Published online by Cambridge University Press: 28 July 2010
Victorian musical life was shadowed by a troubling constant: soul searching about musicality. Britain suffered an extraordinarily vivid, widespread and long-lived reputation as a nation without musical sensibility or talent. Nietzsche complained that 'what . . . offends us about the most human Englishman is his lack of music', and Emerson bluntly pronounced that 'England has no music.' Frederick Crowest's 1881 history Phases of Musical England - despite the bravado of its title - conceded that 'we are not essentially a musical people', although he countered in characteristic Victorian fashion that 'we probably spend upon the Art and its Artists more money than any two or three other nationalities combined'. By 1914, when German sociologist Oscar Schmitz was looking for a book title that would instantly identify England in the minds of his continental readers, he chose the obvious: Das Land ohne Musik.
Scholars today understand that the fixation arose largely from Britain's failure in the early part of the century to produce an 'English Beethoven' - a frequently voiced lament - or to provide home-grown products for the wildly popular opera stage. Anxiety was heightened by Victorian confidence, mounting throughout the entire century, of Britain's superiority in virtually every other realm, whether military, industrial, imperial or literary. In retrospect, the situation was only compounded by the disciplinary practices of both history and musicology, obsessed as they have been until recently with ‘great men’.