to diachronically map out a key sound experience of the fairground using examples of element, effect and synaesthesia.

The Waltzer

The Waltzer emerged on the UK fairground in 1930 as part of a new generation of lighter and faster roundabouts, sharing space with a very similar ride known as the Ark Speedway.623 Both of these rides followed from an architectural design tradition involving a standing, circular structure housing a rotating and undulating set of platforms which, in turn, supported either a set of wooden mounts in the case of the Ark Speedway (initially in the form of caricatured animals and then in the form of motorcycles) or revolving metal tubs seating up to six riders in the case of the Waltzer.624 The desired lightness of these rides, to facilitate quick transportation, build-up and pull-down, meant that decorative aspects shifted from an emphasis on carved ornamentation in excess of the essential structure, to painted flat surfaces inherent to the essential structure.625 As Ian Starsmore explains regarding fairground rides in general: ‘a mechanical ride is something which does not readily fall into any one category: art, construction, transport, all three enter into the equation’.626

Initially, both ride types were part of the simulative tradition, with the Ark Speedway clearly mimicking the thrill of riding a fast motorcycle, while the Waltzer referred to the swirling movements of a dance. The Ark Speedway took DeNora’s idea of entrainment even further with the simulation of motorcyles, finding resonance with Willis’ research into biker culture and the linking between music, rhythm and riding a motorcycle.627 The artwork developed for either ride cleverly reflected these simulative purposes, with speed, thrills and bravery alluded to regarding the decoration of the Ark Speedway, and twisting, interlocking patterns associated with the Waltzer. This artwork served a dual purpose, both enforcing the illusionistic and disorienting whole of the fairground through its familiarity and repetition, and signalling the punter towards an individually marked-out ride through nuanced differences of evolving modernity and novelty. As Stephen Walker shows, this artwork was fast and furious, applied, abused and then recommenced when fashion or fatigue necessitated.628

Both the Ark Speedway and Waltzer were social rides with an enclosed space, and benefited from the post-war boom in teenage subcultures and new music scenes. The Ark Speedway and Waltzer became the space to experience new music in both a defamiliarised space and also without the restrictions placed upon the young (age barriers, money, parental governance). As prominent 1960s artist Dudley Edwards comments: ‘When Rock and Roll first came on the scene in the fifties the ONLY place you could hear Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent and Eddie Cochran at loud decibel levels was at the fairground and we would all dance around the edge of the Waltzers’.629 One sound effect associated with old Ark Speedways and Waltzers would be a slowing down of records by about 6 or 7 rpm when the showmen applied the ‘knife’ to start the motion, the generator effectively being diverted from powering the audio equipment to starting the ride.

The synaesthetic nature of each ride had a strong differential, and this seemed to correlate with the experiencing of the music through the aforementioned mode of entrainment. The Ark Speedway evolved a symbiotic relationship with the music through both its rhythm and strong narrative element, while the Waltzer tended to take second place. Rock and Roll and subsequent genres through to Northern Soul told of the thrills and spills of adventures in teenage love, and of the joys of discovering music and all-night dancing. The musical structure was a steady beat, with eventual crescendos acted out through clapping (or stamping) actions. Showman David Wallis recalls an incident on a fair when the crowds were feverishly and collectively stamping their feet to the 1964 hit record Bits and Pieces by the Dave Clark Five with such a force that the wooden gratings around the ride were broken through.630 The Ark Speedway offered a journey with a beginning and an end, corresponding to the forward narrative of many of the lyrics of the time. Importantly, the Ark Speedway combined the social with the individual. Each rider had to compose themself on the ride and was responsible for maintaining a pose within the strictures of the rotating and undulating forces of the ride. This packaged mode of ‘listening-through-acting-out-through-riding’ continued with classic records such as the Shangri-Las’ Leader of the Pack (charting on release in 1964 but also charting on re-release in 1972 and 1976), which referenced motorbikes, through to funk anthems such as Brass Construction’s Movin’.

1977 proves a key musical year on the fairground, whereby the dominance of the Ark Speedway is toppled by the Waltzer under the regime of the disco genre expanding its limits. It is instructive to take three instrumental disco tracks that were all huge hits on the fairground to highlight the emergence of the ‘Waltzer sound’: the Rah Band’s The Crunch, Space’s Magic Fly and the Donna Summer classic I Feel Love. The first of these tracks conforms to the clear rhythmic structure of preceding musical styles associated with the fairground, The Crunch borrowing heavily from glam and glitter beat. Magic Fly almost achieves something else but seems to rein itself in towards maintaining a regular rhythmic structure – you can still clap your hands and stomp your feet to this record. However, Donna Summer’s I Feel Love – her second hit collaboration with futuristic producer Giorgio Moroder – pushed the envelope towards a breathless and frantic polyrhythmic experience. Chambers describes the polyrhythmic method to ‘bend, tease and subvert the regularity of the beat’ such that ‘attention is directed to the interior of the musical experience … drawn to an insistent now’.631 He later generalises disco to have a musical quality such that each track has ‘no beginning or end, just an ever-present ‘now’’.632 My suggestion here is that it would be Summer’s I Feel Love that introduced a significant polyrhythmic dimension. This would signal and soundtrack a move away from the Ark Speedway to the Waltzer ride, and set the trend for high-energy frenetic electronic music. In addition, while the Ark Speedway demands an individual effort to stay composed, the Waltzer is truly social with microcosmic social scenes within each car and the sociality of the whole ride. The individual here gives themselves over to the ride; you are enclosed within the structure effectively immobilised backwards onto the cushioned curvature of the car (see Figures 3 and 4).

Figure 3: Riding the edges of the Speedway Ark, Knutsford 1984, photograph by author
Figure 3: Riding the edges of the Speedway Ark, Knutsford 1984 (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)
Figure 4: Waltzer riders, 1984, photograph by author
Figure 4: Waltzer riders, 1984 (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)

Fairground music as genre post Second Summer of Love

The Second Summer of Love is usually associated with the year 1988 and the explosion of rave culture as both a genre of music and a new mode of collective engagement with the music. An amalgam of dance music styles from various cities (Chicago, Detroit, New York, London) or scenes of eclectic and experimental partying (the Balearic scene) birthed a full-on new sound that was both distinct and evolving (acid house, breakbeat, techno, and so on). Collective consumption of the music switched to large raves and the resistant free party scene, with subcultural accoutrements including designer drugs, clothing and argot. The fairground embraced this pulsating and energising sound after a decade in the 1980s when music had fractured into various pop scenes. As raves became licensed and larger in scale, fairgrounds began to appear on these sites, augmenting the link between the music and the fairground.

The sub-genres of music that flourished after the initial impetus of rave were swift and complex, reacting against each other as scenes and genres bifurcated in pursuit of either distinction or the continual quest to keep the frantic vibe and energy of the music. The Waltzer sound became predominantly associated with the rave genre, and followed the styles of music that attempted to keep the spirit of rave alive and kicking with genres such as happy hardcore. This music eschewed technical wizardry and atmospheric nuances and structure, instead opting for a fast assault on the ears through intense breakbeats, ‘helium’ vocals pitched high and fast, and anthemic breakdowns and peaks designed to whip listeners in to a frenzy. It was, and remains, a genre that is looked down upon by music aficionados.

The niche genre around hardcore techno, evolving forwards while forever revisiting its own past to create a rhizomatic array of all possible nuances, thrives outside of the mainstream dance music cultures. Small scenes cluster around specific venues in the North of England and Scotland, with specialist genres such as ‘bounce’ and ‘donk’ attaching themselves to dedicated clubs and production crews in cities.633 With an absence of regular club nights, the collective listening to scenes such as donk would be fulfilled through sitting in cars634 or visiting the fairground. In return, the tradition of fairground enthusiasm, which started as a loose network of societies to discuss and share memories and develop amateur research into fairground history migrated into a hybrid mix of traditional fairground fans and hardcore music fans. Discussion hosted on fairground internet forums, considered by Henry Jenkins as ‘epistemophilia’,635 moved from shared expertise on the nuts and bolts of fairground machinery towards dissecting the music heard on hosted video clips of Waltzer rides in action. This dialogue from the All the Fun of the Fair website discussing a clip of Percival’s Waltzer provides a good example:

Poster 1: Scouse house/bounce is the name of the genre. It started in the North West and was most popular around 2000 – 2009, it’s taken a nose dive now because the people that used to like it prefer the electro house these days. It’s had a bit of bad reputation for being not very musically original, personally I love it, but from a production point of view it was very much ‘bedroom production’ hence the term ‘put a donk on it’ – any track sounds good with a banging donk!

Poster 2: At around 2 mins 54 in that video he swaps over to Powerstomp – now this is a relatively new genre of hardcore music pioneered by DJ Kurt and Joey Riot under the Lethal Theory label. It’s very high energy 175bpm hardcore music with a much punchier kick and its becoming more popular these days both in the UK and abroad. The track he plays is Joey Riot & Chaos – Get Down. Hardstyle is completely different, it’s the Dutch version of hard dance at 150bpm (bounce house is 170bpm ish), different kick drum and style. More popular than either of the above genres too.

Evolution of Atmosphere Creator

The Atmosphere Creator began life in 1953, as a brand-new Waltzer from the Scottish company Maxwell for the Yorkshire showman John Ling.636 Its initial decoration was of the classic style of the 1950s Waltzer, featuring an Odeon patterning and architecture of mock structure templates in ascending repetition. Typically, the ride did not use decoration to appeal to a particular music-oriented market, and had a design that celebrated the presence and grace of the ride, the strapline on the canopy reading ‘The Latest New World Thriller’. It maintained this decoration for around two decades, moving on to the stewardship of Albert Evans, who married John Ling’s daughter Joan in 1968. By the early 1980s Albert John Evans, the son of Joan and Albert, was a teenager taking a strong interest in the family’s Waltzer. It was at this point that the ride underwent a radical transformation, adopting an all-over artwork featuring an intense pop melange from the skilled brush of artist Paul Wright. In many ways Paul’s work on the ride echoed back towards the early 1950s figurative artwork featuring Rock and Roll stars such as Bill Hailey and Elvis Presley, a style and approach that had been all but forgotten. Paul sourced Smash Hits and NME to gather portraits of artists such as Yazoo, The Clash, Elvis Costello, Billy Idol, Ian Dury, Fun Boy Three, Blondie, Madness and numerous New Romantic bands (see Figure 5).

Figure 5: Albert Evans’ Waltzer car detail with Banararama, Retford Fair 1984, photograph by author
Figure 5: Albert Evans’ Waltzer car detail with Banararama, Retford Fair 1984 (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)

The strapline on the canopy was re-lettered to ‘The World’s Latest Disco Waltzer on Tour’ and the key image on the front of the ride was Donna Summer extending her arms wide to draw you into the interior (see Figure 6).

Figure 6: Albert Evans’ Waltzer canopy detail with Donna Summer, King’s Lynn Mart 1984, photograph by author
Figure 6: Albert Evans’ Waltzer canopy detail with Donna Summer, King’s Lynn Mart 1984 (Source: Photograph © Ian Trowell)

Albert John confirms the importance of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love as a composition that broke free from the existing structures of disco music and, in turn, created the perfect soundtrack for the Waltzer experience.637 From this point on Albert John, as a teenager, began seeking out innovative music from the wilderness years of the mid-1980s, looking for the polyrhythmic structures that would make his ride stand out from the rest as a fusion of sound, movement and machinery. He took his copy of I Feel Love to the record shops on his travels, asking to be provided with tracks that could match it, gathering the sporadic music from that decade that pushed the limits: Grandmaster Flash’s White Lines (1983), Harold Faltermeyer’s Axel F (1985) and New Order’s Blue Monday (1983).

Eventually he developed a following for the Waltzer such that it was remembered and eagerly anticipated on the family’s run of fairs. By the time of the Second Summer of Love (1988) and the sudden growth of the rave scene, Albert John was keyed in to the music he wanted for the ride and the record dealers that could supply it (principally places like Eastern Bloc in Manchester). The Atmosphere Creator quickly doubled as a mobile venue for the latest music and scene, allowing people to experience it with lights, smoke and intense movement. The ride underwent a final transformation in 1989 with the early 80s popstars giving way to science fiction and club imagery. Structural changes were made and innovative aspects such as lights embedded within the steps were added.

Video 1: Atmosphere Creator during Boston May Fair 2011 (Source: Copyright © David Wragg)

The film clip shows the Atmosphere Creator at work during Boston May Fair 2011, a time when hardcore and rave music would be hard to find in the regular offers of entertainment in any city. But here on the fairground the music is still going strong and it is possible to observe various practices on the film clip. It is busy and Albert John is keen to maximise business. His microphone patter at the start of the clip is blatantly towards economic interests within the frenzy of the occasion: ‘All these front cars, let’s go’, ‘Don’t forget it’s only £2.00, if you need some more keep your seats’, ‘Hurry up girls, get in’, ‘Three or more in a car please, come on’. In the space of less than a minute, in what looks like an accelerated game of musical chairs set to industrial strength music, the ride is ready to go again with a full complement of customers. As the speed picks up Albert John sets the tempo and anticipation with a shout of ‘Hold tight’, only to have to quickly admonish an over eager customer with a command of ‘No, don’t come over the hand-rail’.638 The ride cycle is short (around two minutes), as clearly the crowd are desperate to take centre stage and experience the ride (or experience the music through the ride). As the camera pulls away from this first complete cycle of business and the next cycle commences, we see flame effects shooting vertically from the canopy and the interior of the ride shrouded in dry ice. Immediately Albert John is forced into remonstrative mode as he spots a rider trying to stand up: ‘Sit down, idiot, sit down. You will come out if you stand up, this is fast’.

Stephen Walker, looking at the complexity and fluidity of the territorial inside and outside of the fair, considers the Waltzer at Loughborough Fair as an eventual zone or region of its own autonomy within the fair itself. He writes:

As the evening wears on the ride closes in on itself, closes itself off from its surroundings while attracting a predominantly under-18 audience with the promise (and delivery) of pseudo-transgressive hardcore techno music and a rave environment that they would not otherwise (well, legally, or with parental consent) be able to access.639

As we see from the film clip, the atmosphere that the ride creates pushes behaviour towards frenzy and transgression, daredevil performativity from young males, and the operator must be eagle-eyed. Albert John switches between pushing the atmosphere up by orchestrating acts such as putting hands in the air and screaming, and having to watch the action unfold.

The sequence between 7-20 and 8-00 minutes is shot from a fixed viewpoint and this allows us to see the operation in full effect with the gaff lads set out as a circular phalanx spinning the cars. There is a small amount of rushed dialogue spoken by Albert John in this sequence, where he appears to be addressing the gaff lads with a command to spin cars 2 and 8, making sure that each customer gets the maximum pleasure and experience from the short ride, in the hope that they will ride again (and again). Using the method developed by Wendy Fonarow640 for mapping ‘zones of participation’ at indie gigs, and applied further by Geoff Pearson641 to study British football crowds within the stadium, Figure 7 shows the layout of the Waltzer from the twin perspectives of the operator and his staff and the punters. Each mode of punter determined by their spatial positioning necessitates a certain relationship with the operator: those in the cars are customers who require the best experience, those standing on the gratings are quasi-customers who require close control, while those loitering on the steps are potential customers who require encouragement. Albert John can be heard around the 10-05 mark appealing to the group of people on the steps, urging them to come ‘Up the steps’.

Figure 7: Crowd and staff positions on the Waltzer
Figure 7: Crowd and staff positions on the Waltzer

Music, and the listening of music in a collective fashion, forms the heart of this operation, working at a new intensity of expressive entrainment beyond simply clapping hands or stamping feet. The raucous and energising nature of the music selected by Albert John functions at various levels: it provides an added reason for going on the ride itself for the group labelled A (and so complements the economic imperative of the operator), it encourages transgressions of behaviour through hyperbolic performance both on the ride and around the ride (group A admonished for standing in the cars, group B admonished for standing on the barriers), for which the operator has to keep a sharp eye out, and it attracts people to the ride – initially to the front steps (group C) and eventually up onto the ride itself (group B). Some of those on the steps and standing on the gratings need to be converted to riders (group A), but the operator knows that a crowd on the fair attracts more people. There is a complex balance to be kept, and the economic weighting of that balance is short-circuited if the ride forms simply a gathering place to listen to music in what might be a ‘traditional’ fashion of downgraded interactivity.

Club spaces and fairgrounds

The collective or social enjoyment of dance music evolved through venues and nightclubs catering for the specific scenes that flourished in post-war British popular culture. Research in this area tends to focus on the structure of the scenes and the testimony of participants, rather than structural, technical and aesthetic nature of the building and space itself.642 Certainly during the mid-1970s under the regime of Northern Soul venues were spartan and functional, with an emphasis on providing a surface for expressive, acrobatic dancing. Again, the nature of this subcultural scene with regard to its sheer dedication and transgressive vectors prioritises a literature drawn from, and deconstructing, social participation.643 The Northern Soul scene crossed over with the disco scene during the 1970s, and here an emphasis on a structured atmospheric was evident with considered effects through multiple forms of lighting (flashing sequences, lasers, light panels in structures including the dancefloor itself), smoke machines, mirrors and advanced sound-systems. While fairgrounds are said to provide a version of a nightclub space, it is important to separate out between the provision of an opportunity for those not able to go to a nightclub and the simple copying of a nightclub, which would suggest a vector running from the nightclub to the fairground ride.644

The modern (post-1988) movement of accelerated dance culture manifested initially in raves and then in new clubs (and designated super-clubs) is analysed at a spatial level by Ben Malbon, though again there is an emphasis on the social practices afforded by the space of the nightclub with regard to a tribal identification and the claiming of a space.645 Malbon extends this analysis of the dance music club away from the spatial-in-itself and towards the affordance of the spatial, to draw on ideas developed by both Maffesoli, proposing identification (against identity) and unicity (against unity), and Canetti, regarding exstasis and the loss of self, in the search for ‘spaces and experiences of identification or affective gatherings’.646 An earlier key work by Thornton provides a similar mapping between the rave/club and the fair at both a spatial level and social practice level: ‘Clubs offer other-worldly environments in which to escape; they act as interior havens with such presence that the dancers forget local time and place … Clubs achieve these effects with loud music, distracting interior design and lighting effects’.647 These interior accoutrements and their associated affects can be mapped over to a Waltzer such as the Atmosphere Creator. Thornton continues: ‘Classically, they have long winding corridors punctuated by a series of thresholds which separate inside from outside, private from public, the dictates of dance abandon from the routines of school, work and parental home’. While this last statement possibly conflates the singular room (and its affordances) and the enclosed network of rooms, it is possible to map this onto the fairground whole and its interior spaces (such as the Waltzer). The work of Malbon and Thornton concerning the spatial arrangements of the club is suggestive rather than prescriptive and exhaustive, though I include it here as a preliminary dialogue between the fairground and the club.


Listening to music on the fairground is a fully embodied and polysensory experience, taking DeNora’s theory of entrainment into new realms of energetic performance. I have introduced the total soundscape of the fairground and this forms one of the sensory excesses that define the experience. The purpose of this chapter is to focus on the particularities of the fairground sound, with specific regard to the ride called the Waltzer. As I pull apart the sound of the Waltzer a synergetic shift is revealed; the sound of the fairground as listened to through the distinct performative arena of the Waltzer becomes a fairground sound in itself. Precise genres such as donk and bounce flourish and are appreciated through evolving collective practices on the ride.

Elsewhere, the spaces between the fairground rides, the ‘ground’ of the fairground, are cacophonous in the extreme as rides compete with each other to offer the best sound and experience. I would further argue that this cacophony is not just heard, it is engaged as meaningful. It is listened to in the way that discernible music is listened to on individual rides. Such a cacophony forms a natural fit with the fairground, and it stands out in an age when a joyous heteroglossia is being pushed onto the margins of social life (old-fashioned markets being replaced by modern shopping malls is a key case in point).

Fairground art’s natural parallel in the art canon is the school of Pop Art, with ideas and influences flowing both ways, though seldom acknowledged in the vast swathes of literature on this genre. Hal Foster has recently authored another collection of considered thoughts on Pop Art and turns to Andy Warhol’s 1963 work Elvis Six Times. In this picture we see Presley as a gunslinger fading from view as we scan from left to right, a process Foster describes as ‘deterioration through seriality’.648 Other writers link Warhol’s depictive method of slow fade of expired celebrities to his obsession with fame and death, and his own insecurities that plagued his life. Seriality of figurative (and non-figurative) art was part and parcel of the fairground painter who illustrated rounding boards and shutters for circular rides and stalls. Furthermore, fading of the art generally followed production, as fairground art is unacknowledged as part of the valuing system attributed to Pop Art and fairground art is set out exposed to the elements for the public to enjoy. Elvis, and all the depicted stars, fade, many times. They then get painted over. Over 50 years later Albert John Evans entertains a crowd of immersed and exhilarated teenagers on his Atmosphere Creator Waltzer. In the midst of an array of lights and smokes, donk noises and breakbeats, he plays the sample Who is Elvis?

Select bibliography

Braithwaite, David. Fairground Architecture. London: Hugh Evelyn, 1968.

Chambers, Iain. Urban Rhythms: Pop Music and Popular Culture. Basingstoke: Macmillan, 1985.

DeNora, Tia. Music in Everyday Life. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press: 2000.

Fonarow, Wendy. Empire of Dirt: The Aesthetics and Rituals of British Indie Music. Middletown: Weslayan University Press, 2006.

Schafer, R. Murray. The Soundscape: The Tuning of the World. Rochester VT: Destiny Books, 1994.

Starsmore, Ian. English Fairs. London: Thames & Hudson, 1975.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. London: Polity, 1995.

Weedon, Geoff and Ward, Richard. Fairground Art. London: White Mouse Editions, 1981.



Listening in contemporary British social contexts

The listening experience of the classical concert hall: the value of qualitative research with current audiences

Lucy Dearn, Jonathan Gross, Sarah Price and Stephanie Pitts

Lucy Dearn has recently completed an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award project with the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre (SPARC) at the University of Sheffield under the supervision of Professor Stephanie Pitts. She has been working in partnership with chamber music promoter Music in the Round to conduct research with classical music audiences across South Yorkshire. Her research investigates community formation around a concert series and the views of younger people often underrepresented in the regular makeup of audiences.

Jonathan Gross is based in the Department of Culture, Media and Creative Industries at King’s College London, working on the Get Creative Research Project as part of the BBC-led Get Creative campaign. He previously worked on collaborative research projects at the Universities of Leeds and Liverpool, and at the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre. His PhD was an ethnography of audiences at the BBC Proms, which he completed at The London Consortium.

Sarah Price is a postdoctoral research associate on the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre’s new project, Understanding Audiences for the Contemporary Arts. Prior to this, she was a postdoctoral researcher at Trinity Laban Conservatoire of Music and Dance and completed an AHRC Collaborative Doctoral Award project with SPARC and the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra. Her research interests are in audience development, the value of cultural experiences for individuals who engage with the arts, and the role of academic research within the commercial arts industry.

Stephanie Pitts is Professor of Music Education and currently Head of Music at the University of Sheffield and Director of the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre. She has research interests in life-long musical engagement, including amateur musical performance and live music listening. She is the author of Valuing Musical Participation (Ashgate, 2005), Chances and Choices: Exploring the Impact of Music Education (Oxford, 2012) and, with Karen Burland, a jointly edited book on audience experience, Coughing and Clapping (Ashgate, 2014).


Drawing on studies with audiences in three different cities and across multiple genres, this chapter considers the contribution of empirical research to understanding the experience of live music listening. We evaluate the potential of qualitative research tools ranging from life history interviews to art-informed visual methods, and present some of the findings from our recent work, which highlights the interconnectedness of the personal, social and musical elements of listening experience. Conclusions are drawn about the usefulness of these approaches for arts organisations, academic researchers and audience members themselves.


Understanding how and why people listen is a central aim of the Listening Experience Database (LED) project, which has taken a mainly archival approach to documenting experiences with live music across a wide range of settings and centuries. Interpreting the call for evidence from ‘any historical period’ to include ‘now’, the work of Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre makes a distinctive contribution to LED by considering how orchestral concerts, chamber music and contemporary classical music are experienced by their audiences, by asking: who attends and who does not?; how is live listening experienced musically, personally and socially?; and what are the challenges for researchers in understanding what people do when they listen?

Research with today’s audiences, rather than their historical counterparts, brings some advantages in being able to ask people about their motivations and experiences. However, other challenges are the same across the decades and centuries, most notably in the difficulties for audience members of finding the language to explain and evaluate their listening experiences. Audience research takes many forms649 and has shown in recent years an increasing awareness of the limitations of talk-based, retrospective reporting of the live arts experience, turning to visual methods,650 digital technology651 and social media652 in the attempt to capture the immediate impact of being in an audience. The longer-term impact of concert listening is of significance too, and life history approaches that take account of past arts experience and learning are also contributing to the debate.653 Understanding audience experience has obvious benefits for arts organisations, for whom the additional insight on how and why their audiences attend is of value in increasing access, growing and sustaining audiences, and building community. For academic research, greater understanding of how music intersects with people’s lives is also valuable, bringing fresh perspectives on cultural engagement, social interaction and ‘ways of listening’.654

In this chapter, we draw on our ongoing collaborations with Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) and Music in the Round (MitR), using empirical findings to explore the varieties of listening experiences among regular audiences and new attenders in those settings. We show how, through the use of a range of qualitative methods, researchers can investigate the hopes, anxieties and expectations that today’s audiences bring to the concert hall, and we consider the usefulness of eliciting and understanding these perspectives, as a way of enriching and sustaining audience experience. Each section of the chapter focuses on one of our recent studies, indicating the methods we have employed to study live listening experiences in the concert hall today, and illustrating the kinds of insight that these approaches can help generate.

Beyond language: the ‘Write-Draw-Tell’ method

When making empirical enquiries into classical music audiences, it is vital to question how such an ephemeral listening experience may come to be understood by researchers. In recent years, there has been a move from the demographic segmentation of audiences towards a deeper understanding of their lived experience, which prompts the need for a further investigation into how current methodological toolkits may be advanced in this field.

Empirical studies have begun to explore classical music audiences using quantitative methods, underpinned by a theoretical framework which investigates experience and is not limited to demographics.655 These studies questioned audience members before and after the event; however, participants were not able to reflect on the experience as it was happening. Other studies that consider classical music audiences have used more qualitative, talk-based research methods.656 Nevertheless, despite a growing body of data gathered with audiences, current qualitative methods used in this field are not without limitations and could be developed further.

A key consideration when using talk-based methods with audiences is the frequency with which commercial organisations request demographic information and ‘audience feedback’. This may result in greater familiarity with such research questions and standardisation of responses, resulting in a risk that participants may have become over-‘sociologised’ in qualitative methods.657 Another issue highlighted in the field is the way participants are often asked to reflect retrospectively, away from the listening experience, and therefore can be ‘influenced by partial memory, cognitive filters such as selective memory and peer pressure’.658 It could be the case, therefore, that researchers are not able to ‘entirely rely on oral or written accounts of the audience’s experience to provide a whole picture of this experience’.659 Finally, the level of literacy and technical language available to audience members when describing an arts experience, particularly when researching with newcomers or younger attenders, can greatly affect individuals’ confidence and ability to respond to the questions they are asked.

Lucy Dearn’s research at Music in the Round has focused on developing new methods for understanding the audience experience. Considering the issues outlined above, Dearn has applied a method termed ‘Write-Draw-Tell’ to the study of listening experiences of regular and new audiences. This method translates well across varying age ranges and attendance levels, is unfamiliar, sanctions participants to give an instant response simultaneously with their listening and allows participants to use some form of non-verbal response when describing the concert experience.

The art-informed creative method ‘Write-Draw’ has its origins in children’s health education.660 The method was developed to allow children to feel a greater sense of involvement and ownership in research investigating their use of health services. The method is based on provoking a written and drawn response to a research question. Later developments of this method have also introduced a ‘Tell’ phase, which encourages participants to explain the verbal and visual elements they have produced becoming a metaphor for discussion, often about sensitive or conceptual topics.661

The use of creative methods to study arts audiences is not without precedent; ethnomusicology and more recent applications in audience studies have used verbal or visual elements.662 Matthew Reason uses drawing and discussion-based methods when investigating primary school children’s experience of live theatre,663 and the development of a non-verbal methodological toolkit has been used with art gallery visitors in research by Lisa Baxter et al. 664 Bonita Kolb’s study investigating young people’s first attendance of a classical music concert also uses some visual activities as part of the pre- and post-concert focus groups.665 However, in Kolb and Baxter’s research these visual artefacts are not analysed as part of their studies and are used solely as a stimulus for discussion. Hence, the application of an arts-informed method like Write-Draw-Tell to classical music audiences, particularly simultaneously with the performance, is a new addition to the methodological toolkit currently used with arts audiences.

Presented below are two brief examples of the data collected using the Write-Draw-Tell method with newcomers under the age of 25 and regular audience members. The first response is by a 15-year-old female of Black Caribbean ethnic origin who is new to classical music concert attendance.

Figure 1: Write-draw response from a 15-year-old female audience member
Figure 1: Write-Draw response from a 15-year-old female audience member


The written response suggests this newcomer was lacking visual clues from other audience members as to how to listen and react to this type of music. A strong sense of ‘still and silent listening’666 was shown through the drawn responses, signifying that for this participant the idea of not being able to communicate with others during the concert was uncomfortable or confusing. A sense of alienation is also seen through this Write-Draw card. Firstly, a disparity between the age of this listener and the age of others in the audience is highlighted. Ideas of nationality are also present, with a strong sense of British nationalism seen through the drawn response, despite the programme for this concert not including any British composers. During the ‘Tell’ phase the participant was not sure why she had drawn these symbols, stating: ‘I don’t really listen to this type of music; I just thought it was really British’.

The second example is representative of the responses of regular audience members.

Figure 2: Write-draw response from regular audience member
Figure 2: Write-Draw response from a regular audience member

Many of the drawn responses by adult members were far more fluid than the fragmented replies from under 25s. They also relied more heavily on literal representations of the players, rather than abstract or metaphorical drawings. The written side often included musical terms but was also used by regular audience members to give feedback to the arts organisation, for example, the programming choices of the arts organisation, seen through the statement that Ligeti is ‘not really chamber music’ according to this audience member.

Although the application of this method to the study of classical music audiences yielded new insights, in particular an instant non-verbal response to concerts, it also brought its own challenges: firstly, distraction and an alteration of the arts experience; secondly, a degree of participant reluctance to make use of the method; and thirdly, the lack of established analytical frameworks to use when handling visual data.

Beyond the present: the life history approach

Among the many methodological challenges that face the study of listening, perhaps the most intractable is the problem of how to study experiences that are ‘beyond’ language. As the previous section illustrated, the innovative use of drawing techniques suggests new possibilities here. More conventionally, it is of course possible to study listening through the laboratory methods of experimental psychology. But as Clarke, Dibben and Pitts point out, one of the major drawbacks of experimental approaches is their disregard for the (often highly consequential) social environments in which musical listening takes place.667

As previous studies have shown, the value of even the most rarefied and seemingly ‘interior’ modes of listening – such as the still and silent attention of the classical concert hall – need to be understood within the contexts of everyday life.668 In studying the individual or personal value of concert hall listening today, we need to examine this value within both synchronic and diachronic contexts. In other words, we need to address both the immediate social environments in which the listening takes place, and the accumulated experience and attitudes developed over the course of each listener’s lifetime – aspects of biography that constitute key contexts to the value that audiences’ listening experiences have for them.

These points can be illustrated through a recent research project conducted by Jonathan Gross and Stephanie Pitts in collaboration with a range of organisations presenting contemporary arts in Birmingham. Our work in Birmingham was initiated by the marketing manager of Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), Tim Rushby, seeking to know if there are current and potential cross-overs between audiences for ‘contemporary’ arts across art form (contemporary craft, dance, music, theatre and visual arts).669 In order to address this overarching issue, Gross and Pitts established a series of research questions concerning the experiences audiences have of the contemporary arts: these focused on routes into the contemporary arts, facilitative conditions for audience engagement, and cross-arts experiences of access and engagement.

To address these questions, Gross and Pitts made use of a combination of ethnography, an ‘audience exchange’ method of group conversation, and a biographical or life-history approach to semi-structured interviews. Ethnography, or participant observation, is the anthropological method of studying a practice or people through spending time with them and joining in. This is a particularly valuable way of examining the synchronic contexts of listening. For example, we were able to attend BCMG concerts and rehearsals with members of the audience, speak with them in the immediate surroundings of the musical event, and invite them to reflect informally on their present experiences, while observing audience behaviours and the uses made of the auditorium and foyer spaces.

Our second method, the audience exchange, involved research participants signing up to attend a performance or exhibition at a venue (or art form) they would not typically go to. In groups of between six and ten, we attended the performance or exhibition together, and then had a semi-structured conversation about our experiences of the show.670 Audience exchange participants spoke often of the usefulness of these conversations for enriching their experience of the live arts event, allowing them to hear other people’s responses to sometimes challenging or confusing work, and to explore their own responses by considering and articulating them in the group discussion. Within the subsequent 2015/16 and 2016/17 seasons, BCMG have programmed audience exchange conversations after four of their concerts, each chaired by Jonathan Gross. BCMG’s decision to respond to the research project in this way indicates the potential value of the audience exchange method not only as a way of more fully understanding listening experiences, but as an enjoyable activity embedded within the creative programme of arts organisation on an ongoing basis.

Beyond the group setting of the audience exchange method, the one-to-one life-history interview provides a particularly powerful opportunity to dig deeper into audience experience. Life-history interviews have been employed within sociology since the 1930s,671 and yet, despite the recent ‘biographical turn’ observed in the social sciences,672 there is still little use of this type of interview method to study audiences. One important reason for this may be the fact that conducting interviews in this way is time intensive (for interviewer and interviewee); it produces very rich qualitative data that requires complex and time-consuming analysis; and requires particular research expertise and resources that many arts and cultural organisations do not have at their disposal. But, as our work with BCMG shows, the use of life-history interviews has the potential not only to illuminate the personal value of listening experiences, but to thereby help inform how musical institutions might develop new and deeper relationships with their audiences.

The specific version of semi-structured interviews that Gross has developed in his work with audiences is carefully designed to address the value of listening experiences within the biographical contexts of each interviewee. A combination of very open questions (such as ‘tell me about the last concert you went to’) and very targeted questions (‘how did you hear about this concert?’) provide opportunities for interviewees to articulate their listening experiences in their own terms, while ensuring that the conversations address specific points of interest for the research. Opportunities are also provided to answer questions more than once (‘is there anything else you’d like to tell me about the last concert you went to?’). This allows participants to think out loud and so provides opportunities – and a sense of permission – to go beyond the most readily available vocabulary. This can result in a richer, more personal account of listening experiences and their value to individuals, thereby addressing (at least partially) some of the challenges of mediating listening experiences through language, noted as a limitation in earlier research.

Another distinguishing feature of Jonathan Gross’s approach to interviewing is the use of an explicitly biographical framework, which, again, combines very open and more targeted questions: giving interviewees the opportunity to articulate their listening experiences – and the value of these – in relation to any other part of their life they choose to, including work, family, friendship, education or any other aspect of everyday life. Questions include, for example, ‘how have your interests changed over the course of your life?’, ‘tell me about your school’ and ‘what jobs have you done?’ These are asked alongside more targeted questions, such as ‘when did you first attend a concert?’ and ‘how has your concert going changed over the course of your life?’

To give just some indication of the kinds of findings this approach can generate, we offer the example of Dave (not his real name), a teacher in his 40s and a regular audience member at BCMG. Dave explains that his principal passion is twentieth-century classical music. He first became interested when hearing a piece on television as a child, and then sought out more by listening to BBC Radio 3. Teaching himself about music in this way, he first started going to orchestral concerts as a teenager, and was always very comfortable attending on his own or with others. Since that time, he has listened to a large amount of twentieth- and twenty-first century classical music. Dave normally attends several performances each week, and at times this can be as many as five events – spanning contemporary music, opera, dance and film. He explains the central place that attending live contemporary arts has for him, saying ‘this is what I do’.

Dave describes missing the sense of ‘difficulty’ he first experienced when listening to contemporary classical music as a child. He liked that difficulty – and the pleasures he found in struggling with strange and new ‘sound worlds’. He no longer experiences difficulty in this same way – but continues to take great pleasure in the ephemerality of the new music he is hearing. In combination with his employment as a teacher, attending the contemporary arts is how Dave lives his everyday life. He describes the experience of attending midweek, having just seen a brilliant performance, sitting waiting for the post-show talk to begin, and thinking to himself ‘this is the life’. Attending the contemporary arts is a central activity for Dave, and a key source of enjoyment and satisfaction. He particularly enjoys opportunities to attend pre- and post-concert talks, and to feel ‘part of that world’.

Dave’s example illustrates the capacity of this approach to open up the value of listening experiences within the broad contexts of people’s lives. If musical experience is well-recognised to be enmeshed with biographical memory,673 there is much more scope to investigate the ways in which the complexities of our lives are active within the present of listening and its value.

Beyond the individual: qualitative interviews and social experience

The qualitative methods employed by SPARC researchers in these projects offer a deep understanding of an individual’s engagement with classical music. The data produced by these methods is often highly complex and can even contradict itself. This can be difficult to reconcile with research conducted within the arts industry.674 Commercial research is heavily reliant on quantitative data, both collected through questionnaires and data gathered from ticket sales transactions. Although there is a long history of qualitative focus groups in market research, they are often conducted to address specific business decisions, and are rarely as open-ended and exploratory as the research conducted by the SPARC team.675

In her doctoral research at the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra, Sarah Price has conducted semi-structured interviews with audiences at a range of different concerts and across various levels of engagement. These interviews aimed to understand how audiences choose the concerts they attend and their experience in the concert hall, and asked them to reflect on how they perceived themselves as listeners. Price has also worked closely with the marketing team to analyse their extensive customer database and ticket sales history. She has had first-hand experience in how in-depth qualitative methods can complement quantitative data analysis in helping arts organisations better understand their audiences.

One way in which qualitative methods go beyond the reach of booking data is in understanding the role of companions. Ticket transactions data only captures information about the person who physically bought the tickets, the ‘initiator’ in Alan Brown’s model.676 This leaves a ‘ghost audience’ with whom arts organisations have no contact, despite the potential for them to be regular, highly-engaged attenders. Price’s interviews at the CBSO draw attention not only to the variety of companions that initiators bring to concerts, but also the many ways in which these companions can influence their choice of concert. Whether an audience member regularly attends with the same person, has an occasional companion, or attends alone, can be as important as aesthetic factors for selecting a concert to attend.

Regular companions

Some interviewees had a companion with whom they regularly attended concerts. This was often married couples who regularly attended with their husband or wife, though there were examples of friends and family members being regular companions. Yvonne677 is a regular CBSO attender who always goes to concerts with her husband. They have been attending CBSO’s core classical concerts since Yvonne retired a few years ago. Yvonne’s husband is rather more conservative in his musical tastes and therefore she admits to ‘manoeuvring the paperwork’ to hear music she likes. During the interview, Yvonne realised that the CBSO were playing Britten’s War Requiem at the BBC Proms that same evening:

Yvonne: Oh it’s today! Don’t remind me! I did want to go because it was… we went to Coventry to hear the War Requiem and I was just blown away by it but you see [her husband] wasn’t that keen and I thought ‘he’s not going to like going down to hear it again’. And we probably would have had to book a hotel when we got back as well so it would have turned into an expensive trip but I would have liked to have done it. Perhaps next year.

Yvonne was clearly disappointed not to be going. Having been ‘blown away’ by the Requiem the first time, she was keen to see it again. Her husband, however, was not impressed and therefore she assumed that he would not want to travel to London to hear it again.

Yvonne and her husband are classic examples of Brown’s ‘initiators’ and ‘responders’.678 Yvonne, the initiator, finds concerts to attend and pitches them to her husband, the responder. Developing Brown’s model, Dearn and Price have shown through their combined research data that initiators are often more adventurous in their musical tastes than responders, but that responders’ conservatism can mean they have the final say.679 Yvonne pushes her husband outside his comfort zone by taking him to concerts that he would not ordinarily want to attend. However, in always wanting to attend with her husband, Yvonne limits herself to concerts she can persuade him to attend and on some occasions, as with the War Requiem, misses out.

While Yvonne’s complete attendance history is recorded on the CBSO customer database, the organisation has no record of her husband’s attendance, despite him regularly going to CBSO concerts. In addition, bookings data cannot capture the effect of their different tastes on their choice of concerts. Qualitative investigation is necessary to expose the impact of socialising on concert selection.

Occasional companions

Audiences who are willing to go alone or who have a variety of companions are of course less likely to miss out because of the tastes of companions. However, the desire to share concerts with friends and family means that companions still influence their concert choice. Nicola is a very frequent attender, going to around 40 CBSO concerts a year and more besides at other organisations. She is more than happy to go alone, but tries to find concerts that her friends would enjoy:

Nicola: I go [to concerts] with different people. Some friends won’t try much beyond Beethoven and Mozart (oh, how they do miss out!) and some will try everything and anything, if they’re available to do so. Some only like Friday Night Classics too. Some will only go to CBSO or other symphony orchestras; others prefer chamber music. Some will only go to the opera in concert ones. So, since I love lots, it is about finding the right person for each particular concert – and sometimes nagging them to try something outside their comfort zones.

Nicola ‘loves lots’ of different types of classical music and so is able to find concerts to suit the tastes of a number of friends. Like Yvonne, Nicola is an initiator. She has broader tastes than her responders and consequently tries to push her companions to try new things. Unlike Yvonne, however, Nicola is willing to attend alone and therefore is not restricted by the tastes of her companions. Finding concerts for companions is Nicola’s way of sharing the concert experience. Most participants looked for opportunities to share concerts with companions and would only attend alone when no-one was available or interested. Despite the sacrifices being made for companions, no participants said that they would rather attend alone. Attending with other people seems to add social value to a concert which can be more important than the aesthetic engagement.

Attending alone

The small number of participants who frequently attended concerts alone reported talking to other audience members. Trevor is a long-term subscriber at the CBSO. He talks to ‘all sorts of people’ at concerts and describes concerts as a ‘social event’. Trevor’s subscription allows him to sit in the same seat for every concert and consequently he has become friends with attenders in the surrounding seats:

Trevor: There’s a guy that sits next to me on my left and he’s extremely knowledgeable about music. […] He’s enhanced my knowledge of music quite a lot. […] He’s very good at explaining what’s happening, you know. […] I know he’s a very keen Bruckner fan, and if it’s a Bruckner symphony, he’ll tell me all about it. I don’t read the programme [because] he’ll tell me all about it.

Over many years of attendance, Trevor has become friends with other audience members. The value of friendships and ‘like-mindedness’ to creating a sense of audience community has also been found in research at Music in the Round by Stephanie Pitts and Chris Spencer.680 As Ruth, another CBSO audience member, described it: ‘I’m not very good at chit-chat [but] when you’re meeting people here, you know you’ve got something in common to talk about’. Because these friendships are based on a mutual interest, they can also be a source of learning about classical music. Trevor will draw on his neighbour’s knowledge of Bruckner rather than buying a concert programme. The conversations he has with his fellow audience members shape the way he listens to the music. Therefore, whether or not these social interactions influence his concert choice, they certainly impact on his concert experience.

At the end of the interview, Trevor expressed how much he had enjoyed taking part in the research:

Trevor: It’s lovely to talk to someone about classical music! Because I’m afraid in the circles that I mix in, so very few … I’ve got nobody to talk to! […] There is nobody else, it’s sad! And that’s why I think socially, here, it’s good to be able to talk.

Despite regularly talking to other audience members at concerts, Trevor still wishes he was able to have more conversations about classical music. His comment highlights how much audiences want to talk about what they have heard. The real value of socialising, and the reason why audiences are willing to compromise on their choice of concerts in order to bring companions, is that it allows attenders to discuss and reflect on their concert experiences.

Semi-structured interviews offer new insight into how the social context of listening influences concert selection. Talking to participants for around thirty minutes each allowed them time to consider all the factors that went into their decision to attend. In addition, as in Jonathan Gross’s life-history interviews, participants were asked about their route into classical music attendance, whether they participate in music, and their engagement with other cultural events. Throughout the conversation, participants would return to the question of ‘how do you decide which concerts to attend?’ They provided examples to prove their points, clarified earlier responses, and described anomalies in their decision making. Yvonne, Nicola and Trevor’s comments begin to reveal the complexities of the decision to attend and the importance of social interactions in shaping concert attendance.


Our illustrations of work with audiences at Music in the Round (MitR), Birmingham Contemporary Music Group (BCMG), and City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO) have highlighted the diversity of empirical methods used within the Sheffield Performer and Audience Research Centre to explore the personal, social and musical value of live arts listening. In each of our studies, our chosen methods involve exploring ‘listening experience’ in its many facets – from the decision to attend a particular event, the ways of listening and engaging in the moment, and the process of articulating and reflecting on that event and its relationship to other aspects of the listener’s life. No single method achieves a perfect understanding of the listening experience, but by employing and exploring different methods, and by encouraging in all of them a reflexive approach, in which the listeners themselves grapple with the challenges of articulating and interrogating their responses, we come closer to having a sense of what it means to listen as part of an audience.

The research presented by each of the four authors in this chapter involves close collaboration with arts organisations. Dearn and Price’s three-year associations with MitR and CBSO, respectively, have each been enabled through AHRC collaborative doctoral awards; while Gross and Pitts’ work with BCMG came about through an invitation from BCMG to extend Pitts’ past work with classical music audiences to the different contexts of attenders at contemporary arts events. Such close associations are mutually valuable to arts organisations and researchers, bridging some the historical divides between commercial and academic research,681 and prioritising research questions that can not only increase understanding of audience experience, but also affect positive change. We have been fortunate in that our partner organisations have shared our interests in the complexities of audience experience, not looking for the quick answers of how to increase ticket sales or repeat attendance (though those suggestions have been welcome, where we have found them), but instead welcoming the insight that rich, qualitative research can offer on how and why newcomers and regular attenders are drawn to live listening and encouraged to return.

Our headline findings show that the personal, social and musical aspects of concert listening experiences are inextricably linked – and this has implications for the potential value of qualitative research methods of the kinds presented in this chapter. Even when it comes to deeply personal or private listening experiences, the opportunity to reflect on these through conversation (including conversations initiated by researchers) helps to embed, articulate and understand the experience in ways that have the potential to influence research participants’ future patterns of engagement and experience, including, potentially, an expanded receptiveness to a wider range of musical activities and experiences. In turn, these conversations can inform the future development of organisational practice – suggesting new ways in which musical institutions can respond to how the personal value of concert listening can be enabled, thereby developing relationships with audiences, contributing to and building new, valuable listening experiences through innovative concert practices.

We have aimed in this chapter to show the value of empirical methods for understanding listening experience, and have welcomed the opportunity to set this alongside the archival approaches of the Listening Experience Database to prompt interdisciplinary discussion of the ways in which listeners talk, write and think about their live arts engagement. There is scope for the questions at the forefront of our research to be applied to the historical evidence of the LED: analysis, for example, of the topics addressed by Samuel Pepys as he wrote his diary entries on the cultural life of seventeenth-century London would demonstrate that the effects of venue, the presence of other listeners and the expectations drawn from prior arts engagement have shaped audience experience over many centuries. Empirical research with arts organisations offers the chance for an understanding of audience experience to shape the cultural life of future generations, and will need to remain responsive to changes in technology, private listening habits and educational change. Through the use of multiple, flexible research methods, understanding of the many factors involved in listening experience can continue to grow, and with it the ability for researchers and arts organisations alike to articulate the value of live listening in the contemporary world.

Select bibliography

Baxter, Lisa. ‘From luxury to necessity: the changing role of qualitative research in the arts’, in O’Reilly, Daragh and Kerrigan, Finola (eds) Marketing the Arts: A Fresh Approach. Abingdon: Routledge, 2010, pp. 121–140.

Burland, Karen and Pitts, Stephanie (eds). Coughing and Clapping: Investigating Audience Experience. Farnham: Ashgate, 2014.

Dearn, Lucy, K. and Price, Sarah M. ‘Sharing music: social and communal aspects of concert-going’, Networking Knowledge, 9(2), 2016, pp. 1–20.

Gross, Jonathan and Pitts, Stephanie. ‘Audiences for the contemporary arts: exploring varieties of participation across art forms in Birmingham, UK’, Participations, 13(1), 2016, pp. 4–23,, accessed 9 April 2017.

Price, Sarah M. ‘Academic and commercial research: bridging the gap’, Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies, 12(2), 2015, pp. 168–173,, accessed 9 April 2017.

Radbourne, Jennifer, Glow, Hilary and Johanson, Katya (eds). The Audience Experience: A Critical Analysis of Audiences in the Performing Arts. Bristol: Intellect, 2013.

Listening in contemporary British social contexts

Accounting for genre: how genre awareness and affinity affects music streaming use

Mathew Flynn

Mathew Flynn is a lecturer in music at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts (LIPA), where he has taught business skills, the music industries and professional development since 1999. He previously had a career in the music industries, owning and managing rehearsal rooms and an independent record label. His publications include a co-authored chapter with Dr Holly Tessler entitled ‘From DIY to D2F’ in the 2015 Bloomsbury published book Music Entrepreneurship and a related paper to the below research entitled ‘Accounting for listening’ in online journal Kinephanos.


The focus of this chapter is to address current debates around the impact of music streaming on music use and listening. In particular, this research explores the application of genre as a way of codifying, categorising and choosing music on music formats and digital platforms in 2015. With reference to previous research on genre, I will predominantly draw upon the work of Frith (1996), Negus (1999), Borthwick and Moy (2004), Holt (2007) and Avdeeff (2013) to apply the broad idea of genre as a fundamental organising principle in the production and consumption of music. The chapter will first provide a short history of genre’s changing relationship to digital music use (Kibby 2011, Kassabian 2013 and Nowak 2016) and place genre in the wider context of industry and technology (Sterne 2012 and Anderson 2014). This historical analysis provides a rationale for the primary research, which assesses the music use of 45 music users to ascertain, since the emergence of music streaming, the relevance of genre to the practice of choosing and listening to music. The chapter concludes by proposing that the number of genres a music user expresses an affinity for could broadly align with different attitudes toward, and ways of engaging with, music streaming.


1985–1999 – the CD

As Anderson has stated, ‘From the late-1900s to the late 1990s the U.S. music industry had been built around the production, distribution, and sale of mass produced and mass distributed objects.’682 As the last mass-produced object and first commercially successful digital audio format, the CD rose to commercial prominence in 1985. In 1999, when the CD dominated consumer use and drove what was to be the peak of annual global record sales,683Keith Negus published Music Genres and Corporate Cultures. In this exploration of the workings of the record industry, Negus argued that record company strategy was structured around the portfolio management of music catalogues. He then sociologically analysed the music genres of rap, country and salsa to establish that genre cultures played a significant role in how new recordings were selected, created, acquired, financed, managed, marketed, promoted, distributed and sold to consumers by major record labels. Negus defined genre as: ‘The way in which musical categories and systems of classification shape the music that we might play and listen to, mediating both the experience of music and its formal organisation by an entertainment industry.’684 In many aspects of the present day record industry, Negus’s theory remains evident. As Rossman concluded, in his 2012 analysis of how songs become popular on American commercial radio, ‘Genre conventions and record label promotions’685 continue to be the primary forces that drive hit records.

This conservation of the twentieth-century corporate hit culture operated between record companies and radio stations, and other mainstream mass media, continues to deliver a ‘Narrowness of playlists and the exclusion or otherwise of particular idioms.’686 The general corporate conservatism687 of the object era record industry persists in many aspects of the record industry today. However, as Warner Record executive Stan Cornyn reflected on the corporate culture Negus described:

The CD and MTV made our world juicer than ever. Underlying weakness in the business had been well covered by a ‘double the price’ rise in the CD and the euphoric product demos by MTV … in a few years we’d realise our business still stood on underlying weakness … for now however the eighties was the decade to rake it in.688

The weakness the CD initially shrouded was that digitisation enabled almost perfect replication of master recordings. By the late 1990s, as consumers acquired more user-friendly and ever-cheaper digital copying technologies, the major label strategies that relied on the maintenance of product scarcity, media conservatism and used genre distinction to ‘Weed out whatever does not fit into this framework in advance’689 began to weaken. Furthermore, as Taylor has observed, this weakness in the unit-based business model was compounded by the wider socio-economic issues of globalisation and the emergence of a neoliberal capitalist ideology. Both of these market forces served to empower consumers and intensify competition amongst producers.690 For the music economy, the impact of these changing market conditions was most evident in the rise of the MP3.

1999–2014 – the MP3

In the very year that Negus defined how the record industry strategically operated a unit-based business model that delivered huge sales and profits, Napster, the illegal file-sharing site, launched. Napster ushered in the popularisation of the MP3. The limitations of availability, affordability and accessibility, which defined the unit sale of physical music formats and their related corporate structures, were replaced by virtually instantaneous, unlimited, and often free, digital song choice. As Sterne observed:

MP3s act as if they had been received in exchange for money – and yet in most cases, they were not in any direct sense acquired for a price. By definition, a thing is only a commodity when its exchangeability for some other thing is its socially relevant feature.691

In the post object era,692 the MP3 changed how the experience of music was mediated, which challenged the formal organisation of the music industry Negus had defined.

The major labels’ strategic response was to attempt to impose ‘An artificial scarcity of intellectual property on the internet’.693 As Hesmondhalgh recognises, up until this point the ownership of the retail and distribution channels had enabled the major record labels to ensure a scarcity of availability of recordings was achieved.694 However, even as iTunes emerged in the mid-2000s as a legal and effective retailer of audio files, Apple’s ‘A thousand songs in your pocket’ promotional strapline encapsulated how the shift in the format, from CD to MP3, had irrevocably affected consumer behaviour. As Tschmuck observed, ‘The change from pure bundles (albums) to mixed bundles, where the user has the choice to buy the whole bundle (album) or just parts of it (single songs) causes a sales decline.’695 Moreover, this new disaggregated immaterial experience, which enabled music users to carry their entire record collection with them, had moved the cultural emphasis on recordings from the physical unit to the MP3 player.696 As O’Hara and Brown observed of this phenomena, ‘Not only does this change listening behaviour and circumstances, it also affords the social value of the portable device as a projection of a person’s musical identity.’697

Despite these considerable industrial and social upheavals698 Fabian Holt’s Genre in Popular Music, published in 2007 just as legal downloading was becoming economically significant, asserted:

The concept of music is bound up with categorical difference … and genre is a fundamental structuring force in musical life. It has implications for how, where, and with whom people make and experience music.699

From an industry perspective, Hesmondhalgh argues, copyright, the star system and genre remained key ways of artificially maintaining scarcity. ‘Many cultural products promoted and publicised primarily via genre also carry author names, but until the author becomes a star, genre is paramount.’700

Seemingly, the shift from a tangible to intangible music format had not diminished genre as a system of classification for producing and consuming music. As Leyshon reports, ‘By 2009 the iTunes catalogue had indexed more than ten million songs’701 and one of the iTunes key characteristic identifiers was, and remains, genre. As Kibby reported when analysing how young people used their iPod’s in 2011, ‘The ease of acquisition and intangibility of the format (MP3) did not appear to lessen the affective attachment to the collection.’702 Either as actual objects or digital files, the fact music was sold and stored as individually identified units meant genre distinction remained an effective way in which to categorise catalogues, both as industry inventory and individual collections.

2015 and the emergence of streaming

By 2015, 30 years after the CD digitised music consumption, smartphones were challenging MP3 players as the primary mobile device for digital music playback. Since 1999 the exclusivity of music’s relationship to a device and format has diminished. On constantly web-connected ‘always on and always on you’703 mobile devices, storing and listening to music becomes just one choice consumers have, among many other applications, to enhance and manage their day-to-day social experience. Streaming music services complement smartphone use by enabling access to recordings without the need to fill the limited data storage capacity of the multifunctional device. This shift from MP3 format to streaming platform means music users no longer need to acquire recordings. While access is a more passive act than acquisition, the hyper-choice the streaming platform presents poses new questions for choosing what to listen to. As Wikstrom observed, ‘The music consumer’s problem is not to access the content, it is how to navigate, manage and manipulate the music in the cloud or on their digital devices.’704 Solving these music selection problems has become a key aspect in the battle for subscribers between competing streaming services,705 as they seek to deliver curated listening experiences that keep customers connected.

Despite competition for subscribers, the key challenge for all streaming services remains establishing the long-term economic viability706 of selling music access, as opposed to units, as a business.707 This means convincing enough consumers to pay to subscribe by converting freemium708 users to become premium subscribers.709 Competing streaming services have adopted different corporate strategies toward securing sustainable and successful businesses.710 However, the diversity and divisiveness of approaches remains a contested area of debate711 and, at the time of writing, is the cause of an ongoing tension between the record industry and the competing technology companies that have assumed the role of music retailer.712

For the 2015 music user, increasingly, the functionality of the mobile device enables them to deliver information to the streaming service, as to the location and context of their listening. The algorithms of the service then serve up a playlist of music that fits the user’s taste and situation, predicated upon preferences previously expressed by the user’s prior listening on the platform. As Anderson describes:

This ecosystem devoted to capturing user interactions and feeding them back into systems dedicated to optimising user experiences are the key to social networks, search engines and the likes of iTunes, Spotify, and Pandora as they make their services much more flexible and attentive to specific user needs and desires.713

The streaming access model can flip the formatting of music preferences from the user to the platform – a function that has considerable implications for a user’s motivation to identify an artist or act as the performer of a song, a process that was implicit in format acquisition. Likewise, for streaming services, music is just as readily categorised by the contexts in which it is played, as much as by the artists who perform it or genres by which it is identified. Arguably, streaming services are diminishing the primacy of the actively chosen listening experience by promoting experience listening, where identifying the artist and even the song is secondary to the activity and situation of the listener. Of Spotify’s top 100 used playlists, in 2014, 41 were named by context, whereas only seventeen were named by genre.714 Jose van Dijck proposed that ‘The indexical function of the musical sign is bound up with its auditory materiality.’715 If so, then streaming platforms are moving the index beyond genre by enabling systems of classification based directly around individual user situations and experience. This data mining and interrogation also aggregates out across platforms. As Alex White, of online music analytics company Next Big Sound, explained:

We now have six-plus years of data and trillions of data points and can finally build a statistical model of the music industry, as well as access a kind of ‘social crystal ball’ about which artists are likely be popular in the future.716

The granular level at which digital platforms can assess and predict user taste calls into question if genre remains ‘A driving, meaningful force’717 corporately and culturally or if, as Kassabian suspects, ‘Genre has receded significantly in importance?’718 Collins and Young argue that digitisation has dissolved the mass market into a multitude of smaller niche markets that are accessed via genre cultures.719 They use the online dance music store Beatport, which listed 23 sub-categories of music genre EDM, as an example of how the internet was ‘Accelerating the splintering of popular music into a range of distinctive genres.’720 This fragmentation of genre into increasing numbers of sub-genres begs the question whether this ongoing nuancing of genre distinction renders genre increasingly meaningless as a form of categorisation. Avdeeff’s focused research, on digital music engagement and taste, explored how music users navigate the genre complexities of the digital music landscape. Her findings propose:

Just as the subjective nature of genre definitions results in eclecticism promoted by immense musical choice, various technologies promote differing ways of listening and interacting socially.721

Avdeeff’s iPod research suggests that many music users have less awareness of their taste and a more varied taste than they are able to self-report. Therefore, in line with van Dijck’s and Avdeeff’s proposition that musical classification and categorisation is closely bound up with, and potentially masked by, the mediums and formats of use, the following sections of this chapter will present some semi-structured empirical research on the impact of music streaming to how listeners apply genre classifications to their music use.

Asking musicians about music use

Definitions of genre and technology within this research

As Holt asserts:

Genre draws attention to the collective and the general, and a great deal of genre research forgets that a culture cannot be adequately understood without paying attention to the individual and the particular.722

More recently, Nowak theorised individual music taste as an, ‘Assemblage of preferences, social connotations, material engagements with technologies, and the roles assigned to music.’723 Therefore, this small initial survey, on the broad self-reported music use of individuals, assessed how individual taste aggregates collectively in an attempt to better understand the relationship between genre, as a categoriser of taste, and the use of technologies. The research primarily considers the two aspects of genre Negus identifies in his 1999 definition. Firstly, genre’s formal organisation by the record industry will be assessed through the participants’ combined genre awareness. By comparing the total number of genres the participants collectively identified to the numbers in previous studies, the genre awareness section will evaluate the effects of genre fragmentation on genre’s continued usefulness for categorisation. Secondly, the survey analyses how participants mediate their own musical experience. Referred to as ‘genre affinity’, this element explores the relationships between the formats and platforms participants use and the number of genres they personally identify with. For the purposes of this research, I will use a variety of terms to describe mediums and technologies. References to devices will mean iPods, record players, smartphones, and so on. Formats will mean CD, vinyl, MP3, and so on. Platforms will refer directly to digital music services, whereas services will broadly refer to streaming platforms and broadcast media combined. The actual genres each participant named, their genre preference, will be discussed to a lesser extent. Finally, Tschmcuk’s (2012) distinction between pure bundles for album listening and mixed bundles for playlist listening will also be employed.

The research design

Building upon the approach and findings of previous research by Juslin and Isaksson,724 I considered musicians a feasible group to survey. As part of a seminar task, I had 60 second-year BA Honours music students observe and record their recorded music use in the third week of October 2015 and prepare a short presentation that recounted their experience. Each student presented their findings to me and a seminar group of eight fellow students. During each presentation I recorded within individual fields on an Excel spreadsheet: which devices, formats and platforms the participant used and how and why they used them; which music genres they listened to; and the context of their listening. Each set of presentations was followed by a ten-minute audio-recorded group discussion, which I opened with the same question, ‘What have you learned from the process of observing your own listening?’ I then loosely facilitated voluntary contributions from participants as to similarities and differences in music use, and their observations and opinions of the various technologies and methodologies they employed.

After completing the task, 45 students voluntarily agreed to be participants in the research, allowing me to draw upon the data they had presented and use the comments I had recorded. Among the participants there was an even gender balance, ages ranged between nineteen and 27 and, although all participants resided in the UK, the group represented a range of nationalities. The majority were from the UK, but a significant number of Norwegians and lesser numbers of Americans, South Koreans, Japanese and Singaporeans were represented. Having listened to the discussions and matched individuals’ comments with their presentation data, I removed students who did not want to be included in the research before anonymising all the participants in the Excel spreadsheet.

Dealing with design flaws

Obviously, all the issues of the accuracy of the data in self-reporting and my own subjective reading of the data and opinions expressed pose potential problems for the impartiality and validity of the research. I recognise there are numerous empirical constraints to my methodological approach. However, this was exploratory research designed to establish if genre awareness and affinity affects the choice of devices, platforms and formats of music listening in a nascent streaming driven record industry. The findings provide some direction as to where future research could focus on how genre preferences imply preferred mediums of music use. The results and discussions as to how the findings relate to the existing literature and what can be learned from the analysis are considered in the following sections.

The genre awareness of streaming users

Demonstrating that streaming is a default medium for most of these music users, all but two of the 45 participants used at least one music streaming platform, either Spotify, YouTube or Soundcloud, in the week surveyed. In fact, streaming was so ubiquitous that 39% of the participants used more than one streaming platform. The table below shows how many participants used each platform, service or format at least once in the week.

Table 1: Participants’ use of platforms, services or formats725

Playback source Total % of at least one use
Spotify Premium – monthly paid for unlimited service 33%
Spotify Freemium – free version with limited functionality and adverts 35%
YouTube – free video streaming service 44%
iTunes – repository for ripped and purchased audio files 37%
Soundcloud/Bandcamp – free streaming platforms 25%
Vinyl – LP format 13%
Radio – broadcast and online 8%
CD – album format 4%
Shazam – phone app music recognition software726 2%

In their presentations the participants reported listening to a total of 40 distinct genres, almost one genre for every participant. The table below lists each genre reported. Then the No. column shows the number of participants who recounted listening to music in that genre in the week surveyed.

Table 2: Genres listened to by participants

Genre No. Genre No.
1 Pop 10 21 80s session players 1
2 Rock 8 22 Alt Rock 1
3 Indie 6 23 Chart 1
4 Jazz 5 24 Cinematic 1
5 Singer/songwriter 5 25 Composers 1
6 Blues 4 26 Dream rock 1
7 Hip hop 4 27 Experimental 1
8 Classical 3 28 Female artists 1
9 Folk 3 29 Film soundtrack 1
10 Musical theatre 3 30 Grime 1
11 R&B 3 31 Grunge 1
12 Soul 3 32 Indie pop 1
13 Dance 2 33 Indie rock 1
14 Electro 2 34 J-Pop 1
15 Electro pop 2 35 Jazz fusion 1
16 Metal 2 36 Krautrock 1
17 Rap 2 37 Motown 1
18 Psych 1 38 New music 1
19 Punk 1 39 Post hardcore 1
20 Trip hop 1 40 Prog rock 1

Given that Holt’s genre research considers nine mainstream genres, Borthwick and Moy’s book Popular Music Genres counts eleven727 and Avdeeff’s research includes 20, 40 is a result that chimes with Collins and Young’s assertion that popular music categorisation is splintering into ever-increasing niches. The Echo-Nest blog listed and mapped 500 genres in 2013 and referenced 1,461 genres on Spotify in total.728 As Borthwick and Moy assert:

Genres have a degree of elasticity, but there invariably comes a point when they split under the pressure of some force or another – be it musical, technological, commercial or social.729

The downward pressure of technology on genre classification could be part of the explanation for the number of genres reported, but a closer reading of the data also suggests musical and social possibilities. Of the 40 genres reported, only seventeen are cited more than once, with only five genres – pop, rock, jazz, indie and singer/songwriter – being listened to by five or more participants. One perspective on the 23 genres singularly identified is that digitisation has brought about the personalisation of taste classification. Although Lena would consider these non-genred categories730, the self-naming of categories is evident in some of the genre titles expressed. Some are too specifically named, for example, 80s session player, Motown and female artist, whereas others are too generic – new music, composers and chart. However, seventeen of the 23 once only identified genres, such as grunge, grime, indie rock, punk and trip hop, would be widely recognised by most music consumers. Furthermore, some of the more specifically named non-genre categories could be a symptom of musicians’ greater attention to detail in stylistic and performative musical distinctions.731 Conversely, this same enhanced awareness could explain why this very small sample group of 45 musicians, compared to the 689 general participants in Avdeeff’s research, identified 40 genres as opposed to just the twelve listed in the self-reported section of Avdeeff’s survey. As Avdeeff summarised about her participants, many ‘Were confused about genre classifications’.732 This certainly is not the case with these musician participants. As one participant in this survey observed of the results in their presentation group, ‘Musicians are more willing to listen to other genres.’ These results may indicate that levels of genre awareness play some role in how ‘Musical categories and systems of classification shape the music that we might play and listen to.’733 Therefore, the next phase of the research was to explore if there was any link between genre affinity and the technologies used for consuming music.

Genre affinities and their mediums of use

Levels of genre affinity across the survey

Given the complexity of 40 genre classifications, I started by simply assessing the number of genres each participant had self-reported having listened to in the week. I used the filter function on the spreadsheet to isolate participants into groups by the number of genres they had listened to. I then looked for any commonalities in the formats and platforms used for listening within the distinct groups and any significant difference between the groups. The data suggests a potential theme between the number of genres participants identified with and the mediums used for listening.

The table below shows: the number of genres; the number and percentage of participants who reported listening to that number of genres; the most and second most used mediums by each group; and what they are mainly used for. An overview and explanation for each category is given in the following section.

Table 3: Participants’ mediums of use

Genres listed Number of participants As a % of the total participants First medium Second medium First use Second use
0 7 16% Free/premium Spotify YouTube Playlists New Music
1 6 14% Free Spotify iTunes / Vinyl New music Genre-specific albums
2 12 27% Premium Spotify YouTube Artists Channels
3 13 30% YouTube iTunes Live music and channels Tracks
4 6 13% iTunes/Vinyl YouTube Favourite albums New music

No genre reported

Those participants who didn’t identify any specific genre affinity all used freemium or premium streaming to predominantly select playlists and channels that support their social experience. This genre-neutral group mainly ‘Felt their preferences changed according to mood/location/other outside factors.’734 A feature of this group not represented in the table was that they spent a lot of time listening. Several of the premium paying participants presented their Spotify year in music data735 that totalled between 20 and 55,000 minutes of listening, between one and two and half hours a day. These findings further suggest, as Avdeeff’s already has, there are groups of music users who ‘Would listen to anything.’736 Kassabian has termed this type of music use ‘ubiquitous listening’, music as ‘Background accompaniment to their routines and activities.’737 These listeners use streaming like personalised radio and view its function much like controllers of daytime radio programmes, with music as, ‘A secondary activity… to what they’re doing.’738 However, unlike radio, the playlists aren’t narrow but as diverse as the user wants them to be. Marshall has been critical of this type of experience listening. He protests:

There is no time for desire, and no time (or need) for labour. Think of a song, play it instantly. But when everything is equally available, rarity as a form of distinction disappears.739

Arguably, this group doesn’t even think of a song, they request algorithmically pre-designed playlists that suit the context of their listening. And, as long as the music doesn’t offend them or their situation, they are happy to ubiquitously listen. This approach to listening is very different to that of the group who identify with the authentic rarity of one specific genre.

One genre reported

This group identify very specifically with one genre and collect it on vinyl or iTunes, and only use freemium streaming for discovery and general listening. Again, Avdeeff’s research recognises this type of listening behaviour as ‘Those who only listen to one type, but are open to suggestions.’740 Frith’s assertion that authenticity relates to some kind of sincerity or commitment741 is clearly evident in this group, as identifying with a single genre is clearly a very individual process. As one participant observed, ‘Most of the stuff I have on vinyl is 70s or 80s, so it feels a bit more authentic listening to it.’ This personal commitment is demonstrated by the fact that of the five genres identified – 80s session players, jazz, rock, indie and grime (which was collected as playlists on Soundcloud not iTunes or vinyl) – only rock was reported twice. This is a group that passionately collect and catalogue their genre, a process that is, somewhat surprisingly, quite distinct to those that identified with two genres.

Two genres reported

Seventy-five percent of the twelve participants that reported two genres use Spotify premium as their main platform for listening. Of the other four participants, two use Spotify freemium and the rest a combination of YouTube and Soundcloud. Two participants also bought vinyl albums of music that was a particular favourite or special edition. Like the genre-neutral users, this group uses Spotify’s personalised radio discovery functions or specific YouTube channels, such as Majestic Casual or the Mahogany Sessions. However, they then select tracks by artists who they like, which they then almost exclusively access through and within Spotify, as mixed bundles organised by artist. Unlike the genre-neutral group, who treat streaming like personalised radio for background to a secondary activity, this group exerts some degree of labour in their music choice. They use the unlimited access of premium streaming to toggle between the radio and their virtual record collection. As Atton states, ‘Curation is concerned with taking care and taking control.’742 In paying a monthly subscription, clearly these users care about music. However, unlike the participants who identified deeply with one genre, they are not interested in rarity. Moreover, there was a clear divide in attitudes and practices between this group and the group that identified with three genres. The two-genre participants collect music by building playlists within the streaming platform. They favour being able to access music over those who identified with three genres who seem to, quite clearly, prefer acquisition.

Three genres reported

The group that named three genres predominantly use freemium streaming to access live versions of songs, but then mainly collect tracks by artists on iTunes for quality off-line listening. As Kibby observed of young MP3 listeners:

Their collection was not defined as the music currently being played, but as the music owned, even if it might never again be accessed. It had been tagged and classified and belonged to the collection.743

Even though they are building largely intangible music collections of mainly mixed bundles of tracks separated out from the originally released formats, the notion of ownership is important to these participants. They are ‘Treating the music as a thing when they discuss it in terms of possession.’744 This approach to listening is very similar to the final group, which aligned with four genres, with one small but notable difference.

Four genres reported

The small group that identified with four genres each use YouTube to discover music but also privilege ownership and spend most of their time listening specifically to favourite albums they have collected on iTunes, CD or vinyl. It is the dedication to pure bundle album listening, and a value system that dictates that music should be programmed and listened to the way the artist intended, which demarcates this group as distinct. Psychologically, if not always physically, this group is invested in maintaining the sanctity of the album format because they place a high value on the listening experience. This participant comment on buying albums sums up the attitude of this group, ‘It depends on what has come out that month, if it’s a good month I can spend thirty to forty pounds.’

Genre affinity analysis

The groups that identified with either one or four genres, a combined 25% of the survey, share a commitment to collecting and a sincerity in their approach to cultivating a listening experience. These two groups accounted for four of the six participants who used vinyl during the survey, and generally both had an affinity for listening to the album format. As Shuker has observed of these types of music connoisseurs, ‘Many collectors appear to value the process of gathering music more than the actual possession of it.’745 Likewise, for participants who had an affinity for one or four genres, music streaming was not considered an authentic listening experience and only deemed useful for discovering new music or convenience. These participants represent music users that will be difficult for streaming services to convert from freemium to premium subscribers, as they value collecting and cataloguing units, mainly in the pure-bundle album format. For these participants, ‘A collection without order is not a collection’746 and genre continues to play a significant role in the ordering.

The two largest groups that associated with either two genres, 27% of the participants, or three genres, 30%, exemplify the shift from format to platform listening that music streaming has heralded. Those that identified three genres had much in common with the album dedicated groups but they predominantly collected artist tracks as mixed MP3 bundles (not albums) stored on iTunes. Although there was no physical format collecting, treating music as a thing that belonged to them was fundamentally important. As Kibby has observed of MP3 collectors:

The music that they possess all holds certain meanings specific to each individual and all serves as a connection to their pasts or a reminder of different people or events in their lives.747

They mainly used streaming, and specifically YouTube, to access otherwise unavailable live recordings or to listen to genre-specific music channels. Only two of the thirteen participants subscribed to Spotify premium and one used it for album listening; the other used it for discovery but had iTunes for albums. Again, this hunt and buy group will be difficult to convince that paying a £5–10 monthly subscription is good value for money. Why pay to access music they either already get for free, prefer to buy as downloads or already own and have organised in a way that connects with them?

Conversely, the group that identified with two genres paid to stream access and only one of them still used MP3s. For this group the concept of ownership is almost redundant. For these users, ‘Sharing on Spotify and watching what my friends are listening to’748 is what is important. These users are ‘Constantly listening to music’ and have bought into the streaming model fully, so much so, that 65% of the fourteen participants that subscribed to Spotify premium used it exclusively for all their listening in the week. For their volume of music use, the subscription fee offers good value for money. This type of user lock-in is what the streaming services are banking on long term. However, at its current £5–10 per month price point, perhaps what premium streaming has to offer only appeals to around a third of streaming-savvy heavy music users, who know the few genres of music they like, but remain keen to be regularly introduced to new music.

The other type of user the premium tier appealed to was half of the 16% of the survey that expressed no genre affinity. This risk-free approach to listening is far removed from the principled dedication to the album expressed by those with one or four genre affinities. However, this group are heavy music users, but for genre neutrals music is a labour-less, inoffensive soundtrack to other social experiences and neither ownership nor curating their own music is important. As one participant expressed, ‘I listen to music all the time and if I don’t have my headphones with me I’m devastated, I’m always listening to playlists of chart music.’ This type of user is ideal for the contextually-based curatorial features of the streaming platforms, but on this evidence the platforms have work to do to convince them all that the services they offer are worth paying for.

The need for further research

The distinctions drawn between genre affinity could also be to do with the genre preference. There is anecdotal evidence within the data that those who named two genres predominantly favour pop and indie. This is contrasted with those who identified three genres, who seem to lean towards an array of niches such as hip hop, rap, jazz, R&B, soul, singer/songwriter and folk, whereas the four genre group identified with various idioms of rock and metal. As Frith asserts in his exploration of genre rules, ‘Genre discourse depends … on a certain shared musical knowledge and experience.’749 While entitling classifications of new combinations of sounds and styles aims at greater clarity, the seeming simplicity of sub-genre names masks the complexities behind the derivations of the actual musical and aesthetic combinations. Without clarifying my shared understanding of the genre titles expressed, I could only guess at the types of sounds, styles and, more importantly, acts and music to which the participants refer. Therefore, further research would seek to have participants allocate the diversity of genres named in the genre awareness section into a smaller number of broader classifications, so genre preference themes could be written into the research. Until then, this survey suggests that despite a shift toward music streaming, and the algorithmically and personalised music choices those platforms offer, genre remains a core way of mediating the experience of music.


While genre fragmentation increases the number of genres to unfathomable amounts, this research suggests it is the number of genres a music user mainly identifies with that is significant. The survey data shows a breadth of listening behaviour and mediums used by all the participants. However, there were broad identifiable collective patterns of use apparent within distinct groups of music users defined by the number of genres they recalled listening to. This research suggests that music users who express an affinity for none or two specific genres of music are far more likely to pay to stream music than those who identify with one specific genre, or who have tastes that extend to three or four. These groups still prefer to pay to acquire music on vinyl and MP3 and use free streaming for discovery and convenience. Despite a drive toward facilitating music choice predicated upon the mood, location or activities of the listener by streaming platforms, on this evidence genre remains a core concept in how music users identify with music and themselves. As streaming access challenges unit ownership to become the dominant medium for music use, the number of musical genres users have an awareness of and affinity for may not only shape the music we play, but also the mediums we use to play it and whether or not we pay for it.

Select bibliography

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Avdeeff, Melissa. Challenges Facing Musical Engagement and Taste in Digitiality. IASPM, 2011,, accessed 20 June 2016.

Borthwick, Stuart and Moy, Roy. Popular Music Genres. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2004.

Frith, Simon. Performing Rites: Evaluating Popular Music. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

Holt, Fabian. Genre in Popular Music. London: University of Chicago Press, 2007.

Kassabian, Anahid. Ubiquitous Listening: Affect, Attention and Distributed Subjectivity. London: University of California, 2013.

Kibby, Marjory. ‘Collect yourself’, in Information, Communication and Society 12(3), 2009, pp. 428–443,, accessed 20 June 2016.

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Nowak, Raphael. Consuming Music in the Digital Age. Technologies, Roles and Everyday Life. Hampshire: Palgrave MacMillan, 2016.

Sterne, Jonathan. MP3: The Meaning of a Format. Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2012.