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“A Relic of an Age Still Capable of a Romantic Outlook”: Musical Biography and The Master Musicians Series, 1899-1906

Wiley, C (2004) “A Relic of an Age Still Capable of a Romantic Outlook”: Musical Biography and The Master Musicians Series, 1899-1906 Comparative Criticism, 25 (Lives). pp. 161-202.

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Musical biography proliferated in England in the hagiographical climate of the later nineteenth century, partly as an outcome of the rise of the aesthetic of the idolised Great Composer and the corresponding emergence of musical canons (whose constituency was, however, by no means certain at this time). This article presents a theoretically-enriched demonstration of the paradigms through which its late Victorian authors attempted to canonise their subjects, focussing on three interrelated thematic issues that are of especial importance to musical biography as compared with that of other disciplines: the relative invisibility of women, the absence of national heroes, and the scope for discussion of the works. My investigation proceeds via an analytical case study of the metabiography of the Master Musicians series (London: Dent, 1899-1906), whose original twelve volumes together represent one of the earliest significant attempts in England to establish and maintain a musical-historical canon through a unified set of full-length composer monographs. In determining the relevance of their subjects to the interpretative communities for whom they were writing, the Master Musicians authors appealed heavily to the prevalent values of the day, for their volumes quickly became discernible as period pieces. They typically offer a teleological charting of their protagonists’ creative genius, from mere talent exhibited in their (often prodigious) childhood to death at the height of their compositional powers, which are brought to fruition – in accordance with the Protestant work ethic – only through industrious and unremitting labours throughout their self-disciplined career. The representation of specific women as muse to their attendant composer, capable only of inspiring or realising (but not exhibiting) musical genius, and their corresponding rhetorical function as signifiers of subjects’ productivity and developing creativity, enforced the androcentricity of musical canon as well as the patriarchal hegemony of contemporary society. The Master Musicians biographers also foregrounded any connections that could be drawn with England, thus to an extent appropriating the Great Composers and their music for that nation, counterbalancing its relative dearth of native genius. This endeavour served to demonstrate the country’s cultural awareness, and its capability (over and above Continental counterparts) to recognise and support greatness in music, against the backdrop of the emergent English Musical Renaissance and a general environment of nationalism. The resulting biographical paradigms had profound implications not only for the membership of the proposed canon but also for discussions of the music itself, employing such factors as continual creative development, female inspiration and connections to England as markers of greatness within discursive contexts where life and works were consciously separated and technical descriptions kept to a minimum for the benefit of the non-specialist readership.

Item Type: Article
Divisions : Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences > Department of Music and Media
Authors :
Date : 2004
Uncontrolled Keywords : music, music history, musical biography, The Master Musicians Series
Related URLs :
Depositing User : Symplectic Elements
Date Deposited : 16 May 2017 15:33
Last Modified : 06 Jul 2019 05:18

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