Ideas of music research

Ideas of Music Research in Britain, 1813-74: Roots of the (Royal) Musical Association’, presented at the 57th Annual Conference of the RMA, University of Newcastle, 14 September 2021

The Musical Association - 'Royal' from 1944 - was founded in 1874 as a learned society for the ‘investigation and discussion of subjects connected with the art and science of music'. Antiquarian publishing societies had been started before in London, and at least four attempts at clubs with music lectures had been tried.

All had faltered, ironically, through their efforts to create a music library and give concerts too: no one yet imagined that lectures and discussion alone could form the basis of a music society. Not in England, anyway, where making music and listening to it were far more important.

Favourable conditions and encouragement, notably from eminent scientists including John Tyndall (co-founder of climate science) and Lord Rayleigh (mathematician, physicist, Nobel Prize winner), came together in the mid-1870s. By that time, through expanded intellectual curiosity, commercial print culture, and the professionalization of knowledge, a fifth set of founders discovered new resolve.

Calling themselves the Musical Association, they focused on music research as a discipline in itself, omitting performances as features of meetings and mustering the intellectual self-confidence to sustain a viable learned organization. It was not easy. All the while, individual scholars forged ahead, editing and publishing old scores, studying composers through original source materials, and investigating the nature of sound.

As a contribution to the backstory of the RMA, approaching its 150th anniversary in 2024, my Newcastle conference presentation reviewed changing concepts of music research in 19th-century Britain. Recurring ambiguities over topic, purpose and audience (who pays? who cares?), rising standards in ‘musicology’ abroad (notably in Germany), and a nagging lack of faith in the worth of British research continued to affect the Association after 1874.

‘You have some fascinating material here -- and really interesting questions!’

A conference participant

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