Music and History

Heritage and History

Put simply history is a study of the past, warts and all. Heritage is a selection of history which people feel they have inherited and for which they feel a responsibility to pass down to their descendants.

In the 19th century, certain democratic groups thought that there was a body of property and historical goods which, though privately owned, belonged to the people in common, and as early as the 1830s people were visiting places like the Tower of London. Heritage itself is a new word, appearing in the 1920s and in common use by the 1960s. Whilst it can be abstract, it tends to be about tangible things like stately homes and steam railways.

Some say that heritage presents a distorted view of national life. The past is represented by artefacts, stately homes for example, which were owned by a small ruling elite and come from an era when the aristocracy was more powerful than it is now. Access within the estate can be restricted to places the elite family allow, chaperoned by an elderly retainer who describes how the family are doing wonderful work. This is not the past of most of the population.

Heritage works where there is engaging intellectual content in a brilliant setting which tries to connect with the truth of everyday lives. Today’s heritage sites are diverse in content and presentation. The countryside and industrial sites can be added to stately homes. As well as written and visual material, there are games, interactive exhibits and enactments. Whilst they are commercial, they are more than simply somewhere to take the kids on a rainy day.

The Victorians were interested in the formation of the Nation State and national identity. Historians wrote about the big long term political, social and economic forces that explained and drove history forward. Inevitably it was selective, often because of the specific interest of the historian. Similarly, English success at Trafalgar and Waterloo was not prominent in French history. The large biographies of people such as Disraeli and Gladstone painted pictures of the great politicians whose lives were to be emulated.

Today, three generations away from from World War II, history has many more voices and a large and varied audience. Globalisation, women and gender, multiculturalism, family and local community are some of the influences. Biographies are now about tortured lives. Today’s history is cultural history. Using disciplines such as psychology and anthropology, the interest has moved to how people make sense of their lives and create their identities? How do they perceive politics and economics, monarchy and the church from the viewpoint of their personal local life? How can we get to these individual experiences – through writing, art, literature and music.

Music and History

Pieces of music, novels and paintings are created in the past. They have been listened to, looked at and read many times since then and they are still enjoyed today. Whilst they are part of our heritage, how do we make sense of them as history?

One way is to think of the composer and his or her musical ‘work’, who performs and who listens. Then try and place them in a historical context. For example, pieces of high art music composed in 17th century when the composer was commissioned by a wealthy patron, performances occurred at court, played and sung by professional musicians in front of audiences drawn from the aristocracy. In contrast, an old traditional ‘folk’ song, sung by local amateurs, would have been enjoyed mostly by ordinary people in the fields, streets and taverns. Apart from broadsheet ballads, these songs were not written down and many have been lost.

This was the pre-industrial era when little change occurred. Population numbers were stable. Society comprised landowners and those who worked the land. Teachers, clergy and small farmers made up a small middle class. The journey to the 21st century began slowly, gathering pace in the 18th, when the food supply improved and technical innovations occurred. Then the increased machine power and mass production of industrialisation which continued into Victorian England. This was a period of massive social upheaval. The small easy-going rural community was replaced by the discipline of the factory. Disposable income and the Saturday half day became real and leisure activity took off. Games of ball became Association Football, Rugby and Cricket. Brass bands and choral societies were set up. The price of instruments dropped, sheet music was cheaper, hire purchase was easier to come by and railways allowed previously unheard of travel. Technological advance in ways of listening began in the late 19th century continuing into the 20th: gramophone, radio, television, compact discs, the internet. Two world wars, industrial decline, reduced church membership and the increasing volume of competing leisure attractions is the picture today. Yet many of these leisure activities have turned into big business.

The combination of composer, performer and listener has changed as well. Whilst many performances of high art music still take place in prestigious concert venues, local amateur orchestras now play them, listened to by all sections of society. The conductor and guests might be professional. The venue could be a church, a local theatre or school hall, arranged by the orchestra, sometimes for the benefit of the orchestra, sometimes for the benefit of a charity. A concert promoter would be unusual.

Similar pigeon-holes apply to sacred music, brass bands and choral societies. Such distinctions make the point, but in reality there would have been some overlap even in traditional rural society.

A second related approach to music history is the chart its development in the context of wider British history. Change was not part of pre-industrial life.  gramophone, radio, cinema, TV, CD, video and the internet.   What of a class based analysis of music history? As industrialisation progressed the new middle classes became established. Some aspired to be landowners and aristocrats. Others didn’t. Hence the class boundaries between who listens to what in one sense became more rigid and yet in others have become blurred. High art music can still be elitist, yet is also performed by local amateur orchestras. Whilst sacred music is still integral to the liturgy and available for church celebrations and festivals, secular concerts also take place in church today. The performers and the audience now come from all sections of society. New music genres are continually springing up. Jazz in the 1930s, pop music in the 1950s and 1960s and a host of others since, each with their own devotees but also having wider appeal.

Finally, can we begin to answer the question ‘What role does music play in people’s lives?’ What are the emotional and practical benefits from being involved in music writing, performing and listening? How are these questions relevant to the population of the Holme Valley?

Some people make a living from composing, performing, conducting and teaching. Similarly, instrument makers and music publishers, concert promoters and recording companies.

Music is communication. From composer to audience via the band, choir or orchestra. To be part of this trio is a strong component of personal identity. Even entering competitions says a lot for how individuals tick. Civic pride is competitive, the best choir, the best venue.

Performance and rehearsal bring fellowship. To support one form of music over another is a big personal statement, often political and class-related. Little is known about how audiences feel other than when the performance has a clear purpose, such as for a funeral or a marriage, when the feelings should also be clear. The ordinary people of the Holme Valley, where majority of the music is produced by amateurs, in churches, schools and other public venues, listened to by workers and bosses alike.