> RICHARDS Imperialisn and Music [JW]: Book Reviews- February 2002 MusicWeb(UK)

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Jeffrey Richards

Imperialism and music. Britain 1876-1953

Manchester University Press 2001

ISBN H/B 0719045061 £55 Amazon UK £49.99

ISBN P/B 0719061431 £19.99 Amazon UK £17.99


An avowedly cross-disciplinary study – the author is a cultural historian not a musicologist – this work is bound by two dates that seek to promote and amplify its theme. Under The Royal Titles Act of 1876 Queen Victoria was created Empress of India and 1953 is the date of what Richards calls the last Imperial Coronation. Or, to put it another way, roughly the span of Arnold Bax’s life. Ranging widely through musical life he describes pageants and bands, music halls and choirs, from high to popular culture (though significantly more of the latter) constantly relating musical performance to its function and meaning in an imperial society. This is not, perhaps, the place to investigate further the themes of national inclusion, the inculcation of Protestant values and the furtherance of Empire generally, in what Richards terms the "ideological cluster" but it is necessary to point out that that in this work music, whilst often viewed absolutely, is specifically seen as a piston in the British imperial machine. Not a narrative as such the text is more a collection of essays on given themes – Festivals, films, hymns, Dominions’ Tours by such as Albani, Melba and Butt and the Aldershot Tattoo amongst them. Extensive use is made of contemporary quotation and equally of poems, lyrics and texts as well as reportage and relevant biographical material. Whilst the rather exhausting lists of Anthems, Marches and Hymns hinders narrative flow they do at least support the author’s contention that Imperial thought – in its widest sense – saturated popular culture. What will prove to be most controversial concerns the chapter Elgar’s Empire. Sullivan having failed to provide much of a lead, Richards holds up Elgar as the Imperial laureate in analogue to Kipling (his earlier conflation of Tennyson and Sullivan is forced and unconvincing). To properly establish Elgar’s credentials it is necessary to rebut counter-claims or ambiguities. To this end Richards launches an attack on what he sees as 1960s revisionism – specifically on Michael Kennedy and Ken Russell and whilst discussing Caractacus he notes that Kennedy once rewrote the final words. In a sneering Ad Hominem passage he disdains Kennedy’s supposedly anti-imperial sensibilities and triumphantly reinstates Elgar on the plinth of monolithic Imperialism. His further comment that The Dream of Gerontius contains "the idea of Empire as a vehicle for struggle and sacrifice" is so far-fetched that it brings into question his judgement as does similarly his idea that the concluding EDU Variation is in "full imperial idiom" an idea he seems to have appropriated from a ridiculous Cecil Gray article of 1924 (the same Cecil Gray who wrote so wittily that Elgar’s music "smells so strongly of a peerage that I for one cannot stomach it"). These examples point to a wider problem with this study; it subsumes creativity and aspiration to a single theme. Serious composers are reduced to Imperial engines. Elgar is solidified as a result, the creative processes reduced to a cipher. When Richards treats less complex issues he does so with tact but at the Imperial heart of his book, at its centre, he has wielded a machete and cut off his own arm.

Jonathan Woolf

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