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British Literature and Classical Music

Cultural Contexts 1870-1945


David Deutsch


London: Bloomsbury, 2015

Hardcover. x+262 p. ISBN 978-1474235815. £59.99


Reviewed by Pierre Dubois

Université François Rabelais (Tours, France)



Too few studies are devoted, one may think, to the links between music and literature, the way music is represented and used as a theme by novelists, and the reflection of musical culture in works of fiction. David Deutsch’ stimulating book (published in Bloomsbury’s ‘Historicizing Modernism’ series) on British literature and classical music in the late 19th century and the first half of the 20th century is therefore welcome. By ‘classical’ music, Deutsch does not mean only the music in the so-called classical style (that of Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven, et al., so well analysed by the late Charles Rosen) but ‘serious’ or ‘art’ music in the popular sense of the term.

The first part of Deutsch’s study is devoted to the major influence exerted by Walter Pater. Deutsch argues that writers and cultural critics in the late 19th century used music as a philosophical metaphor for social harmony. Indeed, Pater placed music at the very centre of his liberal humanistic aesthetic. It came to symbolise for him a more intellectual and tolerant society. In both his life and his writing, he connected a broad spiritualism to his sensual appreciation of music, blending his Hellenism (‘the music of the spheres’) with modern European cultures, and he asserted that Plato anticipated the theory of ‘art for art’s sake’, that is the fusion of form and subject famously advocated by Pater himself in Renaissance. Pater used music to promote a humanistic moral aestheticism that legitimated toleration for social variations – such as homoeroticism – because he believed these variations evoked a harmony that benefited the state. English society was of course less tolerant than Pater wished and the conventions of Victorian Oxford stood in clear contradiction to the tolerant musical laws he imagined. Pater used music to argue that art could refine nature and society into a more egalitarian state, which was to have an influence on Eliot, Huxley, Forster, Wilde and Woolf, studied in the second part of the book dealing with Modernism’s distinctive musical rhetoric.

Deutsch argues that these modernists wrote about music to establish themselves as an intellectual aristocracy – or, as Bourdieu would have put it, to assert their cultural distinction. They associated classical music with such ‘noble’ virtues as aesthetic and intellectual refinement and morality, suggesting as they did so that neither the landed aristocracy nor the lower, uncultured classes were prepared to appreciate great art. Their stance was staunchly elitist. While Huxley condemned ‘cinematic music’ and denounced the poor taste of under-educated audiences, Woolf criticised popular audiences and thought there were impermeable musical boundaries between classes. Some of these modernists – Woolf, Gissing, Bennett – denounced the aesthetic stagnation of Britain and the artists’ indolence. The literary figure of the reluctant music teacher reflected concerns regarding musical education. At the same time, the indifferent musicality and intellectual and aesthetic decline of the thriving upper-classes were satirically lampooned by such writers as Huxley and Eliot. The latter mocked the ‘style galant’ as opposed to the denser complexity of baroque counterpoint or romantic chromaticism. He thought only a revitalised intellectual appreciation of noble musical conventions (those to be found in Bach’s music in particular) or a revolution in musical techniques (such as those experimented by Stravinsky) could reinforce musical culture. Asserting their own appreciation of the intellectual and spiritual nobility of classical music, these authors also established a connection between complex musical forms and literature, experimenting in fugue-like structures for instance (as Huxley did in Point-Counterpoint) and attempting to ‘merge music and literature by fashioning a Paterian literary-musical form’ (as did Woolf in The Waves, in which she translated music into a stream-of-consciousness narration to evoke a Neo-Platonic sublimity fusing the metaphysical and the philosophical). These modernists interwove musical forms into their writing to illustrate their intellectual appreciation of a socially valued art form.

However, contrary to the dominant strain of modernist rhetoric summarised above, audiences for classical music in 20th-century Britain did not consist only of an upper-class and upper-middle-class elite. In the third part of the book Deutsch pays attention to authors sympathetic to working-class or lower-middle-class amateurs who showed in their novels that the enjoyment of music was not the sole privilege of the upper strata of society. Burke evoked the fact that lower-class Londoners could seek a sense of refinement through their exposure to complex music. Music was perceived by many as a life-improving experience. Maugham juxtaposed the cockney dialect and high-class culture and showed that a kind of courtliness could be added to an ordinary existence thanks to music, which was perceived as an ennobling recreation. Deutsch deftly blends his literary analyses with a well-informed study of the cultural context. In this chapter dealing with what he labels the ‘musical refinement of society’s margins,’ he rightly underlines the importance of musical education in Britain through the Tonic Sol-Fa system (introduced by Sarah Glover, John Hullah and the Rev. John Curwen from the 1820s onward) that enabled droves of under-privileged people to learn how to sight-read and sing. This missionary aestheticism made possible the monster oratorio festivals that developed in the 19th century and provided at least a partial aesthetic education to many in the early decades of the 20th century. So, whereas such writers as Beerbohm, Woolf and West derided the poor musical education of the lower classes, Shaw would present socially disadvantaged musicians as more dignified than those who would demean them, and Lawrence acknowledged the skilled musicality of diverse social classes. Music was shown by Lawrence, Wells and Bennett to have a refining influence, and musical appreciation to be a sign of socio-economic success. The efforts of Henry Wood in promoting the Proms at Queen’s Hall made music more accessible to the masses. Deutsch shows how Burke inverted the exclusivist modernist rhetoric by presenting the lower classes and middle classes, who attended the Proms, as musically refined, and the snobbish upper-middle classes, who did not attend them, merely as absentee philistines. He argues consequently that music can be considered a democratic art. The efforts of the modernists ‘to co-opt classical music for themselves was thus inevitably a futile one’. The self-representation of lower-middle and working-class musical amateurs stood in direct opposition to their representation as ‘unrefined’ by middle-class intellectuals. Both groups pursued the social and intellectual value of classical music in order to enjoy it.

It might be objected to Deutsch that there is a certain degree of wishful thinking in his appreciation of classical music as a democratising medium. Recent studies on the dissemination of classical music among larger mass audiences have shown that, years on, the nature of the socio-economic groups attending classical concerts has not evolved drastically(1) and, culturally speaking, classical music remains a significant marker of social distinction. The modernists’ haughty stance implicitly and rightly denounced by some authors may have been arrogant but when Shaw, Bennett, Lawrence, and the like attempted to show in their works of fiction that even less financially secure amateurs could genuinely enjoy classical music with the feeling that it contributed to their spiritual and intellectual refinement, this does not prove that classical music did not generally remain the preserve of a certain socio-economic and intellectual elite. Deutsch’s own noble ideological agenda leads him in the conclusion to his third part to present the situation in slightly rosier shades than actual facts may warrant, even though there is no denying that ‘as the 20th century progressed, classical music gained wider and more varied audiences’.

In the fourth part of his study, Deutsch argues that authors represented minority subcultures as intelligent auditors or gifted musicians in order to justify or elevate their place in society. Following Pater, some writers took advantage of Britain’s wider interest in music to represent same-sex-desiring characters as innately musical and associated alienated individuals with music. Late 19th-century aesthetics ‘provided a model for a complex identity based on beauty and the senses rather than on social and cultural conformity’ (Matt Cook) and consequently music frequently featured as a positive intellectual component of queer self-fashioning. Like Pater, Wilde, for instance, connected male physical homoeroticism to the material sensuality of music perceived as increasingly respectable and educational art. Levy, Raffalovich and Hichens depicted intense musical perception as a way to facilitate same-sex attractions in public, without drawing the attention of a potentially hostile, but less perceptive public. Nichols, Berners, Fitzroy and Sackville-West present musical homoerotic characters who reject conventional heterosexuality while paradoxically promoting a conservative aesthetic culture. However, while many authors depict same-sex-desiring characters benefiting from classical music, others, such as Forster in Maurice, satirise these ennobling efforts and denounce the use of music as a shallow stimulation for social relationships. Forster uses Tchaikovsky’s 6th symphony, the so-called Pathétique, both to mock the audiences' ignorance of the homoerotic implications of the music and to chide homosexuals who bask in their own erudition. If various authors use music for satirising purposes, others indicate how persecution can destroy artistic vitality, both for homosexuals and for society. In Dr. Woolacott, Forster shows how an individual coerced into abstaining from the sensual pleasures of art and human touch may lose interest in life. Other authors, such as Green and Fitzroy, evoked an idealised social harmony by associating inversion, cosmopolitanism and music. However, closer to the end of the period under study in Deutsch’s book, fin-de-siècle Paterian aesthetic idealism was shown by Isherwood to have failed and Auden would distance modern homoeroticism from an older musical idealism by denigrating the specifically Oxonian traditions. He denounced the hieratic intellectual aesthetes’, and Oxford academics’ disdain for lower-class passions. In the late 1920s, Deutsch explains, efforts to legitimate homoeroticism through music were waning. Music became a more ambivalent metaphor for the new generation’s sexual, social and political anxieties.

In the fifth and last chapter of his study, Deutsch explores how, during both world wars, writers frequently emphasised the political connotations of Britain’s cosmopolitan culture. The fascination exerted by British society for German composers (Bach, Beethoven, Mozart and Wagner) strengthened a connection between British and German societies at the turn of the century. Authors would use representations of music to evoke rivalries between Britain and Germany, and conversely to reinforce a shared cosmopolitan, European culture based upon reason, tolerance, humanism and the production of beauty. Thus, while in Parade’s End (1924-1928) Ford denounced the invasive Wagnerian Germans, Forster’s persistent musical cosmopolitanism in Howard’s End (1910) anticipated the calming cosmopolitanism of Sassoon’s Memoirs of George Sherston (1928-1936). Forster, Richardson and Shaw expressed misgivings about the increasing technical as well as musical efficiency of the Germans by representing the British audiences’ attitude towards music as much more haphazard than that of their German counterparts. In Howards End Forster’s distinctions between British and German audiences echoed his distinctions between British and German composers. Similarly, Richardson showed that Germans were more adventurous than British society, as revealed by the bolder execution and style of Clara in Pilgrimage. Shaw also used musical tropes to represent the intellectual and political anxieties felt by the British in front of German discipline while deriding the unprofessionalism and naivety of the British ruling class (The Music-Cure, 1914). After World War I several authors such as Ford, Sitwell, Isherwood and Burdekin revisited the negative connotations of German music raised by Shaw, while Ford represented Elgar’s music in Parade’s End as an image of pompous, often hypocritical and corrupt British institutions. Sitwell even used German music to anticipate World War II. Representations of Germany’s powerful musical tradition were used to characterise its re-emergence as a potential threat to Europe. In Goodbye to Berlin (1939), for instance, Isherwood portrayed disciplined German musicality to suggest how social conventions could lead even cultured Germans to tolerate Nazism. As for Burdekin, she portrayed the Nazis’ appropriation of musical discipline (in Swastika Night) as a way for them to mythologise their superiority. While these writers denounced the degeneration of German musical traditions under the Nazi’s authoritarian xenophobia, others – such as Lawrence, Huxley and Storm Jameson – went as far as to suggest that the Nazi political violence silenced European musical culture altogether and thought that the rejection of a cosmopolitan aesthetic often occurs in conjunction with the decline of intellectual and physical liberties.

However other writers maintained the late 19th-century spirit of cosmopolitanism and sympathy between Germany and Britain, which World War I had disrupted: Sassoon, Shaw in his critical writing and Woolf constantly referred to German music to undermine narrow-minded animosities towards the Germans and emphasise a common international culture – the condition, they thought, for a truly civilised post-war society eventually to emerge. Paterian Neo-Platonism was summoned (by Sassoon and Woolf in particular) to suggest that music could offer a balanced opposition to nationalist ideologies and function as a symbol of both national and international unity. And, during World War II, popular audiences supported a musical cosmopolitanism that aimed at transcending excessive nationalistic animosities. The BBC and the National Gallery concerts fostered this cosmopolitan outlook. Deutsch brings his study to a close on this optimistic note, arguing that classical music, which had been widely integrated into all social classes as a sign of intellectual and moral virtues, had come to symbolise a cultural heritage shared with the whole of Europe.

David Deutsch’s book is extremely stimulating and well-informed. He manages to follow the twists and turns, and highlight the sinews and contradictions, of conceptions of classical music during the period under study as expressed in literature. The well-organised structure of his book make it easy to follow the gist of his argument, and the link between the numerous works of fiction discussed and the social, historical and cultural contexts, is constantly, and validly, maintained. No doubt Deutsch has his own ideological agenda (who does not?): the Paterian Neo-Platonic conception of music to which he so often refers, as well as his open-minded, tolerant and liberal outlook transpire in his somewhat idealistic presentation of the way music was portrayed in literature from the 1870s to 1945. There may be a slightly naïve, idealised and ultimately over-optimistic belief on his part that literary representations of music are actual evidence of the gradual promotion of ‘more liberal and peaceful cultural sympathies’ in society (to use his own terms in his conclusion). Yet this is a minor reservation. The book offers a wealth of information and astute analyses on a too-rarely-tackled subject that gives a fascinating insight into the importance of musical issues in both literature and society.

(1) See for instance the work of Tak Wing Chan and John H. Goldthorpe.



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