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Far from the Fashionable Crowd - The People’s Concert Society & Music in London’s Suburbs
Dr. Alan Bartley MA
Whimbrel Publishing
978-0-956582201
£18.99

Experience Classicsonline


Many books, articles and dissertations have been written about classical music activities in London. An excellent general overview of the subject is given in London: A Musical Gazetteer by Lewis and Susan Foreman (Yale University, 2005). There have been a number of studies of the more famous orchestras and musical societies such as C. Ehrlich: First Philharmonic: a History of the Royal Philharmonic Society (Oxford, 1995). The Promenade Concerts have attracted a lot of attention over the years with the latest study being The Proms: A New History by Jenny Doctor, David Wright and Nicolas Kenyon. However, there has been a distinct shortage of books about music-making in the suburbs of the London, most especially in the working class areas of the East End and south of the river. One honourable exception to this is The Musical Life of the Crystal Palace (Cambridge, 1995) by Michael Musgrave. Yet there has been little analysis of the phenomenon of the huge increase in Victorian times of public concerts and the large numbers of people from all walks of life who attended them. The achievement of Far from the Fashionable Crowd, as the title implies, is to take the focus of attention away from Covent Garden, the Albert Hall, and the Queen’s Hall and consider the musical activity at venues such as the South Place Ethical Society, the Surbiton Assembly Rooms and the Bermondsey Settlement. It addresses not only fashionable concert-goers but also lower-middle and working class attendance at musical events.
 
This book will appeal to a wide variety of readership well beyond musicologists. Anyone who has a concern for the progress of the working class in the nineteenth and early twentieth century will find plenty of information to challenge preconceived notions. For example, many political historians will imagine that the entire music for the masses ‘project’ was simply a means of ‘improving’ the teeming multitudes of the poorer areas of the city. Many will consider that the main protagonists in this ‘boom’ were inspired by a moral crusade of either Marxist fervour or middle-class patronisation. The truth is much more complex! Social historians will find much of interest in Bartley’s discussion about how ‘respectable’ families saw their place in working class society and how music was one of the ‘ladders’ to rise in that society. Students of ‘progress’ will be fascinated to see how the musical activities in the less-fashionable areas of London were quickly overwhelmed by the rise of the cinema, ‘listening-in’ to the wireless, dancing and roller-skating. However, it is a book primarily about music and to that end it demands the attention of anyone who is interested in the concert life – performers, venues and works played - in the Capital.

The book covers two key topics – the Peoples’ Concert Society which is examined in considerable detail and the performance of classical music in London’s suburbs. The word ‘suburb’ here includes both the suburban and the more working class areas such as Bethnal Green and Mile End. The book is divided into three main parts – The ‘Worker’s Concerts’, the Middle-Class suburban concerts, and finally the ‘shared interests’ between these two groups, such as the performers and the music performed. There are a number of appendices covering subjects such as the known venues for the Peoples’ Concert Society, a list of that group’s ‘favourite’ works and an analysis of most played chamber music extracted from some 2044 concerts! The bibliography is impressive, being presented in three detailed sections – the books, articles and diaries perused, dictionaries, documents etc. (including WebPages) and relevant newspapers and journals consulted. A comprehensive index is given that will be extremely useful to future historians and musicologists.

I take as an example, the ‘case study’ (Chapter 8) on Woodford in East London, which was deemed to be a cultural wilderness in the 1890s. It had never attracted an artistic community: classical music was virtually unheard in this collection of villages. However, towards the end of the nineteenth century, there was a huge increase in music-making and most especially in the number of chamber music concerts of considerable quality that attracted many fine musicians. Alan Bartley develops his theme by outlining the social and economic history of the area. He considers the various venues that had a potential for attracting a musical audience, such as the Lecture Hall of the Congregational Church at Woodford which seated 400 people and the Wilfred Lawson Temperance Hotel and Hall. Then he discusses the explosion of musical interest. There were orchestral concerts given by the Woodford Orchestral Society and the Hillcrest Orchestra. Glee clubs, such as the South Woodford Musical Society met at Miss Must’s schoolroom. However, much of this particular case study is given to the singular achievement of Ernest Markham Lee (1874-1956), who had taken the post of choirmaster and organist at the Woodford Green Church in 1896. Markham Lee is a name that many pianists of a certain age will be familiar. He is responsible for a large number of ‘character pieces’ for piano and also violin: he wrote several musical textbooks including a study of Brahms orchestral music. Yet, it is his role as the founder of the Woodford Green chamber concerts that concerns the argument of this book. Bartley examines in detail the development and the content of these events. His achievement was summed up by a certain Dr. Percy Warner who wrote that ‘You have not only given enjoyment to many, but you have raised the standard of music throughout the neigbourhood.’ It is a eulogy that could be applied to many of the characters featured in this book.

Dr. Alan Bartley M.A. is the ideal person to have written this book. He was born in London’s East End in 1933 and has long had an appreciation of, and sympathy with, the history and culture of all parts of the Capital. He extends this interest to include native Londoners and those who have come from further afield and have contributed so much to the life and culture of the city. His career as an arts editor and musical journalist has afforded him tremendous opportunities to explore a wide variety of musical styles, including jazz and works from the 18th & 19th centuries which are his prime interests. Further experience in concert promotion and management has enabled him to be in touch with a wide variety of performers and listeners and has given him a good understanding of the difficult subject of concert economics. However, it was the discovery of a little-studied branch of Victorian philanthropy that encouraged working people to develop an appreciation of classical music that led him to explore the topic of this book.

The book is reasonably priced at £18.99 bearing in mind the amount of scholarship and study that has gone into producing it. The photographs, the detailed documentation, the quality of the paper and printing all add up to a worthwhile production. Furthermore it is a trajectory of musical, historical and even political history that has been largely ignored over the years. Dr Bartley has managed to capture much of the activities and achievements of these ‘suburban’ concerts at a time when much of the information becomes harder to trace. It is a book that demands to be set alongside the various ‘standard’ histories of the ‘West-End’ musical achievement.

 

John France

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


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