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 which first appeared in the 1920s, 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 site 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.
As for history, the Victorians were interested in the formation of the Nation State and hence national identity. Historians wrote about the big long term political, social and economic forces that explain and drive history forward. Inevitably it was selective, often because of the specific interest of the historian. Similarly, English success at Trafalgar and Waterloo is not prominent in French history and the large biographies of people such as Disraeli and Gladstone paint pictures of the great politicians whose lives are 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 is in how people made sense of their lives and created their identities? How did 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, as in the following examples. Pieces of high art music composed in 17th century have been played and appreciated in lots of different ways. Many satisfy accepted style and quality criteria and some gradually achieve the status of masterwork, granted by powerful members of a cultural elite. Stereotypically, in both the 17th century and today, performances occurred in prestigious venues, played and sung by professional musicians in front of audiences from a social elite.
In contrast, in rural pre-industrial life, 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. In the newly growing towns of the early 1800s, publicans set aside singing rooms, mostly for men, to sing and listen to traditional music. These rooms evolved into the 1850s music hall which, by the 1870s, had became an all-professional thriving industry, until TV came along in the 1950s. Whilst music hall moved away from folk songs to ‘Home Sweet Home’ and others, traditional music continued as music of the streets, pubs and clubs, undergoing revivals and ensuring something tangible had been handed down.
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. The journey to the 21st century began slowly toward the end of the 17th century, 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 social upheaval which resulted in more and more formal leisure pursuits. Brass bands and choral societies started their lives here. The price of instruments decreased, 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, cinema, TV, CD, video and the internet. Two world wars, industrial decline, reduced church membership and the increasing volume of competing leisure attractions summarises where we are today.
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. It is important to explore these ideas, with special reference to 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.
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