Das Land ohne Musik


Royal Earsdon Sword Dancers, Northumberland, 1912. More here.

Das Land ohne Musik

Oscar Schmitz, 1914

There is no city in the world, I am sure, where so much music is consumed as in London.

Hector Berlioz, 1851

Susan McClary’ s book Feminine endings is always full of leads, such as:

Linda Austern and Richard Leppert have demonstrated that one reason the English have produced so little music is that they—more than their German or French neighbors—have long associated music with effeminacy. (p.17)

An intriguing thought, but it begs questions. First of all, “produced” here clearly refers to the composition of art music. A perceptive essay is

  • Peter Holman,* “Eighteenth-century English music: past, present, future” (ch.1 of David Wyn Jones (ed.), Music in eighteenth-century Britain, 2000),

where he tellingly probes the description of 18th-century England as “Das Land ohne Musik” (cf. Haydn). He dates it back further to a pithy 1840 comment by Heinrich Heine:

These people [the English] have no ear, either for rhythm or music, and their unnatural passion for piano playing and singing is thus all the more repulsive. Nothing on earth is more terrible than English music, save English painting.

Touché! As Holman notes,

Of course, this agenda is part of a larger one that has more to do with 19th-century cultural politics than with a proper, balanced evaluation of the total corpus of 18th-century music. It privileged what was perceived as as the centre—Italy, Germany, and Austria— over the supposed periphery—Scandinavia, eastern and central Europe, France, the Iberian peninsula, and England. It privileged instrumental music, especially those genres that used Viennese sonata form, over vocal music. And it privileged the work of the professional secular male in concert music over all others, such as church musicians, amateurs, and women.
The most persistent observation on musical life in 18th-century England is that it was dominated by Handel and other immigrant composers, the implication being that native composers were too feeble, parochial, or conservative to offer them much competition.

OK, he’s broadly following the continental critics here in equating “musical life” with art music—not all the diverse folk traditions, such as the musical life of taverns in East Anglia. But he unpacks the assumptions of even this limited definition:

It was not a new situation. Immigrants had played an important role in bringing new ideas from the continent ever since the reign of Henry VII. (See Wind, ethnicity, and gender, and They come over ‘ere…)

Adducing Ferrabosco, Notari, and Draghi, Holman notes that that as the scale of immigration increased,

these developments were not symptoms of weakness or decline, but evidence of a vibrant and complex musical life. Musicians were not attracted to London from all over Europe by the prospect of becoming big fish in a small, stagnant pond, but because London was the largest and most exciting pond of all, where you did not need to be a big fish to make a fortune.

Indeed, it could be argued that England was the most musical country in Europe by the second half of the 18th century, judging by the amount of musical activity of all types.

The variety he cites here includes rival concert series, Italian opera, provincial music societies, church choirs, and amateur musicking such as “gentlemen” competing in taverns. This is indeed more diverse than the narrow picture he criticizes, but still doesn’t subsume “folk” activity such as sea shanties or street fiddlers. He goes on:

My second objection to the “foreign domination” theory is that there is little sign that immigrants replaced native musicians in lucrative employment, or prevented them from obtaining it.

Just as the Lupo and Bassano families had supplemented indigenous instrumentalists at the court of Henry VIII, Italian opera became just an extra strand enriching the musical life of London. But

My most serious objection to the “foreign domination” theory is that it is based on an anachronistic conception of national and racial identity. […] England has always been a nation of immigrants, and it makes no sense to restrict an account of its culture to the work of natives, or, more accurately, to the work of the descendants of less recent immigrants.
What is often forgotten is that immigrant composers, anxious to be accepted in England, adapted their own idioms to conform to English taste.

This is all grist to Stewart Lee‘s mill.

At the same time, the “foreign domination” theory does rest to a large extent on the focus on the composers and performers of art music. Despite my pleas to broaden the social scope, Holman’s perspective, like a lot of in-depth studies of WAM, belongs firmly within the wise counsels of ethnomusicology. His chapter contains many more perceptive observations, which you must read!

* * *

To return to McClary’s lead,

  • Richard Leppert and Susan McClary (eds.), Music and society: the politics of composition, performance and reception (1987)

is full of stimulating chapters, not least her own:

  • “The blasphemy of talking politics during Bach year”,

which I introduced here. As the book’s Introduction notes, recent changes in scholarship,

especially evident in literature, film, and visual art, have led to a systematic investigation of the implicit assumptions underlying critical methods of the last two-hundred years, including prominently the assumption that art consistutes an autonomous sphere, separate and isolated from the outside social world.

Janet Wolff’s Foreword is another nail in the coffin of “autonomous” art—and another critique that should be compulsory for heritage pundits in China. The book ranges rather widely, with chapters from Rose Subotnik on Chopin, Simon Frith on popular music, John Shepherd on music and male hegemony, John Mowitt on electric technology in sound production, and Leppert’s own discussion of the music, domestic life, and cultural chauvinism of British subjects in India.

The authors point out that they hardly deal with music and society in non-Western cultures, touching “only lightly on questions about the music of women, and ethnic and racial minorities”. They observe that women, and the lower classes, have been erased from the received picture, though they are rarely excluded from musicking—just from prestigious public musicking.

So again the book is largely based on the musical activities of the bourgeoisie—not least because the source material largely derives from them. Still, the debt to ethnomusicology is clear: even if WAM scholarship may seem to contrast with ethnomusicology, they can enter into a rapprochement [uh-oh, more non-national terms?—Ed.].

* * *

Actually, all we need to deflate the idea of Das Land ohne Musik is the classic question “What is music?“—or rather, “What is musicking?”. Pundits of both WAM and pop music tend to take a limited view, as I often observe (e.g. here, and here).

By a narrow definition based on composers of art music, most of the world over most of history would be considered “without music”. Do mothers singing lullabies, spirit mediums, or percussion bands, count? Even once we’ve thrown out the narrow assumption that music means art music, I wonder how one might rank the cultures of the world in terms of “musicality”: Inuit, Italian, Andalucian, Tibetan, Bolivian, Malian, Afghan, and so on. Were Afghans or Andalucians “unmusical”, and are they now? And we may be lumbered with the dodgy cliché that Africans, like Chinese ethnic minorities, are “good at singing and dancing”—but where might north Americans come in the spurious league table, for instance?

Cultural genocide—the suppression of indigenous cultures by a dominant force—is a separate subject. As I write this, I notice this blurb for what I’m sure is a fine BBC4 programme:

Masters of the Pacific coast: the tribes of the American northwest
Exploring how culture was established on the American northwest.

Discuss… An inspiration for the Party’s current replacement of the complexities of Uyghur music by “If you’re happy and you know it, clap your hands” (note also this post)?

Is a society in which most people frequently sing or dance less musical than one with an opera house, a symphony orchestra, and a conservatoire? “Expenditure on the arts” is a dubious index. Is a funding-dependent society in which children are discouraged from singing and dancing unless they’re formally trained as musical as one where such activity is assumed, embedded in the culture? Indeed, even in such a culture, formally-trained musicians make up only a small proportion of participants.

As always, it’s worth considering the wise words of Bruno Nettl, in his

  • The study of ethnomusicology: thirty-three discussions,

He addresses the issue of “what is music?” —a point also made by Christopher Small in his introduction to Musickingin a famous vignette in his chapter 2, “Combining tones: the concept of music”:

Let me reconstruct a cocktail party conversation about 1975 when I confessed to working in ethnomusicology. “Studying American Indian music?” says one amazed person. “I didn’t know they even had music”. I try patiently to explain. “Oh yes, I knew they had chants, but is that really music?” From an elderly gentleman: “I spent a year in Africa, heard a lot of singing and drumming, but is that music? After all, they don’t write it down. Maybe they just make it up as they go along. Do they really know what they’re doing?” More explanation. A young man has added himself. “But these sounds that some peoples in Asia make with their instruments and voices, or the Indian chants, can you call them music? They don’t have harmony.” And a middle-aged lady: “My teenage sons play something they call music all day. I can’t stand any of it.”

We might now wonder if Nettl was going to the wrong kind of parties; indeed, he notes that people may have since become more broad-minded, but the issue remains. He discusses John Blacking’s important book How musical is man? (1973):

writing today, he would likely have asked “How musical are humans?” […] He recognized the world as a group of musics, though he personally was always more interested in their borderlands than the centers, but he wanted to make sure that his readers understood a major point: in the end, all musics are equally valuable, or, let’s put it this way, all musics are to an equal degree music.

Nettl’s whole book explores such themes—essential reading! Even his models for types of cultural change may be instructive to understand the fates of native American and Uyghur cultures.


Billy Purvis (1784–1853).

So the Land ohne Musik slight rests on a blinkered valorization of a league table of Great Works by Great Composers, rather than the diverse forms of musicking in society generally. Ironically, it’s based on new music.

As to England being ohne Musik in 1914 (or indeed 1714), never mind all the WAM activity then, how about all the traditions then being unearthed by Cecil Sharp and Co.—singing, local dance traditions, street music, wind bands? In the narrow view, none of these seem to count.

Issues here include the balance of “active” producers and “passive” consumers, amateur and occupational performers. What of a society which expects to invite performers often, as in Hokkien cultures in southeast China; or one where people simply attend a lot of parties?

Music does seem more ubiquitous than ever today: not just via technology (over speakers in malls and, um, elevators), but actively: both listening to recorded music most of the time, and active musicking at all kinds of social events, including clubbing, places of worship, and football matches.

So never mind 1730s’ Leipzig or 1780s’ Vienna, how about Liverpool and Detroit in the 1960s, or Herat in the 1970s—or Beijing, New York, and London today? I’m not exactly disputing the notion that some societies may be more “musical” than others, but attempting to compile a league table of world musicality would ultimately be a cul-de-sac. Whether for the 18th century or today, it’d take a thorough broad-based survey of soundscapes to assess all this—one fine example of the broad view is Ruth Finnegan’s 1989 The hidden musicians, on musical life in Milton Keynes.

At least, people don’t wait for composers (whether indigenous or foreign) to write symphonies and operas to express their musicality. All this may seem obvious, but people still tend to stick within their particular tribes.

By the way, I constantly dispute the narrow dominance of one particular limited view of what constitutes “Chinese music”. I’ve given many instances of the narrow dominance of the conservatoire style and commercial pop; but punk, all kinds of vocal music along the continuum from folk-song to opera, spirit mediumshousehold Daoists, shawm and percussion bands, and so on, are all part of the picture we have to consider—as for any society in the world, for any period. Yet again, we should delight in all manifestations of the Terpsichorean muse


* This is neither here nor there, but it was on tour with Peter that Paul O’Dette told me the hemiola story


6 thoughts on “Das Land ohne Musik

  1. Pingback: Feminine endings: Madonna and McClary | Stephen Jones: a blog

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  3. Pingback: Musicking | Stephen Jones: a blog

  4. Pingback: Just remind me again, what is music?! | Stephen Jones: a blog

  5. Pingback: Singers of the world? | Stephen Jones: a blog

  6. Pingback: Is music a universal language? | Stephen Jones: a blog

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