Mrs Schumann’s Profession

Denis Arnold

  • The Cambridge Music Guide edited by Stanley Sadie and Alison Latham
    Cambridge, 544 pp, £15.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 521 25946 0
  • Tudor Music by David Wulstan
    Dent, 378 pp, £20.00, October 1985, ISBN 0 460 04412 5
  • The Music Profession in Britain since the 18th Century: A Social History by Cyril Ehrlich
    Oxford, 269 pp, £22.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 19 822665 9
  • Clara Schumann: The Artist and the Woman by Nancy Reich
    Gollancz, 346 pp, £15.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 575 03755 5
  • Lorenzo Da Ponte: The Life and Times of Mozart’s Librettist by Sheila Hodges
    Granada, 274 pp, £12.95, October 1985, ISBN 0 246 12001 0

English musicology has always embraced the Big Bang theory, which is to say that musical history is the story of great composers. Tovey’s remark that there are Great Composers and there are Interesting Historical Figures sums it up quite well. The German school has for the most part believed in principles and (since its discipline was born in the times of Darwin) the development of the species – whether symphony, harmonic idiom or orchestration. No doubt these differences have something to do with national temperament. They are also to do with institutions. German musicology always was a thing of university professors. English musicology has been largely a branch of journalism. It has been frankly popularist: it thrives in music appreciation classes and broadcasts, in programme notes telling the audience about form, in books about composers – for human interest is easily assimilated by the non-musician. It may be considered more useful than German (and hence American) scholarship, but it can hardly be denied that it does not make for good historical writing.

The Cambridge Music Guide is an obvious offshoot of the English school, and a rather old-fashioned example at that. After chapters on what in the old days would have been called ‘Rudiments’, it embarks on a survey of Western music from Medieval times to the present day. The Medieval section has to be narrative history, but when the book gets to the 15th century, Great Composers dominate. The side-headings are Dufay, Binchois, Ockeghem and Josquin; there are biographical tables and ‘listening notes’ for selected works. By the time we get to ‘The Baroque’, the method is even more strongly established, Monteverdi and Schütz, Lully and Rameau, Bach and Handel holding sway. By this time the ‘listening notes’ are virtually programme notes in the old descriptive analysis style. So it continues, at least until Paul Griffiths’s chapter on ‘The Turn of the Century’. His next chapter on ‘Modern Times’ allows him to depart from the method, but even Wilfrid Mellers on ‘The Traditions of Popular Music’ proceeds largely from person to person.

The trouble with this method is that the composer is rarely set against his background, the chosen works for listening are only loosely typical (why they are chosen is not revealed), and the atmosphere of an era or environment is not evoked. Ah, the old English music-appreciator will say, but this is because this method concentrates on ‘the music’, not on the fripperies of history – the same argument is deployed by those university teachers who deplore the disappearance of harmony and counterpoint from our syllabi in favour of historical study of any kind. Which causes me to ask why Mozart’s audiences – or for that matter, Bach’s congregations at St Thomas’s in Leipzig – who never had the advantage of explanations of musical form, seem to have managed very nicely. The answer may be that we need to be better educated to see the point of a wide variety of musical styles. But then we are better educated. The Cambridge Music Guide seems to have in mind as its audience those classes in American universities intended for the musically illiterate who must obtain credits. Whether this kind of approach will be much assistance to them is doubtful; and the English reader who can cope with the better class of sleeve-note in his record collection will hardly have need of it.

The title of David Wulstan’s book Tudor Music promises well. The periodisation of music into ‘Medieval’ and ‘Renaissance’ is misleading for virtually every country except Italy, and Professor Wulstan’s selection of the Tudor monarchs as setting a time-scale has much to be said for it. The period covers a neglected field when, as usual, the English were out of step with their European counterparts. This is the period up to Elizabeth’s accession, when there was a magnificent school of church musicians – Fayrfax, Shepherd, Tallis, Taverner and many other more minor figures. These were never given their due when, in the aftermath of the Oxford Movement, interest in the ‘pure’ church music of the 16th century was revived, and the main reason was surely that they were not Anglicans. Byrd, Weelkes, Gibbons and the other Elizabethan/Jacobean composers provided the repertoire for the Anglican Church; they also composed madrigals, so both their sacred and secular music was of prime concern to the Reverend Horace Fellowes and those other splendidly industrious scholars who edited volumes called Tudor Church Music which were supported by the Carnegie Trust. Yet in many ways the earlier composers are of greater interest, commanding sonorities and elaborate counterpoint which Professor Wulstan aptly compares with the glories of the decorated, Late Gothic chapels where much of this music was performed. There is a real subject for investigation here, music of great originality and flair.

Professor Wulstan begins well, with a thought-provoking chapter called ‘The Spirit of the Age’, and his study of popular music is no less fascinating. By his second chapter, however, a tendency to wander off the point is becoming clear, and by the middle of the book he is on the quite different theme of how one actually edits and performs this music. Undoubtedly these are important matters, but they are treated in a way that makes them of concern to performers rather than listeners; and the tyro must be warned that, in spite of his dismissal of some opponents of his views on pitch as a ‘nullifidian rearguard’, Professor Wulstan’s theories are sometimes contentious and, more often than not, unproven. By the end the reader is left as confused as the publishers seem to have been: according to the preface, they would receive the author’s final revisions only after the book was printed.

It is a relief to come back to true historical writing, though, for a musicologist, it is a trifle shaming that it comes from an economic historian. Cyril Ehrlich’s previous essay in music history, a history of piano manufacture, provided a background to 19th-century music-making, although it did not perhaps investigate sufficiently the society (or rather, societies) which allowed the piano to be the predominant way of finding out about music in the years before recording. His present study naturally has to deal with this background, and is a fascinating account of the ins-and-outs of social conditions as they affected musicians. Britain, as ever, is an unusual case. It was a private-enterprise society in music a long time before anywhere else. Lacking strong leadership at court after the death of Charles II, the musical profession had to rely on and adapt itself to private patronage without any guide as to how it was to be done. In Italy, in France, in much of Germany, both composer and performer were sheltered among an understanding community. They were sometimes ill-paid (and sometimes not) and often treated as a socially inferior class. Even so, they were secure in being a recognised ingredient of society. This was not the case in Britain.

Professor Ehrlich, using a mass of material which has hardly ever been examined, shows the vagaries of supply and demand. The results are surprising. Far from being a philistine nation, Britain was a haven for musicians in Victorian times and beyond. From having a mere six and a half thousand musicians in 1841, by the end of Victoria’s reign there were nearly forty thousand. The peak was reached around 1930, the total swelled by the musicians employed by the silent cinema, and no doubt the decline in the following years was accelerated by the increasing sophistication of the gramophone record. More surprising still, the boom years provided opportunities for women: in 1911 they outnumbered the men, ten years later significantly so. The reason, no doubt, was the popularity of the piano lesson – mainly ill-paid (and hence a suitable vehicle for women). By 1951, with the substantial decline in all kinds of musician, the men had regained a majority.

Why, then, did Britain seem the Land ohne Musik? Why did it not produce composers? And why were the conductors of opera and orchestra largely foreigners – Costa, Jullien, Richter, Hallé? It was a matter of Gentlemen and Players, as Ehrlich puts it. There were the Mus.B and Mus.D at Oxford and Cambridge who could expect to become cathedral organists, paid £200 or more, supplemented by a healthy teaching practice. There were the orchestral players, often not well trained, who might expect thirty shillings a week (and not every week at that). The first wanted professional status, tried to be the equal of lawyers and doctors, by founding an association that would give it them. They failed. The second were content with a trade union which could ensure a decent level of pay. They succeeded – eventually. With a Continental court-based culture, this division would not have occurred. It was the natives who directed the music at German courts, at least when the Italian invasion of the 18th century had receded. Foreigners were hard to find in Italian opera houses. It was only with Henry Wood – who had a distinctly patronising attitude towards gentlemen conductors – that the two cultures were married in England.

Professor Ehrlich brings the picture up to the present time but refrains from pointing out the lessons. His account is, nonetheless, the more interesting because it shows us how we have arrived at our current predicament. The foreign conductors; the ill-paid orchestral players; the undervaluing of music in education (one of the first casualties to be proposed in the present cuts was the admirable local authorities’ scheme of peripatetic teaching); the lack of adequate funding of Covent Garden – all these are the direct result of the history described in this book. It is a pity that Ehrlich did not make some comparisons with other countries with different social histories. Even so, anyone concerned with British music should read this book and ponder.

Like Professor Ehrlich, Nancy Reich, in her thorough biography of Clara Schumann, throws new light on the position of women in music. The status of the German musician is underlined in the portrait of her father, Friedrich Wieck, a prosperous piano teacher, and family patriarch of an uninviting kind. His plan for his talented daughter was not dissimilar from that of Leopold Mozart for both Wolfgang and Nannerl. Nannerl also became a pianist, teacher and composer (Wolfgang approved of her works), but marriage and children took her away from her profession and when she became a widow she was 50 and it was too late for her to go back. Clara Wieck was, in a sense, luckier. She had the triumphs of her youth, married when she was only 21 (or rather one day earlier, due to court action to overcome nasty patriarchal opposition). Then things went wrong – or, perhaps, right. Schumann (as father Wieck suspected) was too unstable to prove the money-earner – Clara remained the celebrity, perforce. Seven children later, Robert went mad (the syphilis theory seems supported by the subsequent life of at least one son). Clara, then still in her early thirties, had to make a renewed success of her career. She became one of the first touring artists to take advantage of the newly established railway network and was known from Russia to England. Did she refuse to marry Brahms because she was a career woman (Dr Reich has no doubt that she was no Hausmütterchen)? Or did he never ask her? Either way, she was probably happier as a great pianist than as the wife of a great composer. She appears in the music histories as a subsidiary figure, for music history is commonly the history of composition. But her influence may well have been greater than her husband’s, inspiring a generation of women pianists (Myra Hess is unthinkable without her) and perhaps a distinctive manner of playing, alas now in recession due to international competitions and the gramophone, without which the modern pianist can scarcely make his way.

Without Lorenzo Da Ponte, Mozart could scarcely have given us those masterpieces of opera, officially opera buffa but in no sense merely comic. Sheila Hodges’s book naturally leans quite heavily on Da Ponte’s memoirs but her subtitle indicates her desire to put him in context. It was an almost unbelievable life, starting in a small town in the Veneto and ending in New York at a great age. Sometimes he has been painted as a sort of. Casanova, but this does him an injustice. He was a considerable literary figure whose chaotic life excluded him from the role of court poet in the manner of Metastasio. I wish Miss Hodges had filled in more amply the background of early 19th-century America, but she gives a good account of the man, indeed makes out a better case for him than he did himself.