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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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‘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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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