Looking at and Listening to the ‘Land without Music’ Back

‘See, the conqu’ring hero comes!’: George Frederick Handel’s celebrated chorus resounded in Farmington’s historic First Church of Christ in an arrangement for English slide trumpet. It was a fitting opening for the exhibition on musical life in eighteenth-century England at the Lewis Walpole Library. Having frequently sung this chorus in Anglican services, for me it is intricately bound up with images of England – a connection also supported by history. After Handel recycled it in his oratorio Judas Maccabeus in 1748, it played an important role in displays of English nationalism. During the nineteenth century, it even became an emblem for the country’s rapid modernization, as brass bands regularly played it at inauguration ceremonies for new railway stations. Simultaneously, that this immensely popular chorus was written by a composer of German origin reflects the exhibition’s title, which reiterates England’s notorious reputation as ‘The Land without Music.’

Centred on thirty satirical prints, which showcase the Walpole Library’s unique collection of English caricatures, the exhibition bears witness to the English appetite for parodying their lack of musicality, and concomitant fondness of foreign music. This is aptly demonstrated in one of the first images we encounter: the home music-making scene in a copy of James Gillray’s A Little Music, or, The Delights of Harmony (1818). A woman plays the piano with her gaze fixed on the score, eyes wide open – perhaps from fear of hitting the wrong keys; she is joined by three more singers, a soldier playing the flute, a child blowing a toy trumpet, a howling dog, a hissing cat, and a corpulent man who is likely snoring. While this could hardly have produced a melodious effect, the image hints at an even more inharmonious scene erupting moments later – that is, when the female singer finally notices that her headgear has caught fire.

Nevertheless, in the accompanying brochure curator Amy Dunagin invites us to look beyond the satire. She contends that rather than give a truthful reflection of reality, such prints played an important role in England’s construction of its own identity, ‘because [they] asserted a national character too sensible, too intellectual, too sober to permit the excess of musical genius.’ Instead of cultivating their own compositional talents, the English developed a great enthusiasm for importing music from overseas. Or, in the words of the influential music historian Charles Burney, it was ‘no more disgraceful to a mercantile country to import [music], than wine, tea, or any other production of remote parts of the world’.

At the same time, the satirical prints show the important role music and theatre played in daily life. At court, in the theatre, on the streets, and in the parlour, amateurs and professionals alike gathered to perform and listen to English oratorios, Italian opera, French ballet, German chamber music, and so on. Music was, moreover, not just an idle pastime, but also a topic of scholarly inquiry occupying many intellectuals and politicians. One such intellectual was Horace Walpole himself, the art historian and Whig politician who is the focus of the Library’s collection. The exhibition displays his personal copy of John Hawkins’s A General History of the Science and Practice of Music (1771-1776) – a copy given perhaps not just out of friendship, but out of gratitude, too; their frequent correspondence about the contemporary music scene in London informed, at least in part, the narrative in Hawkins’s music history. However, their celebration of England’s past musical glory, marked especially by great composers like Henry Purcell, was not universally accepted. Charles Burney’s General History of Music (1776-1789), which was published immediately after Hawkins’s project ended, primarily promoted contemporary composers such as Joseph Haydn. This resulted in a vigorous dispute between defenders of ancient and of modern music (easily rivalling the French eighteenth-century querelles). This dispute became a fertile topic for the satirists, as for example in the renowned caricature of Burney’s nephew, Edward Francis Burney, Amateurs of Tye-Wig Music (sometimes also called Musicians of the Old School) on display in the exhibition as well.

However, more was at stake than just taste in discussing music. In Henry Wigstead’s The Detection (c. 1800), an anxious mother interrupts a musical scene between her daughter and a red-coated gentleman that is quickly getting a little too intimate. And several prints ridicule the Bishop of Durham, Shute Barrington, who took issue with the ‘indecent’ costumes of ballet dancers. The fear that music would lead to moral depravity, naturally, was not unique to England. Yet the artists’ caricatures also subtly uncover the double standards of the time. One of the prints concerning Barrington’s vexed ballet costumes shows three dancers in postures similar to the graces in Sandro Botticelli’s Primavera. A perhaps more conspicuous reference to high art painting appeared in Cruickshank’s Symptoms of Lewdness, or, a Peep into the Boxes (1794), which depicts two bare chested ladies in an opera box. While the accompanying text condemns their lack of chastity – after all, in Roman times such disgrace led noble women to commit suicide – the depiction shows remarkable similarities to paintings of a bare-chested Roman Lucretia impaling herself on a sword. Yet in the art gallery rather than the theatre, such displays of nudity could be safely admired by a myriad of voyeuristic gazes without discernible moral implications.

While the exhibition convincingly offers a new perspective on how the English caricaturized their (lack of) musical talent in order to define their own national identity, it leaves these subtler kinds of cultural criticism for the visitor to discover. Furthermore, a visitor too focused on the appealing, often boisterous style of the caricatures may get the impression that the prints largely affirm the country’s reputation as ‘The Land without Music’ – a reputation that has haunted scholarly discussions of musical life in eighteenth-century England. Too often, its role in large-scale music histories is minor – principally a satellite stage for Italian opera, or a popular destination for European composers and virtuosos.

The opening concert by Grand Harmonie and pianist Sylvia Berry nuanced this more traditional perspective. It highlighted the vibrancy of musical life in the English parlour. The concert’s main repertoire – sonatas by Franz Joseph Haydn, Johann Christian Bach, Luigi Boccherini, and Ludwig van Beethoven – demonstrated the importance of the piano as the focal point of domestic music-making scenes in England. Yet the set-up was quite flexible: the piano could be accompanied by other instruments depending on which ones were available at any given moment. This programme, while including only one English composer – John Norton, a famous slide trumpeter – also showcased the expertise of the English as instrument makers. It featured a grand piano, recently restored, and originally built by John Broadwood & Son in London in 1806. This piano was joined by an English slide trumpet made by Frederick Pace (ca. 1840) and a violin of German origin played with a bow from the renowned bowmaker John Dodd (c. 1800). The ensemble was completed with a flute reconstructed after the Dresdner maker C. Grenser and a French orchestra horn by Antoine Halari – the instruments’ diversity of origin thus reflecting the heterogeneous provenance of the repertoire.

By performing on period instruments, Grand Harmonie created an unexpectedly rich sound world that brings out the conversational and witty nature of this chamber music. For example, the wooden timbre of the flute entered into a harmonious dialogue with the dimmer, less metallic and woodier tones of the Broadwood piano – resulting from its leather-covered hammers. In Haydn’s sonata in C Major (Hob. XVI:50), the piano’s less-resonant tones emphasized the composer’s wit by making the interruptions of the final cadences very playful – an effect Haydn may have sought deliberately, as the work was written with the Broadwood piano in mind. Perhaps the greatest pay-off from using period instruments was evident in Beethoven’s sonata for Horn and Piano, op. 17. This composition has long confused music analysts and horn players alike, who often attribute its peculiar structural and musical features to the fact that Beethoven allegedly wrote it in one day and partially improvised the piano part during the premiere. Nevertheless, when performed on natural horn, it becomes clear that the composer humorously played with the range of different timbres that this instrument produces, since the musician needs to stop the horn with complex hand positions to create specific chromatic tones. As such it showed a different, more playful Beethoven than the serious portrayal we often encounter in the literature. This new characterization more clearly reveals the influence of his teacher Haydn, and perhaps even the appropriation of English wittiness, since Beethoven tailored the sonata’s virtuosic style to the skills of hornist Giovanni Punto, who may have adopted the English fondness of parody while employed at the court of King George III.

Both the concert and the exhibition offer valuable alternative readings of England’s famous epithet as ‘The Land without Music.’ They complement each other in looking beyond the surface impressions made by representations of musical life in eighteenth-century England: while the exhibition searches for the actual reason behind the humour, the concert attuned the listeners to the humour in the music itself. Rather than focus on the ‘unmusicality,’ whether depicted in the prints or resulting from the intonation challenges of period instruments, they encourage us to look and listen more closely to the historical context. Thus, while England is stereotypically depicted as a nation deprived of musical talent, it is clearly worth examining the country’s eighteenth- and nineteenth-century musical life with fresh eyes and ears.

The concert “Playing in Parts” took place on the 4th of March at the First Church of Christ in Farmington (Connecticut). The musicians were Christopher Belluscio (trumpet), Sylvia Berry (piano), Emily Dahl Irons (violin), Yoni Kahn (horn), and Sarah Paysnick (flute).

The exhibition, “The Land without Music”, runs from the 1st of March to the 29th of September 2017 at the Lewis Walpole Library in Farmington. It is curated by Amy Dunagin, postdoctoral associate, European Studies Council at Yale University, and managing editor for the journal Eighteenth-Century Studies. The organizing curator is Cynthia Roman.