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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 May 2016

Anna Peak
Temple University


Many Victorian commentators, from Herbert Spencer and Charles Darwin on, saw music as the most primitive of all the arts, an inarticulate precursor of language, and yet many Victorians, particularly towards the end of the century, also saw music as the purest of all art forms. The tremendous tension between these two views meant that music provided, and provides, an ideal way to understand more completely Victorian ideas about evolution, gender, and race in relation to aesthetics, although scholarship on music has only begun to consider those relationships. But as Vernon Lee long ago pointed out, in a series of thoughtful essays about music published in Fraser's Magazine and other periodicals in the 1870s and 1880s, music has always been slower to develop than other arts or fields of study. This is in fact why musicologists speak of “nineteenth-century music,” rather than Victorian music: the Romantic period in music, for example, is starting as the Romantic period in literature had largely ended; the English Musical Renaissance comes after the renaissance period in British literature; and so on. Musicology, likewise, is a comparatively young field, and the study of nineteenth-century British music – long limited to Gilbert and Sullivan, if considered at all – younger yet. Studies of literature that engage with music as an important part of the historical context of a given text depend on developments in musicology for a proper understanding of that context, which is why such works are comparatively few. Why music should be slower to develop than other fields is a question outside the scope of this essay, but the good news is that in the past ten years a number of useful and valuable works of scholarship on nineteenth-century British music have appeared, examining not only neglected composers and musical works, but also performers, concert organizers, music publishers, instruments and their history, and evolutionary, Orientalist, and nationalist discourses about music. This scholarship, valuable in itself, not only expands our knowledge of musicology and cultural history; by pointing out some of the deep connections between literature and music in the Victorian period, such scholarship also suggests new ways to think about literary forms, canon formation, and aesthetic theories.

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