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Music in London and the Myth of Decline

from Haydn to the Philharmonic.


Ian Taylor


Cambridge: Cambridge U.P., 2010.  £55.00 (hardcover), xiv+208 pp.

ISBN: 978-0-521-89609-2


Reviewed by Pierre Dubois

Université François Rabelais (Tours, France)



Ian Taylor’s aim in this book is to challenge the idea that London experienced a period of orchestral starvation between the departure of Haydn in 1795 and the founding of the Philharmonic Society in 1813. In order to drive his point home, the author draws on a range of primary sources such as concert programmes, newspaper reviews and periodical reports. The book is well documented and the various concert programmes quoted, which can be read almost as ‘snapshots’ of the musical activity in London at the time, make for interesting reading. Ian Taylor’s contribution to a better understanding of the musical activity in the British capital at the beginning of the nineteenth century can be seen as a welcome addition to Simon McVeigh’s seminal study Concert Life in London from Mozart to Haydn (Cambridge U.P., 1993). The gist of the argument is that, far from constituting a radical new departure in patterns of London concert life, the Philharmonic Society built on the active musical activity and the growing interest in orchestral music that had been established over the preceding years. The notion that the Philharmonic Society broke new ground is therefore dismissed as a ‘myth’, and Mr. Taylor repeatedly tries to show how his own documented reading of the period differs markedly from previous accounts, while he insists on the need for a new ‘methodology’ to ‘reassess the nature and extent of London concert life during this period’ because previous authors ‘have focused almost entirely on the history of musical institutions’ [40].

But where does the so-called ‘myth of musical decline’ in London originate, one may wonder? Chapter 1 focuses on this question. Ian Taylor’s grounds for the argument are to be found mainly in George Hogarth’s The Philharmonic Society in London: from its Foundation, 1813, to its Fiftieth Year, 1862, published in 1862 and Myles Birket Foster’s The History of the Philharmonic Society of London, 1813-1912, published in 1912, as well as in The Quarterly Musical Magazine and Review (1818-1828) and The Harmonicon (1823-1833)… In other words, the myth of musical decline was mainly master-minded, in the nineteenth century, by those who supported the founding and development of the Philharmonic Society. That the so-called ‘First Prospectus’ of the Philharmonic Society should have deplored the ‘almost utter neglect into which instrumental pieces in general have fallen’ [quoted 18] and announced the founders’ intention to redress such a situation comes as no surprise. For present-day specialists of musical life in late eighteenth-, and early nineteenth-century London, however, the ‘myth’ in question is almost a non-issue! As McVeigh showed nearly twenty years ago, concert life in London was both intense and diverse, and Ian Taylor’s effort to explode a myth long-since exploded turns out to be a kind of white elephant.

This does not mean, however, that the book does not offer an interesting picture of London’s concert life at the turn of the century and one readily agrees with quite a few observations made by the author. The crucial part played by Johann Peter Salomon’s subscription and benefit concerts as a ‘fruitful source for the continued performance of instrumental music’ [43] and by Franz Cramer as an orchestral leader employed by various London musicians is quite rightly underlined. Muzio Clementi was also ‘a pivotal figure in networks of musical distribution and publication at this time’ [67] and he contributed in particular to the promotion of Beethoven’s music in London. From this, it appears clearly that concert life between 1795 and 1813 was dominated by individuals and individual effort rather than by proper institutions. The founding of the Philharmonic Society can thus be assessed, not so much as what brought a period of orchestral inactivity to an end, but rather as a means of providing an institutional focus for what, since the demise of Salomon’s subscription series, had been a disparate musical culture [52]. Where institutions are concerned, the respective roles played by the Concerts of Antient Music, the Nobility Concerts and the Ladies’ Concerts, as well as by the pleasure gardens, are duly – if not always quite thoroughly – investigated. The Harmonic Society, founded and run by professional musicians, was largely independent of aristocratic and fashionable patronage [112], paving the way for the Philharmonic Society although the two societies existed within differentiated geographical and cultural arenas [114]. Ian Taylor also underlines the important role played by the pianoforte and pianoforte arrangements of orchestral scores in the diffusion of the instrumental repertoire during this period.

However, for all these interesting remarks the book leaves somewhat to be desired. Not only is the critical stance adopted by the author partly irrelevant – or the point made relatively minor – as mentioned previously, but moreover some aspects of the musical equation are unfortunately left out, which undermines the validity of the demonstration attempted. One issue that is conspicuously absent from the author’s perspective is that of the ideological aspect of musical aesthetics. The activities of musical institutions and individual concert promoters are approached without taking into account the evolution of taste, and the reasons thereof. Lists of works performed or the names of performers are quoted but never analysed in depth for what they might reveal about the changes in the audiences’ expectations. Although it is pointed out, the difference between the aristocracy’s preference for vocal music and the ‘commercial and middle-class values’ that leant towards instrumental music is not explained convincingly [103-107], nor is the enduring popularity of ancient music or of Handel’s works (which were the object of as many musical arrangements as Haydn’s own works). Taylor is manifestly interested primarily in actual data and, beyond the central question of the myth of musical decline, leaves it mostly up to the reader to provide whichever interpretation he or she fancies. Elsewhere, it is equally disturbing to see Dr. Burney and Simon McVeigh put on the same plane in the following sentence: ‘Like Burney, McVeigh aligns the development of the large-scale, formalized domestic concert with the penultimate decade of the eighteenth century…’ [118] – for surely both authors (one contemporary, the other not) had vastly different positions with regard to the object they studied and McVeigh’s observations are obviously informed by his knowledge of the primary source consisting in Burney’s own remarks. Similarly, a superficial reading of William Crotch’s 1805 ‘Twelve Lectures’ is used retrospectively to explain the rise of the craze for ‘ancient music’ in the late eighteenth century, without adequately taking into account Crotch’s conservative, backward-looking stance and his particular chronological standpoint in musical history. These and other loosely integrated passages or remarks (e.g. on the rise of the pianoforte) give the impression that the author could have used the material he has gathered to better effect if, instead of attempting to prove original in his re-evaluation of London concert life, he had more modestly, but more astutely, endeavoured to complement McVeigh’s study.  






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